The U.S. military was warned that Iraqi arms bunkers might hold chemical weapons but it never alerted the troops who were about to demolish those bunkers, according to a Pentagon study released Tuesday.
The study said the warning apparently went to some nearby units but not to the 82nd Airborne Division, which was assigned to destroy the sprawling 50-square-kilometer complex at Kamisiyah in 1991 soon after the end of the Gulf War.
That was the first of many glitches that for years denied Gulf War veterans information about exposure to chemical weapons, according to the 33-page Defense Department report.
“These revelations again suggest that it is way past time for heads to roll at the Department of Defense,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “We still don’t know that we have a cover-up of Kamisiyah, but we do know that we are faced with some incredible derelictions.”
A top Pentagon official said the failures were “troubling,” but did not stem from any deliberate cover-up.
“There were just people doing their job, trying to do it as best they could,” said Bernard Rostker, the Defense Department’s special assistant for Gulf War Illnesses.
Many experts say Gulf War veterans may suffer from fatigue, dizziness and memory loss, among other things, because of exposure to a combination of chemicals. They cite pesticides, insect repellents, anti-nerve-gas pills, and barely detectable amounts of nerve gas.
A presidential advisory committee recently accused the Pentagon of conducting a superficial investigation into chemical weapons exposures, and said it had to assume U.S. troops at Kamisiyah were exposed to nerve gas.
Tuesday’s report only strengthens those conclusions, according to Robyn Nishimi, the advisory panel’s executive director.
In terms of health, she added, the advisory panel found no proven link between exposures to nerve gas and Gulf War illnesses.
In political terms, however, the Pentagon’s report contained evidence of bungling both before and after the Kamisiyah dump was destroyed:
Weeks before the March and April 1991 demolitions at Kamisiyah, the 18th Airborne Corps got an intelligence alert - from classified sources - that the complex was a “possible” chemical weapons depot. The 24th Mechanized Infantry Division also received word, on Feb. 26.
But, the report said, there is “no evidence to date” that word reached the 82nd Airborne Division, whose soldiers would soon begin demolishing Kamisiyah.
“That is outrageous,” said John Muckelbauer, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “They suspected that chemical weapons were there, and the right troops didn’t know about it.”
Even without an alert, the report said, demolition teams searched several bunkers and took normal precautions against chemical weapons. Muckelbauer, however, said, “A more thorough search should have been required, based on this information.”
On Nov. 12, 1991, the CIA told the military that United Nations inspectors had visited Kamisiyah and found it “littered with damaged and destroyed sarin (nerve-gas) filled 122mm rockets,” along with a crate indicating Americans had demolished the ammunition bunkers.
The Army mistakenly identified the 24th Infantry Division as having been in the area at the time, and the inquiry was passed to a captain at Fort Stewart, Ga. No one can recall what happened next, the report said.
In February 1994, military leaders told Congress they had no evidence that U.S. troops had been exposed to chemical weapons. They acknowledged that chemical arms had been found at a demolished depot, but they testified that no U.S. forces had been there.
“There was true confusion as to the location of Kamisiyah,” according to Tuesday’s report.
Rostker attributed the confusion to different code names assigned to Kamisiyah and to a belief that the piles of demolished chemical weapons were fake, an Iraqi effort to make the allies believe their stockpiles were destroyed.
On Sept. 13, 1995, the CIA asked Pentagon Gulf War investigators whether the 37th Engineering Battalion, which was attached to the 82nd Airborne at the time, might have demolished chemical weapons at Kamisiyah.
The 37th had, but the Pentagon’s investigators never contacted it, the report said.
It said the Pentagon publicly conceded that U.S. soldiers had demolished chemical weapons only on June 21, 1996 - almost two months after the CIA announced that fact, and five years after the war’s end.