WASHINGTON -- President Clinton on Wednesday ordered an investigation of newly disclosed evidence that American soldiers who blew up an Iraqi ammunition depot in 1991 were not warned about intelligence reports suggesting that chemical weapons might have been stored there.
The government notified the soldiers only last year that they might have been exposed to a cloud of nerve gas and other chemical agents.
"We simply have to get to the bottom of it," the president said at a news conference. "We will act appropriately on any information we uncover."
Clinton ordered that the inquiry be carried out by the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, a special White House panel that was formed in 1995 to investigate the cause of the mysterious health problems reported by thousands of American soldiers who served in the war.
The president's announcement came amid a flurry of new accusations by veterans groups and members of Congress who say the documents made public this month by the Defense Department prove that the Pentagon and the CIA attempted to cover up evidence of chemical exposures during and after the gulf war.
The agencies have steadfastly denied any effort to withhold information. They have struggled, however, to explain why evidence that the CIA suspected that chemicals were in the vicinity of the depot -- and had warned the Army about the possibility -- was not released earlier to congressional investigators and the public.
In announcing the results of an internal investigation on the incident, the Pentagon said Tuesday that Army officers received a warning from the CIA in February 1991, in the midst of the gulf war, that chemical weapons might have been stored in the vicinity of the Kamisiyah ammunition depot in southern Iraq.
The information was relayed to some groups of American soldiers but not to the 37th Engineer Battalion, the unit that carried out the demolition of the sprawling depot in March 1991, a few days after the end of the war. Many veterans of the battalion have since complained of serious health problems.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon made public two newly declassified CIA reports showing that the agency issued a separate set of warnings to the Army in November 1991, several months after the war, about the possibility that American soldiers had been exposed to chemical weapons at Kamisiyah.
The new disclosures undermined the Pentagon's earlier accounts of the demolition of the depot, an incident that may have exposed more than 20,000 troops to nerve gas and other chemical weapons.
The Defense Department had insisted that the possibility of American soldiers' being exposed to chemical weapons in the demolition of the depot was only brought to the Pentagon's attention last year and that there had been no delay in following up on intelligence information. There is still no conclusive evidence to suggest that any soldiers were actually sickened by the exposure.
The Pentagon's recent disclosures have also alarmed members of the presidential advisory committee, who say that they had never been told about the CIA's 1991 warnings, despite repeated vows of full disclosure from the agency and the Pentagon.
In a report presented to Clinton last month, the committee, which includes several prominent scientists and researchers, concluded that there was "overwhelming" evidence that American troops had been exposed to chemical weapons at Kamisiyah.
The committee's executive director, Robyn Nishimi, said in an interview Wednesday that while the new disclosures would not have affected the conclusions of the report, "I can certainly understand how this fuels the speculation about a cover-up."
The report by the White House panel singled out the CIA for praise, saying it had been forthcoming in providing information to the committee. But in light of the newly disclosed evidence, committee members said Wednesday that they were concerned that the agency might be withholding other important information.
"Was this intentional? -- possibly," said Andrea Kidd Taylor, an occupational health specialist with the United Automobile Workers and a member of the panel. "It certainly appears that the CIA wasn't as forthcoming as it should have been."
In announcing the investigation at a White House news conference Wednesday with President Eduardo Frei of Chile, Clinton said: "It is essential that we get all the help we can from the PAC to focus on the documents and any other new information that might come to light. We cannot stop until we get all the answers about gulf war illnesses." PAC is an acronym for the advisory committee.
In a letter to the committee that was released by the White House, the president asked that the investigation be completed within 60 days.
"There are two important questions raised by these recently declassified documents," the letter said. "(1) When did we have sufficient evidence to conclude that chemical munitions were present at Kamisiyah and that U.S. forces conducting demolition activities may have been exposed to chemical warfare agent; and (2) once we had that information, what actions were taken by whom to investigate this alarming possibility."
There were clear signs of tension Wednesday between the Pentagon and the CIA over the recent disclosures, which have heightened the credibility crisis faced by the Clinton administration in its handling of the issue of gulf war illnesses.
The CIA issued a statement insisting that despite earlier comments from Pentagon officials to the contrary the February 1991 warning to the Army was ambiguous and had not specifically identified the Kamisiyah depot.
The CIA did not identify Kamisiyah as a possible chemical
warfare facility until 1995, "and it was confirmed in 1996," the
agency said. "The February 1991 raw, unconfirmed intelligence
cable informed DOD of the possible presence of chemical weapons in
the An Nasiriyah region" of southern Iraq. The region "includes
Kamisiyah though it was not mentioned by name in the report," it
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