By PAUL RICHTER, Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON--U.S. officers fighting the Persian Gulf War suspected in February 1991 that an Iraqi munitions dump might hold dangerous chemicals, but the information may not have reached Army engineers who blew it up days later, releasing gases that may have harmed some GIs, the Pentagon revealed Tuesday.
The disclosure was the first acknowledgment that the military had advance warning of the possible presence of chemical weapons when they destroyed the depot at Kamisiyah.
Some veterans and their advocates have contended that destruction of the depot may have been a key factor in the unexplained and undiagnosed illnesses, known as Gulf War Syndrome, of 78,000 veterans of the war. But not until last June did the Pentagon acknowledge that there were detonations at Kamisiyah.
The new Pentagon report said that officers in the 18th Airborne Corps had suspicions about the huge depot as early as Feb. 26, 1991--two days after the ground war against Iraq began and eight days before Army engineers began blowing up the munitions at Kamisiyah.
The source of the information that the depot might include chemical weapons was the CIA, said Bernard Rostker, who heads the Pentagon's investigation into Gulf War illnesses. Rostker said that the information is contained in a still-classified document that the CIA has declined to make public because it would disclose the agency's "sources and methods" in obtaining the intelligence.
But that, in turn, angered lawmakers who have been complaining about the government's response to Gulf War illnesses.
Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said that the CIA "is every bit as implicated" as the Defense Department in failing to divulge information potentially pertinent to the health problems of Gulf War veterans.
"It is in my judgment a cover-up of major proportions and will lead to very serious consequential actions," Rockefeller said.
Rostker denied that there had been a cover-up and said that he was satisfied by the CIA's responses.
He also said that he believes one reason military officials overlooked hints of the presence of chemical weapons at Kamisiyah is that they were convinced the Iraqis were trying to dupe them into believing precisely that.
"We're dealing with people, and they do the best job with what they have," he said. "And they bring to the table at any given time some preconceived notions."
The Pentagon report said that the U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the Gulf War, did not believe at the start of the war that the Kamisiyah site contained chemical weapons.
But by Feb. 26, log entries by 18th Airborne Corps intelligence officials indicated that the depot "was suspected of being a chemical weapons site." The 18th Airborne Corps was in charge of engaging the Iraqis in that region of the country and capturing Kamisiyah, which was called Objective Gold.
The corps passed on word of their suspicions to some troops, including the 24th Mechanized Division, which was the first unit to reach Kamisiyah. But it is not clear whether the intelligence was passed on to the 82nd Airborne, whose engineers ultimately blew up the munitions at the site.
"We have no confirmation that they had [suspicions]," Rostker said.
The report shed little new light on the illnesses that are its ultimate interest.
Copyright Los Angeles Times