Senior Army officers suspected chemical arms at Iraqi depot Intelligence failed to reach gulf troops who destroyed Kamisiyah site

February 26, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Senior Army officers suspected there were chemical weapons in an Iraqi weapons depot six days before the depot was blown up by American troops in the Persian Gulf war, but the information was apparently not passed on to those troops, the Pentagon said yesterday.

On Feb. 26, 1991, officers of the XVIII Airborne Corps received the intelligence information. There is no evidence, however, that the corps ever warned its 82nd Airborne Division, whose soldiers helped destroy the Kamisiyah weapons site in early March. The site was later found to have contained chemical weapons.

The details were part of a chronology released by the Pentagon yesterday about the Kamisiyah weapons site, which has become troubling shorthand for the mysterious illnesses that have afflicted thousands of veterans of the gulf war. The Pentagon said last year that more than 20,000 troops might have been exposed to chemical weapons.

There was no explanation from the Pentagon yesterday as to why suspicions about chemical weapons at the ammunitions depot were not passed on to the troops who would blow it up.

The 33-page document chronicles other miscommunications and investigative delays that still dog the Pentagon.

"There's no question that there were leads that were not followed," said Bernard Rostker, the Pentagon's special assistant for gulf war illnesses. "There are clear indications, after the fact and with benefit of 20-20 hindsight, where we wish the path had gone."

Meanwhile, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, said he had received more information about what was known by the U.S. government about the Kamisiyah site before its destruction.

"We have just found out today that there was an intelligence report to [the Defense Department] on February 23 about chemical weapons being stored at Kamisiyah," Specter said.

The senator said former CIA officials had testified before Congress and did not mention that there had been information in February 1991 about chemicals being stored there.

The chronology does not specify the information the corps received or how, only that it was part of a log entry. Two other units, the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division, were told about the chemical weapons. But those units had not been assigned to help destroy the depot. Pentagon officials declined to discuss the information further, saying it was classified.

The troops who destroyed the depot -- and wore protective clothing -- found no evidence of chemical weapons. It was not until October 1991 that United Nations officials found evidence of chemical weapons -- mustard agent and sarin, a nerve agent -- in artillery shells and rockets and the next month passed the information on to U.S. intelligence officials.

The CIA initially believed that signs of chemical weapons at Kamisiyah were a possible deception. Still, the agency warned the Army that U.S. soldiers might have been exposed to nerve gas.

Intelligence officials mounted a search for troops involved in blowing up the Kamisiyah weapons bunkers. The Army at first "mistakenly identified" some troops as having been in that area and then failed to help search for soldiers who had actually been there, the chronology states.

Rostker said it was not until 1994 that the Pentagon began to put together a data base on which troops were in the area.

A White House panel concluded last year that chemical weapons had probably not been responsible for the ailments of gulf war veterans. But the panel called for more research and derided the Pentagon for its "superficial" investigation of chemical exposures.

The Pentagon is conducting inquiries, and Rostker said Kamisiyah continued to be an "enigma."

"One of the things we would expect to occur with a large-scale release of chemical weapons didn't seem to occur," he said. "We didn't see casualties. We didn't see people getting sick."

Rostker also noted that veterans who were "hundreds and hundreds of miles away" from the site show the same symptoms.

Pub Date: 2/26/97

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