The Central Intelligence Agency has made a startling confession. After years of denials it now admits it had information about the chemical weapons bunker at Khamisiyah, in southern Iraq, that it failed to pass on to commanders before U.S. forces blew up the facility at the end of the Persian Gulf War. The destruction of this huge store of chemical agents may have exposed thousands of American troops to nerve gas or other toxins released into the air. That exposure could be the cause of some of the many physical and mental ailments reported by veterans of the conflict--the so-called Gulf War syndrome, whose origins remain mysterious.
It's important to understand that what occurred in this case was not an intelligence failure but--worse--a failure to disseminate intelligence in the CIA's possession.
As long ago as 1984 the agency learned that chemical weapons were stored at Khamisiyah. As recently as a few weeks before the stockpile was destroyed, the CIA obtained a hand-drawn map giving exact coordinates for the depot. That information, says a CIA report, was passed on to the appropriate command. But the next day a CIA analyst confused the Khamisiyah site with another and sent a cable that in so many words said to disregard earlier information. When Army engineers blew up the Khamisiyah depot in March 1991 they were apparently ignorant of what was stored there.
Robert D. Walpole, the CIA official who presented the report on Khamisiyah, cites a number of reasons for the screw-up. One was the "tunnel vision" of agency analysts who failed to adequately search the records, in part because they had convinced themselves that Iraq stored its chemical weapons only in S-shaped buildings, none of which were visible at Khamisiyah. He further concedes that too little emphasis was put on the reliability of the information the CIA had received. That intelligence, because of its sources, had high credibility. The CIA, thanks to its bungling and then its denials, does not.
The United States, at a price of close to $30 billion a year and sometimes at no little risk to agents and informants, collects intelligence worldwide. But that information is useless if it is not properly analyzed, readily accessible and passed on in timely fashion to those the intelligence community exists to serve, whether they be policymakers at the highest level or military commanders in the field. The failure of Khamisiyah is a textbook example of vital information being uselessly, even tragically, wasted.
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