WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell said yesterday that he never received any specific intelligence warnings about where Iraqi chemical weapons were stored during the Persian Gulf war, but he noted that U.S. soldiers took all necessary precautions against such a threat.
Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the war, said it was the military's "highest priority" to destroy Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons factories, as well as the missiles and artillery that could deliver the chemicals, such as the nerve agent sarin.
While the military "assumed" Iraq had chemical weapons stockpiled in an area where U.S. troops were stationed, Powell told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, there was no "clear evidence" where they were.
Powell is the latest former Pentagon official to testify about the variety of sicknesses afflicting thousands of veterans that have collectively come to be called "gulf war syndrome."
Retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded allied troops in the war, told Congress in February that he was mystified by the illnesses and what might have caused them.
Some believe that exposure to chemical weapons is a main cause of the illnesses, which range from dizziness and headaches to sleep troubles.
"I do not know if those illnesses are a result of the service in the gulf or not, but I think we have to keep that as an operating hypothesis until we find out otherwise," Powell said.
"I am as distressed, more distressed, than any member of this committee could ever be."
Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and the committee chairman, complained of "dual finger-pointing" between the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency over information about stockpiled chemical weapons.
The CIA said it passed to U.S. commanders in the gulf a report about possible chemical weapons in the southern Iraq area that included Kamisiyah, site of an Iraqi munitions depot.
But the troops who exploded the munitions depot shortly thereafter, in March 1991, never received the information. The depot was later found to contain chemical weapons.
At the time that the Kamisiyah depot was being destroyed, top U.S. officials in the gulf and Washington had no reason to believe troops would be exposed to any hazards they were not prepared for, Powell said.
U.S. commanders took every precaution by using protective clothing, chemical detectors and alarms, he said.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat, questioned whether U.S. troops could have been harmed by experimental drugs and vaccines that were used to guard some of the soldiers against the effects of chemical and biological weapons.
But there are few answers because Pentagon records do not indicate which soldiers got the vaccine, said Rockefeller, who sharply questioned the retired general on the drugs. Moreover, the senator said, some of the drugs were not effective and others would have been effective only if combined with two other drugs.
Powell acknowledged that it was an "especially difficult" decision to use experimental drugs. "We knew that they did not enjoy the level of approval that the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] normally gives to such drugs for mass consumption."
But Powell said the FDA gave its "full assurance" that they were safe for human use.
At the same time, Powell said the information he received from the Pentagon indicates the drugs were effective against the expected threats, such as nerve agents.
But Rockefeller said that view is counter to what he has learned about the drugs and their effectiveness against chemical and biological threats.
"General Powell, that makes you unique in the world that I have dealt with over the past four years on this subject," Rockefeller said.
"Sir, I think, rather than making me unique, what we should do is get the people who are the medical experts to put out a statement," Powell said.
Pub Date: 4/18/97