SALT LAKE CITY, March 18 -- The CIA disclosed today it suspected Iraq was storing chemical weapons in Khamisiyah in 1986, or at least five years earlier than previously acknowledged. The revelation instantly aroused fresh controversy over why American troops were not warned before blowing up an arsenal there in 1991 and possibly being exposed to poison gas.
Robert D. Walpole, special assistant to acting CIA Director George J. Tenet, made the statement at a hearing here of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.
Khamisiyah, a remote desert site in southern Iraq, is the only location where the government has said a large number of U.S. troops may have been exposed to chemical weapons. American forces blew up three caches of Iraqi weapons there in March 1991 shortly after the end of the Persian Gulf War.
Walpole's statement immediately led staff of the presidential panel, whose life was extended recently by President Clinton, to question the accuracy of earlier CIA statements on when the government first believed chemical agents were at Khamisiyah. Tension has been growing between the commission and other government agencies over whether U.S. troops should have known of the presence of chemicals at the weapons depot.
A draft conclusion of an interim report the panel is likely to issue next month will say that the military "had or should have" had such information by December 1991.
As recently as Feb. 26, Tenet said the CIA "did not identify Khamisiyah as a possible CW [chemical warfare] facility until 1995, and it was confirmed in 1996." CIA witnesses said Tenet was referring then to when the CIA first suspected that Khamisiyah might have been the source of chemical exposures to U.S. troops, not when the agency first identified the site as having held chemical weapons.
But in light of Walpole's statement that the site was suspected in 1986, during the Iran-Iraq war, Robyn Y. Nishimi, executive director of the presidential committee, called Tenet's earlier statement "somewhat disingenuous."
The Pentagon said last month the CIA had warned the Army of the possible presence of chemical weapons in an area including Khamisiyah in late February 1991, or days before the arsenal was blown up, but the word wasn't passed to the troops who were most likely to be exposed.
Walpole's statement came at the end of a day in which the White House panel was given two sharply different assessments of the number of U.S. troops who may have been exposed to fallout from the destruction of Iraq chemical weapons at Khamisiyah.
CIA analysts told the committee they now believe there were two relatively small explosions of those weapons two days apart in March 1991 in a large pit near the Iraqi ammunition depot at Khamisiyah, and not one large explosion in the pit as previously believed. That should reduce the number of troops likely to have been exposed to the 550 Iraqi chemical rockets that the CIA now believes were destroyed in the pit, in addition to others destroyed in a third explosion in a nearby bunker, Pentagon spokesmen said.
But the committee's staff produced a map prepared by the Institute for Defense Analyses and based on CIA briefings that suggested the chemical fallout from the explosion at Khamisiyah may have gone as far as 170 miles to the south, or much farther than the 30-mile exposure models that the Pentagon had been using.
The 170-mile range would cover a vast area that included a large segment of the Kuwait theater of operations, where many of the 697,000 American and other Operation Desert Storm troops were operating at the end of the war. The 30-mile range instead covered an estimated 20,000 U.S troops at the time.
James Turner, a senior policy analyst with the committee, said the larger exposure presents "a much more troubling scenario" and represents "the worse case we've seen to date."
Earlier the tension was apparent when Bernard Rostker, the Pentagon's special assistant for Gulf War illnesses chafed at being asked whether the military ought to expand to 250 kilometers, or 155 miles, the range in which troops may have been exposed to chemical fallout from the Khamisiyah explosion.
"Why 250 kilometers? Why not the entire theater?" he asked sarcastically. Rostker insisted that the 30-mile, or 50-kilometer model that the Pentagon is using was more realistic. "It is a best guess. . . . It gives us a start," he said.
When CIA analysts said they need more time to perfect their models of the extent of the possible chemical exposure, members of the committee staff angrily accused the spy agency of foot-dragging. "At some point you've got to fish or cut bait. . . . people deserve to know," said Turner.
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