The CIA revealed yesterday it had received numerous warnings starting in 1984 that chemical weapons were stored in a remote Iraqi ammunition depot that U.S. troops blew up shortly after the Persian Gulf War, but said it had failed to adequately alert the military to the danger.
The disclosure contradicted three years of CIA accounts of what it knew about poison gas weapons in Iraq, including a statement made six weeks ago by acting CIA Director George J. Tenet. He said then that the agency had not specifically identified the Khamisiyah weapons site as a chemical weapons area prior to its destruction by U.S. forces in March 1991.
The new description was provided in a 24-page report issued by an agency task force set up by Tenet last month. The head of the group gave what amounted to a rare public apology to Gulf War veterans.
"Intelligence support before, during and after the war should have been better," said Robert D. Walpole. "If you're looking for an apology that we should have given this information out sooner, I'll give that apology. We should have gotten it out sooner."
Walpole cited failures by agency personnel including the "tunnel vision" of analysts during the war and afterward who failed to fully research the agency's records. He also cited their fixation on the wrong-headed belief that the Iraqis only stored chemical weapons in S-shaped buildings, unlike those at Khamisiyah. He said the agency had "failed to underscore" the reliability of information indicating that Iraq had stored chemical arms at the site.
The agency disclosed cables and communications laying out a series of warnings about Khamisiyah beginning in 1984 and continuing until days before U.S. troops arrived there seven years later. A day before the ground war began, an unidentified U.S. ambassador relayed to the CIA information that apparently came from an Iranian Air Force source giving the precise geographic coordinates for the Khamisiyah depot and saying chemical weapons were there.
The CIA passed that information to the U.S. military's Central Command, which is responsible for the Gulf region. But a CIA analyst the next day mistakenly confused the location with another depot and cabled that the agency had been unable to identify a chemical facility at the suspected site.
Khamisiyah has become the focus of controversy because it was the only place where the U.S. government says American troops may have been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons in the Persian Gulf War. When U.S. troops blew up the depot there, soon after routing Iraqi forces in the brief ground war, they did not know the massive underground facility housed hundreds of rockets containing the nerve gas sarin.
Many veterans believe that exposure to chemical weapons caused the myriad illnesses, known as Gulf War Syndrome, that afflict some troops who served in the theater. However, there has been no evidence that low-level exposure can be linked to such ailments. Although government physicians do not dispute that the veterans are ill, researchers have been unable to identify any medical syndrome that explains the sicknesses. Some researchers have said that stress is the most likely cause.
In any case, yesterday's disclosure by the CIA is a fresh example in a series of contradictions and major revisions of what the government knew about chemical weapons in the Gulf War, when it had the information, and what it did with the data. The Defense Department denied for five years that any American troops had been exposed to chemical weapons, until it made what it called its watershed announcement about Khamisiyah 10 months ago.
Yesterday, Walpole said earlier statements by Tenet, who has been nominated to be CIA director, and other CIA officials were based on their best knowledge at the time of their statements. Walpole said many of the records on which his report was based had only recently been discovered and declassified.
Some veterans advocates doubted that account.
"Now it seems that prior to, during and after the war they had a great deal of information" about the presence of chemical weapons where U.S. troops were deployed, said James Tuite III, a leading veterans activist on the issue. "This is either evidence of an unraveling cover-up or an unprecedented intelligence failure."
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Defense Department has asked the Pentagon inspector general to investigate the revelations made by the CIA yesterday that the military's Central Command and the Army's regional command were informed of the likelihood of chemical weapons on the site prior to their destruction. That information, according to numerous accounts, was never passed to the troops on the ground near the area.
"We're still looking at where the information went and how it was disseminated," Whitman said.
Robyn Nishimi, executive director of the Presidential Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, said her panel had access to some, but not all of the new CIA information. "Yes, there are a lot of big stones out there, we're turning them over as fast as we can," she said.
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