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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senior Army officers fighting the Gulf War suspected in February 1991 that an Iraqi weapons depot contained chemical weapons but failed to alert U.S. troops who blew up the site less than two weeks later, the Pentagon acknowledged Tuesday.
The information is contained in a still-classified document, according to Bernard Rostker, the Pentagon's senior investigator into Gulf War matters. He has asked the CIA to declassify the memo, but the request has been denied because it would disclose "sources and methods" on how the information was obtained, Rostker told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.
Rostker called the briefing to release his report into the March 1991 destruction of the Iraqi storage site at Kamisiyah by members of the 37th Engineering Battalion. Last June, the Pentagon announced that it had only recently learned that U.S. troops may have been exposed to chemical weapons during the destruction of the site.
However, the new report makes clear that information existed even before the war was concluded on February 28, 1991 -- that the Army suspected chemical weapons were at Kamisiyah.
On Capitol Hill, senators who have been critical of the Pentagon's handling of unexplained illnesses among Gulf War veterans said the new report adds weight to suspicions of a government cover-up.
Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, of West Virginia, said "we now know positively" that the CIA informed the Army on February 23, 1991, that there were chemical weapons at Kamisiyah and "totally failed to publicly come forward until late last year." The CIA, he said, "is every bit as implicated" as the Defense Department.
"It is my judgment a cover-up of major proportions, and will lead to very serious consequential actions," Rockefeller said.
Rostker said he does not believe any cover-up occurred, saying only that his report highlights "missed opportunities" to pass on information or to investigate what actually happened in the years after the war.
"There's no question that there were leads that were not followed," he said, although "people (were) trying to do their job as best they could."
The report does not clarify whether troops actually were exposed to sarin nerve gas, Rostker said, nor does it answer all questions about what happened, let alone why so many veterans are sick.
"It still remains in many ways an enigma," Rostker said. "There are parts of the story that still don't make sense."
Rostker's report notes that at the opening of the Gulf War, the Army's Central Command did not classify Kamisiyah as a chemical weapons storage site. "However, by late February 1991 ...Kamisiyah was suspected of being a chemical weapons storage site," the report states.
The report notes that the first troops to reach the site, members of the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division, received information on February 26 that there were "possible chemicals" at Kamisiyah. The 24th moved on to cut off Republican Guard troops retreating to Basra, and members of the 82nd Airborne moved in.
"There is no evidence to date" that the 82nd Airborne Division was
warned about the possible chemical weapons, the report stated. The
37th Engineers, members of the 82nd Airborne Division, participated in
the destruction of the weapons cache.
Army failed to follow up
The report further notes that in November 1991 the CIA told the Army that U.S. soldiers may have been exposed to nerve gas when they blew up the weapons dump, but the Army failed to follow up.
A mistake in identifying the Gulf War unit involved caused the matter to be forgotten for four years, the report said.
The Pentagon study contains portions of two CIA documents that have been placed on the Defense Department's World Wide Web site. Those documents show how clear the CIA's November 1991 warning was.
In recent months, the Pentagon has maintained that the intelligence warnings it received were not at all clear, and that they were faced with confusing and contradictory information.
The Pentagon study says the Iraqis "were selective in their willingness to cooperate" in providing information about whether chemical weapons were at the site. This "led to the belief that the Iraqis were not telling the truth about chemical weapons being at the site when the demolition occurred."
Only last year did Pentagon officials acknowledge that more than 20,000 troops may have been exposed to nerve gas. And that came after a U.N. team revisited the site in 1996 and "conclusively identified debris ... that was characteristic of chemical munitions," the report said.
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