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CIA Knew of Chemical Weapons in Iraq Bunker

Military: Report amounts to admission that agency failed to alert Gulf War commanders who ordered target destroyed. Attack may have exposed U.S. soldiers.
April 10, 1997|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON The CIA learned in the mid-1980s that Iraq had stored chemical weapons in a bunker targeted for destruction by U.S. forces at the end of the Persian Gulf War, the agency admitted Wednesday, but failed to warn military commanders clearly enough to avert possible exposure of U.S. troops. The CIA report amounts to the most sweeping admission so far that the agency effectively bungled the job of alerting U.S. commanders before the Iraqi bunker was blown up in March 1991. Robert D. Walpole, who headed a special intelligence community task force assigned to look into the exposure issue, conceded at a press conference that the agency "should have done better." He apologized to Gulf War veterans who may have been exposed to chemical weapons as a result. "Intelligence support before, during and after the war should have been better," said 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." Although Iraq did not use chemical weapons in its attacks

against U.S. and other allied forces during the two-month war, many veterans have said that they have suffered from a variety of nagging ailments as a result of exposure to ammunition dumps and other environmental hazards in the Persian Gulf. The Pentagon disclosed last June that several hundred-possibly even thousands--of soldiers may have been exposed to sarin and other toxic agents because Iraqi weapons caches were blown up in a bunker at Khamisiyah that held chemical weapons. While the disclosure sparked a major political controversy, no one has been able to prove conclusively that any U.S. troops actually were exposed. The agency's admission Wednesday directly contradicted its earlier portrayal of its role in the Khamisiyah incident. Until now, CIA officials had maintained that the agency received only cursory reports. Just last month, acting CIA Director George J. Tenet said that the agency had not specifically identified the weapons site as a chemical-weapons area before its destruction. The Senate Intelligence Committee is slated to start hearings next week on Tenet's nomination to become CIA director. On Wednesday, Walpole conceded that the agency had obtained several reports in 1984 and 1986 on the existence of chemical weapons at the Khamisiyah depot. But he said that, in a string of snafus, CIA officials failed to make U.S. commanders aware of the situation and accompanying dangers.

He cited a variety of reasons for this failure--bungled handling of information, "tunnel vision" by CIA analysts who failed to research fully the agency's own records and reluctance to share its information with U.S. military commanders openly enough for them to be able to act upon it. The 24-page report that the agency distributed Wednesday was the result of a 35-day investigation that the CIA undertook only after prodding from the Presidential Advisory Committee on Persian Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, which spent last year examining the issue. Veterans' groups expressed chagrin about the CIA's latest revelations. James J. Tuite III, a leading veterans' spokesman, called the disclosures "either evidence of an unraveling cover-up or an unprecedented intelligence failure." The Pentagon, which has taken the brunt of the heat in the controversy following its disclosure last June that U.S. troops had blown up the Khamisiyah bunker, declined to comment on the CIA report, which by implication relieves military commanders of some blame. The Pentagon itself had denied for five years that any U.S. troops had been exposed to toxic weapons during the Gulf War before finally conceding that the Khamisiyah bunker contained chemical weapons. Pentagon officials contended later that the information had been lost. Gulf War veterans have complained of a wide range of symptoms--from joint aches to memory loss--that have been

loosely referred to as "Gulf War illness," but Pentagon and Veterans Affairs studies over the years have failed to link them to any specific cause. The CIA report disclosed a series of cables and reports that it provided--beginning in 1984--about the presence of chemical weapons at Khamisiyah, including a warning from an Iranian Air Force commander giving the precise coordinates of the bunker. But the report said that, while the agency passed on the information to the U.S. Central Command, which was charged with running the Persian Gulf War, a CIA analyst confused the Khamisiyah site and cabled the military the next day that no chemical weapons were found there.