WASHINGTON -- The Central Intelligence Agency's conflicting accounts about the possible exposure of U.S. troops to chemical weapons shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf War could create the first significant hurdle to the confirmation of George Tenet as the agency's director, congressional officials said Friday.
The chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said through a spokeswoman that the committee was "very concerned" about the handling of the issue by the CIA and that "the committee is definitely looking into this" as it prepares for confirmation hearings for Tenet, who is now the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence.
Earlier this week the CIA apologized to Gulf War veterans as it made public a report showing that the agency had solid information as early as 1986 that chemical weapons had been stored at an Iraqi ammunition depot.
Detailed information was not passed along to the Defense Department, and the depot was blown up by U.S. soldiers in March 1991, possibly exposing thousands of troops to a cloud of nerve gas.
Although there was no suggestion Friday that Tenet's confirmation was in serious jeopardy, he is expected to face questions at the Senate hearings about his possible role in preparing recent public statements on the issue that have proved to be inaccurate and possibly deceptive. Tenet has been acting director since December.
President Clinton nominated him to lead the agency after his first nominee, Anthony Lake, the former national security adviser, withdrew last month as a result of Republican attacks on his fitness for the job.
The CIA report that was made public on Wednesday suggested that several intelligence failures led to the demolition of the Kamisiyah ammunition bunker in southern Iraq in March 1991, a few weeks after a military coalition led by the United States routed Iraqi forces and liberated Kuwait.
The report directly contradicted earlier accounts from the agency, including the information contained in a "fact sheet" issued only two months ago in which the CIA said Kamisiyah had not been identified as a possible chemical weapons storage depot until 1995.
In fact, the documents made public this week show that the agency had some information as early as 1984 that chemical weapons were stored there, and there was solid information two years later.
The Feb. 26 fact sheet, which was attached to a statement from Tenet in which he vowed to provide "the maximum amount of information" to Gulf War veterans, also said the CIA had only "raw, unconfirmed" information during the Gulf War about the presence of chemical weapons in the vicinity of Kamisiyah.
The report issued this week shows that the agency actually had detailed information, including geographical coordinates, during the war to suggest that chemical weapons were at Kamisiyah -- information that was not passed on to the soldiers who later blew up the depot and may have been exposed to nerve gas.
It was only last June, more than five years after the war, that the Defense Department and the CIA raised the possibility that U.S. troops had been exposed to nerve gas at Kamisiyah.
Initially, officials at both the department and the agency insisted that there had been no advance warning in 1991 of the possibility that chemical munitions had been stored at the depot. But their accounts have changed repeatedly, and dramatically, in the months since.
Officials at the CIA said it was unfair to blame Tenet for the errors in the agency's earlier public statements, since he had been involved with the issue in recent months only.
When it became clear this year that a broader CIA inquiry of the matter was needed, they said, Tenet increased the number of investigators to 50 and ordered them to ferret out just the sort of information that was made public this week.
"His guidance is to get the facts out straight," said Mark Mansfield, an agency spokesman. "There can be no more piecemeal release of information."
Tenet will also face questions from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which is investigating the cause of the mysterious ailments reported by thousands of Gulf War veterans.
The panel's chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who led the
Intelligence Committee from 1995 until this year, said in an
interview that he was concerned by inaccuracies in Tenet's previous
statements about Kamisiyah. Specter said he feared that Tenet had
been misled by his staff.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company