WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon acknowledged on Tuesday for the first time that the Army blew up a sprawling ammunition depot in southern Iraq in March 1991 even though it had information at the time suggesting that the depot might contain chemical weapons.
The information from the CIA, the Pentagon said, was never passed on to the battalion of American soldiers who carried out the demolition several days after the Persian Gulf war ended and who may have been exposed to a cloud of nerve gas and other chemical weapons as a result.
In releasing a detailed chronology of the demolition of the Kamisiyah ammunition depot, the Pentagon said that the information had been gathered in late February 1991 by the CIA and passed on to the 18th Airborne Corps, which was then in the vicinity of Kamisiyah. The war ended on Feb. 28.
The Pentagon's senior investigator on the issue, Bernard Rostker, said at a news conference on Tuesday that he had no explanation for why the information was not also passed on to the 37th Engineer Battalion, the unit that actually destroyed the Kamisiyah depot. "That's one of the unfortunate miscommunications here," he said.
Those soldiers learned from the Pentagon only last year that they may have been exposed to nerve gas as a result of the blasts. Many have reported serious health problems that they believe may be connected to chemical weapons released in the destruction of the depot.
The Pentagon has estimated that more than 20,000 troops may have been exposed to poison gas as a result of the explosions at Kamisiyah, although there is still no conclusive evidence that anyone was made sick as a result.
Rostker, who was assigned to his post last year in hope of restoring the Pentagon's credibility on the issue, said that he had asked the CIA in recent weeks to declassify the February 1991 intelligence information, but that the CIA had refused in order to protect its intelligence-gathering methods.
The CIA confirmed on Tuesday that it had the information in February 1991 and had turned down the Pentagon's recent request to make it public. The agency refused to provide any details about what it knew.
"There was an intelligence report indicating the possibility of chemical weapons at Kamisiyah, and that information was passed on to the Army," said Rick Oborn, an agency spokesman. "I know Rostker asked for this to be declassified and we said, sorry, we can't do that in order to protect sources and methods."
Tuesday's acknowledgments by the Pentagon and the CIA leave in tatters the government's earlier accounts of the demolition of the Kamisiyah ammunition depot.
In the past, Pentagon officials have insisted that they discovered only last year that there was a possibility that American soldiers might have been exposed to nerve gas or other chemical weapons at the site. They have also said previously that soldiers assigned to the demolition project in March 1991 had no reason to believe the depot contained chemical weapons.
The chronology released on Tuesday shows that the Pentagon and the CIA knew even before the demolition that the depot might have stored chemical weapons, suggesting that American troops could have taken greater precautions against the possibility of exposure.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon made public two CIA reports showing that the agency had warned the Army in November 1991, several months after the demolition, that U.N. inspectors had found evidence after the war that American troops might have been exposed to chemical weapons at Kamisiyah.
The new disclosures fueled allegations on Tuesday among veterans groups and on Capitol Hill that the Pentagon and CIA had attempted for years to cover up evidence of possible chemical exposures during the gulf war.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, questioned the credibility of both the Pentagon and the CIA on the issue, and said the new disclosures made clear the need for an exhaustive congressional investigation.
"It is my judgment a cover-up of major proportions, and will lead to very serious consequential actions," he said. "We are faced with some incredibly amazing derelictions. Military commanders and high Pentagon officials failed our troops and the American public."
He said that the CIA had clearly hidden information about the issue. "The CIA is every bit as implicated" as the Defense Department, he said. "The CIA has known since 1991 and totally failed to come forward until late last year."
The chairman of the committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.,, said at a news conference that the Pentagon and the CIA were "giving information in drips and drabs" about the possibility of chemical exposure in the war. He said his committee would soon hold new hearings to determine "if there was in fact a cover-up."
Rostker said that he did not believe a cover-up had occurred. Instead, he said, the chronology highlights "missed opportunities" to pass on information about possible chemical exposures during the war, or to investigate the incidents later. "There's no question that there were leads that were not followed."
The chronology does not clarify whether troops were actually exposed to chemical weapons at Kamisiyah, nor does it answer many questions about the actual demolition.
"It still remains in many ways an enigma," he said. "There are parts of the story that still don't make sense."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company