By THOMAS D. WILLIAMS
This story ran in the Courant April 10, 1997
The Central Intelligence Agency admitted Wednesday that it knew in advance that chemical weapons possibly were present in an Iraqi munitions bunker that was blown up by unprotected U.S. troops in March 1991, just after the Persian Gulf War ended.
In a series of documents released Wednesday, CIA officials also acknowledged that they and other government agencies did not focus on the potential hazards from the chemical exposures for years - until well after thousands of veterans complained of health problems.
More than 100,000 gulf veterans have reported suffering persistent illnesses since the war, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says about 4,300 have died.
Troops who were stationed near the munitions bunker at Khamisiyah and soldiers who participated in its demolition were not protected with gas masks or chemical suits, according to soldiers who served in the war. Documents show tons of chemicals were present at the Iraqi bunker and pit, which were demolished March 4, 10 and 12, 1991. The site in southern Iraq is about 62 miles north of Kuwait.
Longtime critics of the government's inquiry were not impressed by the CIA's disclosures Wednesday.
``This is either evidence of an unraveling coverup or an unprecedented intelligence failure,'' said James J. Tuite, a former congressional aide who interviewed scores of sick veterans for a 1994 Senate investigation and now heads a foundation studying gulf war illnesses.
``They are saying today, `Oh look what we found!' And, yet I told them and other people told them [about the chemical weapons bunker and pit] years ago,'' he said. ``These assessments have to be made within hours in order to provide proper protection for the troops.''
In a statement released Wednesday, acting CIA Director George J. Tenet conceded that the inquiry illustrates intelligence support for the war ``should have been better.'' He said the information was disguised by multiple computer databases, limited sharing of ``sensitive'' but vital information and incomplete searches of intelligence files in preparing lists of known or suspected chemical weapons facilities.
``[A CIA] task force is preparing recommendations to address these problems and will continue to assess how we can improve,'' he said.
For 11 months the CIA and a special investigative unit for the Defense Department have been focusing on possible exposures of U.S. troops as a result of the explosions at Khamisiyah.
Last June, almost 5 1/2 years after the war, the Defense Department admitted troops may have been exposed to low levels of sarin, a nerve agent, from the explosions.
Prior to that time, they insisted in the face of contradictory information from the Senate investigation that no U.S. troops were exposed to chemical weapons except for an episode involving one soldier.
Late last year, the Defense Department also acknowledged that about 21,000 troops were within 51 kilometers - or about 32 miles - of the explosions.
``[CIA officials] said all along they didn't have anything on Khamisiyah,'' said Patrick G. Eddington, a former CIA analyst now writing a book that he says documents a coverup by the CIA and the Defense Department. ``Where has this data been?''
``I think it shows how completely out of touch the CIA is with the American public,'' said Eddington, who is suing to gain access to gulf war-related documents.
Michael Donnelly, a South Windsor resident who was an Air Force pilot during the war, said Wednesday he flew over Khamisiyah, near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, four or five times in March 1991, but not on the days when the bunkers were blown up.
``They stood out in the desert as this huge bunker complex. It was a couple of square miles of storage bunkers laid out in a square grid. Most all of them were blown up either by the bombing or the EOD [Explosive Ordnance Demolition] guys.''
Donnelly, 37, believes he contracted Lou Gehrig's disease, a disabling neurological disorder that has confined him to a wheelchair, from his own exposures during the war.
``This never should have happened,'' he said. ``If they knew about this, they should have come forward right away, and they should have started treating people right away. It's costing the lives of people.''
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials have said most of more than 1,100 troops closest to the site have reported various persistent illnesses. The majority of those not in the immediate range of the demolition clouds did not report being sick, the VA said.
VA data show demolition soldiers and others closest to the site were more likely than other gulf war troops to have infectious diseases, cancer, disorders of the genitals, skin diseases and especially muscular and connective tissue disorders.
Thousands of gulf war veterans reportedly have cancer, and heart and neurological diseases. A total of 690,000 military personnel served during the height of the war.