WASHINGTON -- A panel of independent scientists has determined that there is a "very real possibility" that the Pentagon will never know how many American troops may have been exposed to chemical weapons in the demolition of an Iraqi ammunition depot shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the Defense Department has announced.
The Pentagon has estimated the number at 20,000, but the panel's finding suggests that any estimate would be suspect, given the uncertainty about the weather at the time, the number of shells that were destroyed and the purity of the nerve agents and other chemical weapons that were stored in the shells.
The Defense Department said in a news release that it had asked the scientists to continue their studies "despite the many uncertainties and the very real possibility that no model or combination of models will significantly add to the knowledge of possible exposure of U.S. forces to chemical agents at Kamisiyah."
The scientists' finding raises new questions about the government's earlier assurances that American troops were not exposed to chemical or biological fallout from the relentless bombing of Iraqi chemical- and biological-weapons factories during the war.
The news release was made available at the Pentagon late Friday afternoon, too late for television networks to include it in their evening broadcasts, and without any notification to news organizations that routinely cover the department.
It is the latest in a series of incidents in which the Pentagon has released bad news about this and other issues late on a Friday afternoon or in the evening.
After years of denials that it had any evidence suggesting that American troops had been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the Pentagon announced earlier this year that it had received evidence suggesting that thousands of troops may have been exposed to chemical weapons in the destruction of the vast Kamisiyah depot from March 4 to March 15, 1991.
The depot was blown up by a battalion of American combat engineers. While there were no reports of acute symptoms among the troops at the time of the demolition, many have since reported chronic, debilitating health problems that they link to the explosion.
Pentagon spokesmen have taken to referring to the Kamisiyah incident as a "watershed" in their efforts to understand whether the health problems of gulf war veterans might be linked to the release of chemical or biological weapons during or after the war.
A White House panel is expected to release a report late this month condemning the Defense Department for its investigation whether American soldiers were exposed to Iraqi chemical or biological agents.
In a draft report, the staff of the panel, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, accused the Pentagon of a "superficial" investigation that had undermined the department's credibility.
The White House panel is separate from the panel of scientists who were gathered by the Pentagon to study the Kamisiyah explosions.
The Defense Department panel, which included experts in meteorology, physics and chemistry, had been asked to review CIA models of the plume created by the demolition of the Kamisiyah depot.
The Pentagon said that in a report on Wednesday, the scientists "reported continued concern about the inability to describe the many variables of the agent-munition release mechanism."
"The panel agrees with the CIA that huge uncertainties remain in the number of rockets present for destruction and the number of those rockets destroyed," the Pentagon said.
"Among the other major variables for which there remains much uncertainty are total quantity of agent released, mechanism of release and purity of agents."
Despite the confusion, the Pentagon has attempted to estimate the number of American troops who might have been exposed at Kamisiyah. The estimate has grown repeatedly, from 300 to 400, to 1,000, to 5,000, to 15,000 and most recently to 20,000.
The Defense Department has said that it is attempting to contact all 20,000 of the Persian Gulf war veterans.
Pub Date: 12/22/96