Another War, Another Pentagon Cover-Up
A new report from the New York Times confirms the adage that, in war, the first casualty is the truth.
The New York Times is out with a report on a Pentagon cover-up of injuries and exposures suffered by American soldiers fighting in Iraq who ran across depleted stockpiles of what used to be a chemical weapons stockpile that existed prior to 1991:
From 2004 to 2011, American and American-trained Iraqi troops repeatedly encountered, and on at least six occasions were wounded by, chemical weapons remaining from years earlier in Saddam Hussein’s rule.
In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and American officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The United States had gone to war declaring it must destroy an active weapons of mass destruction program. Instead, American troops gradually found and ultimately suffered from the remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West.
The New York Times found 17 American service members and seven Iraqi police officers who were exposed to nerve or mustard agents after 2003. American officials said that the actual tally of exposed troops was slightly higher, but that the government’s official count was classified.
The secrecy fit a pattern. Since the outset of the war, the scale of the United States’ encounters with chemical weapons in Iraq was neither publicly shared nor widely circulated within the military. These encounters carry worrisome implications now that the Islamic State, a Qaeda splinter group, controls much of the territory where the weapons were found.
The American government withheld word about its discoveries even from troops it sent into harm’s way and from military doctors. The government’s secrecy, victims and participants said, prevented troops in some of the war’s most dangerous jobs from receiving proper medical care and official recognition of their wounds.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, declined to address specific incidents detailed in the Times investigation, or to discuss the medical care and denial of medals for troops who were exposed. But he said that the military’s health care system and awards practices were under review, and that Mr. Hagel expected the services to address any shortcomings.
“The secretary believes all service members deserve the best medical and administrative support possible,” he said. “He is, of course, concerned by any indication or allegation they have not received such support. His expectation is that leaders at all levels will strive to correct errors made, when and where they are made.”
The first thing to get out of the way about this story is that this report does not, in any way, provide some kind of vindication for Bush Administration and it claims during the run up to the Iraq War that Iraq was maintaining an active WMD program that included the production of chemical and other weapons. They were not part of an active WMD program, most of them had been abandoned and even forgotten by the Iraqis themselves and could not be used as a military weapons. Moreover, the existence of this pre-1991 program was well known to the West due to our collaboration with Saddam during the Iran -Iraq War and the inspections that followed the Persian Gulf War. These are not the weapons that anyone in the Bush Administration was speaking of in the run up to the Iraq War and which formed the principal justification for the war. This is a suggestion that I have seen being pushed by many on the on the right since this story broke overnight. As the Times goes on to note, however, the material in question here was, in some sense at least already known to the West both because of collaboration with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and because of the inspections that followed the Persian Gulf War:
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Bush insisted that Mr. Hussein was hiding an active weapons of mass destruction program, in defiance of international will and at the world’s risk. United Nations inspectors said they could not find evidence for these claims.
Then, during the long occupation, American troops began encountering old chemical munitions in hidden caches and roadside bombs. Typically 155-millimeter artillery shells or 122-millimeter rockets, they were remnants of an arms program Iraq had rushed into production in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.
All had been manufactured before 1991, participants said. Filthy, rusty or corroded, a large fraction of them could not be readily identified as chemical weapons at all. Some were empty, though many of them still contained potent mustard agent or residual sarin. Most could not have been used as designed, and when they ruptured dispersed the chemical agents over a limited area, according to those who collected the majority of them.
In case after case, participants said, analysis of these warheads and shells reaffirmed intelligence failures. First, the American government did not find what it had been looking for at the war’s outset, then it failed to prepare its troops and medical corps for the aged weapons it did find.
National Review’s Patrick Brennan agrees with the Times’ assessment:
The existence of these weapons doesn’t affect the debate over the war’s justification either way: They’re not evidence that Saddam Hussein was, as proponents of the war contended, in the process of resuming chemical-weapons production or starting other WMD programs. But on the other hand, as the existence of thousands of hidden or mislabeled chemical-weapons munitions reported in Chivers’s article could suggest, Saddam was clearly not complying with United Nations requirements about exposing and dismantling his chemical-weapons stores, which was the legal justification for the war.
Rather than providing evidence in a decade-old debate, it seems clear that what these revelations do show is both an intelligence failure on the part of the United States regarding the whereabouts of at least some of these depleted pre-1991 stockpiles and yet another example of the Pentagon choosing to cover-up the fact that troops were placed in danger and exposed to dangerous materials, a story that has been repeated in too many of America’s recent military conflicts to count. After all, while these materials were not part of an active WMD program they were still chemical weapons or remnants of highly dangerous and volatile chemicals. For the most part, it appears as though many of the soldiers that encountered this material had no idea what they were coming upon and were not provided the proper gear to deal with it, at least not until they had already been exposed to caustic chemicals of some sort or another. That, in part, is where the intelligence failure, or at the very least a failure to communicate, comes into play, because it obviously would have been preferable for the soldiers who encountered this material to know what they were dealing with and to have the proper gear to deal with.
Instead of doing that, though, military officials seemed intent on downplaying the risks:
In September 2004, months after Sergeant Burns and Private Yandell picked up the leaking sarin shell, the American government issued a detailed analysis of Iraq’s weapons programs. The widely heralded report, by the multinational Iraq Survey Group, concluded that Iraq had not had an active chemical warfare program for more than a decade.
The group, led by Charles A. Duelfer, a former United Nations official working for the Central Intelligence Agency, acknowledged that the American military had found old chemical ordnance: 12 artillery shells and 41 rocket warheads. It predicted that troops would find more.
The report also played down the dangers of the lingering weapons, stating that because their contents would have deteriorated, “any remaining chemical munitions in Iraq do not pose a militarily significant threat.”
In late 2005 and early 2006, soldiers collected more than 440 Borak 122-millimeter chemical rockets near Amara, in southeastern Iraq. And in the first nine months of 2006, the American military recovered roughly 700 chemical warheads and shells, according to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
British forces also destroyed 21 Borak rockets in early 2006, including some that contained nerve agent, according to a public statement to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 2010.
The Pentagon did not provide this information to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as it worked in the summer of 2006 examining intelligence claims about Iraq’s weapons programs.
Even as the Senate committee worked, the American Army made its largest chemical weapons find of the war: more than 2,400 Borak rockets.
The rockets were discovered at Camp Taji, a former Republican Guard compound, when Americans “running a refueling point for helicopters saw some shady activity on the other side of a fence,” said Mr. Lampier, who lived at the camp at the time.
An Iraqi digging with a front-end loader ran away when an American patrol approached, leaving behind partly unearthed rockets.
Mr. Lampier, then a captain commanding the 756th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, was with the first to arrive. “At first we saw three,” he said. “Then it wasn’t three. It was 30. Then it wasn’t 30. It was 300. It went up from there.”
With this discovery, the American military had found more than 3,000 pieces of chemical ordnance and knew that many were still dangerous. The military did not disclose this as the Senate worked; instead, it stood by data from the Army’s National Ground Intelligence Center that it had declassified in late June, leading the Senate to publish an inaccurate report.
The report, released in September 2006, claimed “another 500 filled and unfilled degraded pre-1991 chemical munitions” had been found — about one-sixth of the Pentagon’s internal tallies.
This tally, obsolete as it was published, was not updated in the ensuing years, as more chemical weapons were found and as more troops were exposed.
The full Times report, which defies being excerpted here, is well worth reading if you have the time and goes on to detail injuries suffered by American troops who handled this material, as well as evidence that some blister agents that may have been recovered from these sites were used in roadside IEDs that were used to target American troops during the height of the war. To some extent, the cover-up of the injuries and the exposure of the troops to these dangerous chemicals is reminiscient of the way the military handled the Agent Orange issue in the years after the Vietnam War. In that case, the Pentagon and VA spent years pushing back on claims by veterans that exposure to the herbicide that was used extensively in the war was the cause of neurlogical and other problems that they were experiencing years later. It was only after years of intense lobbying and pressure, not to mention media exposure and litigation, that recognition was finally given to this issue. Will it take as long for the Iraq War vets who were exposed to these dangerous and caustic chemicals to get their recognition as well? Given the Pentagon’s record on these issues, it unfortunately seems as though that may be the case.
The final issue, of course, is the somewhat astounding fact that so little has been done to remove these stockpiles from Iraq or otherwise destroy them on site. That did happen in many cases, of course, but in others it seems as tough the material was either left behind where it was, and now that material is in danger of falling into unsavory hands. Near the end of the article, for example, the Times makes note of a depot called Al Muthanna, which had been a site where chemical weapons had been manufactured and stored during the long history of the Saddam Hussein regime. For reasons that seem inconceivable to me, there was little done to secure this complex beyond turning it over to the Iraqis, who then had the responsibility for securing and entombing the site. The Iraqis had developed a plan to do just that, apparently, but that project had not been completed when the United States had left Iraq in 2011, and it was unclear what the status of the location was when reporters visited there last year. Today, that location, what has never been entombed as the Iraqis promised, is under the control of the Islamic State.