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'Times' Report Details Pentagon's Mishandling Of Iraq Chemical Weapons

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We were absolutely told not to talk about it. That's what a former U.S. Army Sergeant told New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers. Chivers was investigating cases of American soldiers who were exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq - cases that he says were covered up by the military. These were not Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction that President George W. Bush cited as a pretext for the invasion. Instead, they were the remnants of long-abandoned Iraqi weapons programs still toxic enough to burn and blister the U.S. soldiers who handled them.

According to Chivers' lengthy front page investigation, 17 American service members were exposed to nerve or mustard agents. And he claims the Pentagon kept information about these chemical munitions secret, even from its own troops. C.J. Chivers joins us to talk about his story. Welcome to the program.

C.J. CHIVERS: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And you got access to heavily redacted intelligence documents. You interviewed dozens of American and Iraqi officials. And in the end, you conclude that U.S. troops found 5,000 chemical warheads or bombs in Iraq. Tell us specifically what they found.

CHIVERS: Most of what they found were old 122 millimeter nerve agent warheads, and most of the balance was a 155 millimeter shell. These were designed to be fired back in the Iran-Iraq war to be used principally against Iranian troops. And they contained, in many cases, old residual sarin or, in some cases, were full still with mustard.

BLOCK: You open your story with a case from 2008, and it involves a specialist named Andrew Goldman, a staff Sergeant named Eric Duling, and they were on a mission to destroy old munitions that could be used in roadside bombs. They were near Taji in Iraq. Tell us their story of what they found and what happened after.

CHIVERS: Well, they were in some ways a typical case. And you nailed it. These weapons were being used for roadside bombs, or were at risk of being used for roadside bombs. And in this case, they had found an old stockpile of these beside a lake. And the typical way that an American ordinance disposal team would handle that situation would be that they would destroy them.

So they would stack them and place other explosives on them and make them disappear. So working on the assumption that they had conventional shells, they detonated them, and in the process of that, cracked open some mustard shells that were buried underneath.

BLOCK: And one of the service members says that there was something leaking - an oily paste that was oozing out, and he goes, that doesn't look like pond water. He knows that something is wrong.

CHIVERS: So they went out to the crater to examine the site after they had destroyed the stack of shells. And what they found was they had unearthed even more, and some of those shells were cracked and were oozing. And Specialist Goldman - Andrew Goldman was lifting one of the shells to move it out for it to be destroyed, and he saw this at the same time his teammate saw another one on the ground at his feet.

And they both were very suspicious and ended up swabbing with a chemical detection paper the sides of the shells and saw that it was sulfur mustard. By that time it was too late. They had already inhaled some of the sulfur mustard, and in handling the shells, Specialist Goldman had gotten some onto his legs.

BLOCK: And what were the health effects that they endured after this exposure?

CHIVERS: Well, a number of things happened. Their exposure, because it was both inhalation and some skin contact, they developed shortness of breath and headaches. Blisters erupted on Specialist Goldman's thigh and on his shin and on his buttock. And they, with time, had sort of sustained difficulty breathing.

BLOCK: Some of the troops that you talked to for your story said that the exposure wasn't taken seriously by medical staff - that they were suspected as being malingerers or trying to get out of duty. Why would that be the case? Why wouldn't this be taken seriously?

CHIVERS: Well, you've probably gone to the heart of what we would think our story is here, which is that almost every case in which the soldiers were denied care or treatment was delayed, it seemed that the medical system was not prepared for them. And this seems rooted in secrecy because these cases were not shared - because the cases were not distributed or transparently discussed among the troops or with the public. Many of the medical facilities were operating under the assumption that a lot of other people were, which was that there weren't really any chemical weapons in Iraq. And so when the soldiers would report at the tents with chemical symptoms, the doctors seemed to have an inclination to look for something else - dehydration, sunburn. You know, you have a headache. You've got a rash. Those are types of complaints that can have many fathers. And so in some cases, treatment was delayed up to two weeks.

BLOCK: When you say that this was kept secret or this information wasn't shared, there has been a response from the Pentagon - a statement from Secretary Hagel who says the Defense Department made public its discovery of these munitions as far back as 2006 and acknowledged the likelihood that more could be found. This wasn't entirely secret, right? There was reporting at the time of these munitions being exposed.

CHIVERS: That's right. Through 2006, the Pentagon released information that said they had found up to 500 chemical shells, or roughly 500 chemical shells - remnant shells left over from pre-1991 era. Ultimately, there was no further release until this story came out. And we had fought a long public records battle with them as recently as a few days ago to try to get them to release the more significant, larger numbers and to give case-by-case examples of the incidents.

And they haven't released those documents, and they've denied our forays in the main. We get very few pages redacted - pages released to us. There's many other pages that they have not released. And they have not, as of yet, shared the information as to the full extent of the injuries.

So if you put the released as through 2006 number against the actual official tally that we know, they've released about 10 percent. And they did not release any of the information about any of the mustard exposure victims who are by our count 15, but we are told that there are more.

BLOCK: But why would that be? What would the interest of the Pentagon be in keeping that secret if they did?

CHIVERS: Well, we wish we knew but - we will say - and I was in the military years ago, and a lot of your listeners were in the military. There is a habitual - there's a mix of habitual and reflexive secrecy in the military to the point of where they will classify the weather report on the day of an operation. And it is the habit to stovepipe information and to limit its distribution.

And these cases didn't circulate to the point where I would go meet with generals as I was reporting this and they purported not even to know about it. And so the cases exist sort of at the unit level, and individuals knew, and we found out about them basically through word-of-mouth - through talking to the veterans who knew of other veterans and were passed from person to person over a long period of time.

BLOCK: Chris, you end your article with a sobering thought, and that's that some of the old chemical munitions in Iraq may now be in the hands of ISIS - the Islamic State.

CHIVERS: The Islamic State has access to the areas where the rounds were found, and so they may have some of the rounds themselves. But we should put that in perspective. The Islamic State is doing a job already on Iraq's people and on the territory with conventional weapons. They're killing all sorts of people and controlling all sorts of people using conventional weapons, racking up an awful cost every day. These weapons, if they have a few, would add sort of to their political residence and might make them seem more menacing. This is not necessarily a game changer, though there may be people in the political spectrum who would want to make it so.

BLOCK: C.J. Chivers of The New York Times. He covers conflict, the arms trade and human rights. Thanks very much.

CHIVERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.