WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. Army demolition of an open-air Iraqi chemical weapons storage site after the 1991 Gulf War took place on two days rather than one, CIA officials said Tuesday.
Even though that may mean fallout from that single site was less than previously believed, the CIA also said it increased its estimate of how far airborne chemical agents from a series of demolitions in March 1991 may have traveled.
These developments left uncertain exactly how many U.S. soldiers may have been exposed to the chemical agents.
The CIA now believes demolition of about 650 Iraqi rockets containing chemical agents in a shallow sand ``pit'' south of Khamisiyah took place on two days, March 10 and 12, rather than on March 10 alone as previously believed.
CIA spokeswoman Carolyn Osborn said this raises the possibility that the cloud of gases created by the explosions was smaller and covered a narrower area than if all 650 rockets had been demolished at once, as previously believed. There were 1,400 rockets in the pit but 750 of them were later found intact.
However, if the effect of those two demolitions is added to that of a previously reported one on March 4 at nearby Khamisiyah ammunition depot, then toxic pollutants could have traveled 165 miles from Khamisiyah rather than the earlier estimate of 30 miles, according to a new CIA estimate released Tuesday.
U.S. investigators are uncertain how many American soldiers were close enough to have been exposed to fallout from the explosions in any of the three instances. The CIA believes the Army unit that conducted the March 10 demolition at the ``pit'' had left the area by the time of the March 12 demolition.
The CIA is seeking out veterans who may only now realize they were at the Iraqi rocket pit before or after the demolition. They could help investigators piece together a fuller picture of what happened there and how large an area may have been exposed to fallout from the demolition.
The Pentagon acknowledged for the first time in 1996 that the demolition work could have led to inadvertent exposure of U.S. troops to poison gases. Although there is no proof, some veterans believe these exposures may explain the mysterious Gulf War illnesses suffered by thousands.
The latest information about the demolition work near Khamisiyah was presented Tuesday at a public meeting in Salt Lake City of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.
The CIA also announced in Salt Lake City that acting CIA Director George Tenet has appointed Robert Walpole as special assistant for Persian Gulf War illnesses and created a special task force to coordinate support for Walpole.
``Mr. Walpole will have at his disposal all of the resources of the intelligence community as we continue our efforts to declassify pertinent intelligence information'' and assess new reports on chemical exposures in the Gulf, Tenet said in a statement, a copy of which was released in Washington.
The likelihood of the Khamisiyah demolition taking place in two days stems from CIA interviews with two soldiers who had conflicting reports on the amounts of munitions destroyed and a log entry indicating detonations took place on March 12, Walpole said in Salt Lake City.
He said the information will be used to perfect a model that will better track the plume caused by the open-air detonation. While committee members didn't question the new findings, they did express frustration at how long it was taking CIA and Department of Defense investigators to come up with a model.
``It's very useful to find more precise details,'' James Turner, staff analyst for the committee, said after the hearing. ``But modeling is not a precise science and at some point you have to take the best information you have and get it done.''
Committee member Maj. Marguerite Knox, a nursing professor at the University of South Carolina, said delays were undermining the credibility of the Defense Department.
When asked by the committee when the CIA first knew chemical weapons were stored at Khamisiyah, Walpole said the CIA had information in 1986 that the Iraqis stored chemical weapons there during the Iran Iraq war. ``That doesn't mean they were there in 1991,'' he said.
Walpole said the task force will finish its work in 60 days and ``will ensure that every conceivable stone has been overturned. There will be no more dripping of information.''
Ms. Osborn said the CIA was releasing to the presidential advisory committee a photograph of the pit where the March 10 and 12 demolitions took place. She said the CIA hopes the photograph will jog memories of some U.S. soldiers who were there but had not realized it was the pit in question.
The Iraqis called the pit Tall al Lahm, and U.S. forces referred to it as Objective Gold, she said. It contained 13 stacks of Iraqi 122 mm chemical rockets.
These soldiers may be able to give U.S. investigators a clearer understanding of local weather conditions on March 10 and 12. The CIA also would be interested in any photographs or videos the soldiers may have taken at the site before or after the explosions, Ms. Osborn.
The CIA asked Gulf War veterans with such information to call the Defense Department's special toll-free reporting line on Gulf War Illnesses, 1-800-472-6719.
© Copyright 1997 The Associated Press