Gulf war questions must be answered

January 16, 2001|By Ray McGovern

WASHINGTON -- Whatever happened to accountability?

Ten years ago, when now-retired Gen. Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he put aside some "adverse facts" when his commander in chief, George H.W. Bush, gave the order to send 690,000 troops to the Persian Gulf. Mr. Powell is now the junior George Bush's nominee for secretary of state.

It turns out those troops were ill-equipped to face the hazards of war with Iraq, and a third of them came home ill.

As the United States prepared for war, Mr. Powell says he considered the Iraqi chemical weapons threat "manageable."

"Our troops had protective suits and detection and alarm systems. ... A chemical attack would be a public relations crisis, but not a battlefield disaster," he reassured Congress on Dec. 14, 1990. "We are in good shape for individual protective gear for every unit."

But a Pentagon study of January 1988 had found that the permeable suit issued to protect U.S. troops against chemical weapons would not keep out the kind of chemical agents that Iraq had used during the 1980s in its war with Iran. After the Persian Gulf war, the Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, pinpointed problems not only with individual protective equipment, but also with inadequate detection devices.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, our gulf war veterans suffer from "a variety of chronic and ill-defined symptoms, including fatigue, neurocognitive, and musculoskeletal problems at rates significantly greater than non-deployed veterans." As of July, 186,438 servicemen and women had applied for disability compensation. This represents 32 percent of the 582,663 gulf war veterans discharged from service and thus eligible to apply.

The National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine has found suggestive evidence of an association between exposure to the nerve agent sarin and the illnesses of gulf war veterans. And a captured 1988 Iraqi air force manual states that small doses of nerve agent can cause "very severe damage."

After years of denial and foot-dragging, the Pentagon admitted in July 1997 that 99,000 servicemen and women may have been exposed to low levels of sarin. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time -- to the south and downwind in early March 1991, when U.S. Army troops blew up hundreds of rockets loaded with sarin near Khamisiyah, in southern Iraq.

Mr. Powell told a Senate committee in April 1997 that he had no warning that such weapons might have been there. He expressed outrage: "If I was still in office I would be raping and pillaging throughout the intelligence community to get to the bottom of this."

The military's Central Command, which oversees parts of the Middle East operationally, and the Army's regional command, it turns out, had been informed of the likely presence of chemical weapons at Khamisiyah before their destruction. But word never reached Gen. Robert Flowers, the commander of the demolition unit. Gen. Flowers himself now battles with some of the illnesses that plague other Gulf war veterans.

The installation at Khamisiyah was but one of several chemical and biological warfare-related facilities destroyed by U.S. forces. Much larger Iraqi sites were bombed during the early days of the war.

In his book, "My American Journey," Mr. Powell tells of an "anxious" call from his British counterpart, Sir David Craig, on Jan. 15, 1991, the day before U.S. forces were sent into action against Iraq. Sir David expressed concern over U.S. plans to bomb Iraq's biological warfare installations. Mr. Powell quoted him as saying, "Bit risky that, eh?"

"I told Sir David Craig, `If it heads south, just blame me,'" Mr. Powell said he replied.

We now know that noxious fallout did head south -- at Khamisiyah and probably other areas where U.S. units were deployed. Far from taking responsibility, Mr. Powell has ducked the issue at every turn, or blamed someone else.

In the Army in which I served, loyalty was a two-way street. As the illness-plagued gulf war veterans have put it, Colin Powell has been MIA -- missing in action when they needed him most.

Ray McGovern, an Army officer in the early 1960s, was a CIA analyst for 27 years until his retirement in 1990.

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