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NYT: Rumsfeld-Era Pentagon Concealed Discovery of Saddam’s Chemical Weapons, Related US Troop Casualties

Army soldiers during a chemical warfare readiness drill in Iraq, 2007. (Photo: US Army)

Army soldiers during a chemical warfare readiness drill in Iraq, 2007. (Photo: US Army)

The Rumsfeld-era Pentagon concealed the discovery of old but dangerous chemical weapons stockpiled by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces, even after US troops were repeatedly exposed to and sickened by the deadly nerve and blister agents.

According to the New York Times, US troops and allied Iraqi forces found more than 5,000 chemical bombs, shells and warheads in the years following the 2003 invasion that led to the fall of the Hussein regime.

These were not part of any ongoing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program but rather old, often rotting and corrosive munitions left over from the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. None of them were manufactured after 1991. But they contained sarin, a nerve agent which is deadly in even extremely low concentrations, and mustard gas, a lethal blistering agent which attacks the skin and lungs. They were also procured, developed and produced with the help of the United States and other Western nations keen on defeating Iran’s Islamic revolution, which overthrew a brutal but US-backed monarch.

According to the Times investigation, US troops and allied Iraqi forces discovered, and were wounded or sickened by, these old but deadly weapons on at least six separate occasions. In five of those incidents, the weapons could be traced back to the United States. The Times found 17 Americans and seven Iraqi policemen who said they were exposed to sarin or mustard gas. US officials now say even more troops were harmed but that the actual number is classified.

The Pentagon and the George W. Bush administration withheld knowledge of the deadly discovery from the public, Congress, doctors and even the very troops they were sending into harm’s way, say troops wounded by the chemical weapons and other military officials. Victims and their advocates say the government’s secrecy prevented affected troops, who sometimes suffered severe injuries, from receiving adequate medical care.

Wounded troops were sometimes denied hospital treatment and medical evacuations, despite requests from commanders, the Times investigation found.

Affected troops claim they were ordered to lie about what they had found or suffered.

“ ’Nothing of significance’ is what I was ordered to say,” now-retired Army Maj. Jarrod Lampier told the Times. Lampier was present when more than 2,400 nerve agent rockets were unearthed at a former Republican Guard base in 2006.

Former Army Sgt. Jarrod L. Taylor, who was present when two soldiers suffered chemical burns while destroying a stockpile of mustard gas shells, joked about “wounds that never happened” from “that stuff that didn’t exist.” Taylor told the Times that the public has been misled for a decade.

“I love it when I hear, ‘Oh there weren’t any chemical weapons in Iraq,’” said Taylor. “There were plenty.”

But many of the weapons were so old, dirty or degraded that US troops had difficulty even identifying them. Most could not be used as intended and many ruptured, dispersing deadly chemical agents and wounding anyone who came in contact with them. Some troops have been afflicted with long-term health problems as a result of their exposure. At least one has required life-saving surgery.

Michael Yandell, a former Army ordnance disposal technician who handled a leaking sarin shell while serving in Iraq, told the Times he suffers from severe headaches. Lt. James F. Burns, Yandell’s team leader, also handled the same chemical shell. After exposure, his medical records note how contact with the nerve gas has affected him.

“I have been dropping items such as tools, soda cans, cups of water, pens and pencils,” Burns wrote. “I will stumble or nearly fall while standing up from a chair. While speaking, I will stutter or stammer and lose my thought.”

Still, the Pentagon withheld information, claiming discoveries of even hundreds or thousands of chemical weapons were not militarily significant. That was a curious assertion, considering the Bush administration’s attempts to justify America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq as primarily an effort to find and rid the Hussein regime of its weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, American troops were suffering severe chemical burns and other serious injuries as a result of exposure to chemical weapons and the military was preventing them from even warning their fellow troops.

“They put a gag order on all of us — the security detail, us, the clinic, everyone,” Lt. Burns told the Times. “We were briefed to tell family members that we were exposed to ‘industrial chemicals,’ because our case was classified top secret.”

Not only did the military conceal the the discovery of thousands of Iraqi chemical weapons from other troops, it also failed to inform the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that so many WMDs were being found and destroyed. Such data would have been crucial to the committee as it investigated intelligence claims about Iraq’s WMD programs. After unearthing more than 2,400 nerve agent rockets at Camp Taji, the military claimed “nothing of significance” had been found.

Some of the affected troops believe this is at least partially because of the uncomfortable link between Washington and Iraq’s WMDs. Despite Hussein’s horrific and well-known brutality, President Ronald Reaganbacked the dictator as he waged an ill-fated war against the Islamist regime which had recently taken power in neighboring Iran following the popular ouster of a repressive US-backed monarchy. In 1982, Reagan removed Iraq from the state sponsors of terrorism list, opening the door for billions of dollars in US and Western aid.

Reagan dispatched his special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, to Baghdad for meetings with Hussein. The closer ties between Washington and Baghdad led to the transfer of deadly chemical and biological materials, the foundation for Iraq’s WMD programs. Hussein’s forces quickly weaponized chemical and biological agents, using them not only against Iranian troops but also against Iraq’s own restive Kurdish population.

The Reagan administration knew that Iraq was using chemical weapons but continued to help Hussein’s forces obtain more of them. Other Western and allied nations, including Germany, Italy, Spain and Egypt, also helped Hussein build up his WMD arsenal.

After the 2003 invasion, US troops found American-made M110 chemical artillery shells which, according to a Navy technical manual on chemical munitions, are filled with mustard gas “to produce a toxic effect on personnel and to contaminate habitable areas.” Iraqi resistance fighters sometimes rigged up M110s as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which were later purposely detonated by US troops unaware of what they were.

Former Navy Petty Officer Third Class Jeremiah M. Foxwell, who was exposed to mustard gas from a detonated shell, suffered lesions in his nasal passages and upper airway. Military records indicate exposure to “chemical vapors — mustard gas” from a “terrorist chemical weapon.” Yet according to military chemical warfare experts, Foxwell was denied adequate medical care and returned to duty too soon, where he continued to suffer from his exposure.

Foxwell told the Times he was prohibited from discussing the incident with his fellow troops.

“I couldn’t walk outside and tell the next route-clearance team that this was out there,” he said. “It was just not natural, the idea of not sharing. If you experience a new battlefield weapon, it is your responsibility to share that actionable information with other teams.”

To add insult to injury, many troops exposed to deadly chemical weapons while fighting a war ostensibly waged to find and destroy Hussein’s WMDs were denied Purple Hearts after being wounded by those very weapons.

Army spokeswoman Tatjana Christian told the Times the Purple Hearts “were denied because the mustard agent that affected them was not caused by enemy actions.”

The Army did, however, acknowledge that it failed to provide the required care for troops who were exposed to chemical agents. It said it would work to identify all personnel who had been exposed, then deal with each of their cases.

“We’re at the point of wanting to make this right,” Col. Bill Rice, director of Occupational and Environmental Medicine of the Army Public Health Command, told the Times. “We can’t change the past, but we can make sure they are pointed in the right direction from this point forward.”

There is currently a greater sense of urgency regarding remaining or undiscovered stockpiles of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons as Islamic State militants wrest control of more Iraqi territory from a weak central government. IS now controls many areas where those weapons have been found, and the US has lost track of many of them or has left large caches poorly or unsecured.

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