A secret Pentagon study three years before the Gulf War found that the uniform issued to protect American troops from chemical weapons would not stop chemical agents Iraq had used in its war with Iran.
Within days of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the Pentagon formed a special team that frantically searched for ways to improve the troops’ protection against so-called dusty agents. That’s according to documents posted on GulfLink, the Pentagon’s Internet site for Gulf War illnesses.
The Dusty Agent Action Working Group quickly decided on an emergency fix: tell soldiers to wear rubber ponchos or rain gear over their chemical suits to block the dust.
But the weakness in the suits was considered such sensitive information that it was kept classified during the war and only some units were told about it, documents on GulfLink show.
And more than six years after the end of the war, unclassified military manuals still teach troops that their suits will protect them against all chemical agents, with no mention of the problem of dusty agents.
During the fall 1990 buildup to the Gulf War, military leaders publicly said that American troops were protected against Iraq’s chemical weapons.
“We are in good shape for individual protective gear for every unit,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Colin Powell told Congress on Dec. 14, 1990. “I am not concerned that there is somebody over there who has no protection.”
But recently declassified documents posted on GulfLink show there was a steady stream of messages between military leaders about the danger of dusty agents.
“Powell says in his own book that the chemical issue was more of a public-relations problem than anything else,” Pat Eddington, a former CIA analyst who quit over the agency’s handling of Gulf War illnesses, said in an interview Friday. “It was just a totally cavalier attitude about the whole thing.”
The Pentagon maintains there is no evidence that Iraq ever used chemical weapons in the Gulf War, according to spokesman Capt. Tom Gilroy.
But veterans advocates say the troops may have been exposed to chemical agents released when Allied forces bombed Iraqi chemical plants.
The potential problem with the suits is described in “Dusty Agents: Implications for Chemical Warfare Protection,” a 19-page study written in January 1988 by three experts in the U.S. Army Intelligence Agency’s Foreign Science and Technology Center.
Now declassified, the study found:
Certain types of chemical agents could be absorbed easily onto small dust particles, creating dusty agents that behaved differently from other chemical agents.
Permeable chemical suits, used by the United States and its NATO allies, did not stop dusty agents.
The suits are designed to allow the passage of air and moisture to reduce the possibility the wearer will overheat. Chemical agents are filtered out by activated charcoal sandwiched between the fabric. But small dust particles slipped through the charcoal and became trapped inside the suit.
The penetration by dusty agents greatly increased with even minor increases in wind speed.
The Soviet Union had known about dusty agents and the penetration problem since 1945, when it captured German data from tests on concentration camp prisoners.
While NATO began issuing permeable suits in the late 1960s, Soviet troops and their Warsaw Pact allies continued to wear impermeable rubber suits despite the overheating problem.
Iraq used dusty mustard, which causes blisters on the skin and can destroy lung tissue, in its 1980-1988 war with Iran and had other dusty agents.
Last week, Pentagon spokesmen could not answer whether new chemical suits procured since the war were any more effective at stopping dusty agents.
Current unclassified doctrine is that the suits protect against “all known chemical/biological warfare agents.” No mention is made of dusty agents.
That doctrine needs to be changed, Eddington said.
“Everybody else knows about dusty agents. The only people that we’re keeping in the dark are our own troops,” he said. “That’s operational negligence.”