LANGLEY, Va. -- The CIA said on Wednesday that its own errors may have led to the demolition of an Iraqi ammunition bunker filled with chemical weapons after the 1991 Persian Gulf war -- an event that may have exposed tens of thousands of U.S. troops to nerve gas.
At an unusual televised news conference at its headquarters here, the agency apologized to the veterans for failing to notify the Pentagon about the contents of the depot.
A report released by the agency on Wednesday revealed that the CIA had solid intelligence in 1986 that thousands of weapons filled with mustard gas had been stored at the Kamisiyah ammunition depot in southern Iraq.
Despite that evidence, the agency failed to include the depot on a list of suspected chemical-weapons sites provided to the Pentagon before the 1991 gulf war, an intelligence failure that led American troops to assume that it was safe to blow up the depot in the weeks after the war.
The Pentagon announced last year that more 20,000 American troops might have been exposed to nerve gas and other chemical weapons as a result of the explosions.
"I'll give that apology -- we should have gotten that information out sooner," said Robert Walpole, the agency official who is overseeing the CIA's investigation of possible chemical exposures during the gulf war.
In detailing the history of intelligence-gathering during the gulf war, Walpole said, "This is the chapter that lays out some not-so-pretty news."
The report offers no new evidence to support or refute the claims of the gulf war veterans who believe that they were made sick by exposure to Iraqi chemical weapons in the gulf in 1991.
There were no reports of American troops' falling ill at the time of the explosions at Kamisiyah in March 1991, and scientists are divided on whether exposure to low levels of nerve gas can lead to chronic health problems.
But the CIA report -- and the dozens of declassified intelligence reports that were released along with it -- show that there was detailed evidence before and during the war about the presence of chemical weapons at Kamisiyah.
Walpole said the information was never properly analyzed or shared within the government in part because of the "tunnel vision" of intelligence analysts who convinced themselves that chemical weapons were not at Kamisiyah during the gulf war, even though chemical munitions were stored there in large numbers during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
In a introduction to the report, the acting director of central intelligence, George Tenet, said the documents proved that "intelligence support associated with operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, particularly in the areas of information distribution and analysis, should have been better."
The release of the documents raised new questions about the credibility of CIA officials who insisted repeatedly last year that the government was withholding no information about the incident at Kamisiyah or about the possibility that American troops had been exposed to chemical weapons elsewhere in the gulf.
The issue is certain to be raised when Tenet testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee at his confirmation hearings -- the hearings have not yet been scheduled -- and veterans groups said they thought that Wednesday's report was an effort to head off some of the criticism of the CIA that could be expected at the Senate hearings.
"This is evidence either of an unraveling cover-up or of an unprecedented intelligence failure," said James Tuite, who led a 1993-1994 investigation of gulf war illnesses for the Senate Banking Committee.
The documents also provided dramatic support to the assertions of two former agency analysts, Patrick and Robin Eddington, who resigned from the CIA last year and who went public with their allegations that the agency was withholding evidence about chemical exposures during the gulf war.
Walpole, who said the documents had resurfaced in recent weeks only after an intensive search of the agency's files and computer banks, acknowledged at the news conference that the "CIA's credibility has suffered in this effort."
The documents show that some of the warnings about chemical weapons at Kamisiyah could not have been much more specific.
An intelligence report dated Feb. 23, 1991, in the middle of the war, describes information provided by an American ambassador in the Middle East -- the country was not specified in the document, and the CIA refused to identify it -- who was given a hand-drawn map and map coordinates for "a location in Iraq that is described as a chemical weapons storage facility."
The coordinates were for the storage depot at Kamisiyah, and the report said the information had been provided by "someone in the Iranian air force or air force-related industry." CIA officials said it was unclear why the warning was not provided to the American soldiers who blew up the depot only two weeks later.
Another document shows that in 1992, a year after the war, an intelligence officer was concerned about the possibility that American troops had been exposed to chemical weapons during the demolition of "the Kamisiyah storage area."
The officer, whose name was deleted from the document, said that on the basis of evidence gathered by U.N. weapons inspectors, "there is a distinct possibility that coalition ground troops destroyed bunkers or piles of munitions containing binary sarin-filled rockets, without knowing that the chemical rounds were present."
In a memorandum that was prepared for Defense Department, the officer asked the Pentagon to determine which troops were in the vicinity of the depot, "how long did they stay, what actions were taken -- i.e., did they collect and explosively destroy any munitions?"
But the warnings were not properly followed up until four years later. In a 1995 document, the same officer said "D.O.D. never responded to the request" from 1991. It was only last June that the Pentagon and the CIA revealed the possibility that American troops had been exposed to chemical weapons at Kamisiyah.
The CIA report said the agency first learned of the possibility that chemical weapons had been stored at Kamisiyah in July 1984, when an intelligence report warned that "a decontamination vehicle normally associated with tactical chemical defense was at the depot."
The report said the agency received a far more specific warning in May 1986, when its analysts obtained a translated copy of an Iraqi chemical-weapons production plan that mentioned the transfer of large stores of chemical weapons to Kamisiyah, including 3,975 155-millimeter artillery grenades filled with mustard gas and 6,293 150-millimeter mustard bombs.
Walpole said that after the Iran-Iraq war -- which lasted from 1980 to 1988 -- CIA analysts developed "tunnel vision" about the way the Iraqis stored chemical weapons.
The assumption on the part of the analysts, he said, was that the Iraqis had begun to store chemical weapons in unusual s-shaped bunkers. And because there were no s-shaped bunkers at Kamisiyah, he said, the analysts assumed -- incorrectly -- that Kamisiyah was no longer being used as a chemical-weapons site.
"They came to that bias," Walpole said.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company