U.S. kept discovery of abandoned chemical weapons secret

Soldiers in protective gear, including Staff. Sgt. Eric Duling and Spc. Andrew Goldman, examined unexploded munitions near Camp Taji, Iraq, in August 2008. Attempting to remove a shell, Duling and Goldman were exposed to chemical warfare agents. Both men say the secrecy surrounding the incident has undermined their medical care.

The soldiers sensed something was wrong. They had just exploded buried old Iraqi artillery shells, an effort to destroy munitions that could be used in makeshift bombs. The 2008 blast uncovered more shells.

Spc. Andrew Goldman and another technician stepped into the crater. He noticed a pungent odor he’d never smelled. As he lifted a shell, oily paste oozed from a crack.“That doesn’t look like pond water,” said his team leader, Staff Sgt. Eric Duling.
Goldman swabbed the shell with chemical detection paper. It turned red, indicating sulfur mustard, the chemical warfare agent designed to burn a victim’s airway, skin and eyes.

All three men recall an awkward pause. Then Duling gave an order: Get out.

Five years after President George W. Bush sent troops into Iraq, these soldiers had entered a largely secret chapter of America’s long and bitter involvement in Iraq.

From 2004 to 2011, U.S. and Iraqi troops repeatedly encountered chemical weapons remaining from Saddam Hussein’s rule. On at least six occasions, troops were wounded by the weapons.

In all, U.S. troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and U.S. officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

These encounters carry worrisome implications now that the Islamic State, an al-Qaeda splinter group, controls much of the territory where the weapons were found.


The United States had gone to war declaring it must destroy an active weapons of mass destruction program. Instead, U.S. 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 U.S. service members and seven Iraqi police officers who were exposed to nerve or mustard agents after 2003. U.S. 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 U.S. encounters with chemical weapons in Iraq was neither publicly shared nor widely circulated within the military.

The U.S. 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.

“I felt more like a guinea pig than a wounded soldier,” said a former Army sergeant who suffered mustard burns in 2007 and was denied hospital treatment and medical evacuation to the United States despite requests from his commander.
Congress, too, was only partly informed, while troops and officers were instructed to be silent or give deceptive accounts of what they had found.

“‘Nothing of significance’ is what I was ordered to say,” said Jarrod Lampier, a recently retired Army major who was present for the largest chemical weapons discovery of the war: more than 2,400 nerve-agent rockets unearthed in 2006 at a former Republican Guard compound.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, declined to address specific incidents detailed in the 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 Hagel expected the services to address any shortcomings.

“The secretary believes all service members deserve the best medical and administrative support possible. He is, of course, concerned by any indication or allegation they have not received such support,” Kirby said. “His expectation is that leaders at all levels will strive to correct errors made, when and where they are made.”

As Iraq has been shaken anew by violence, and past security gains have collapsed amid Sunni-Shiite bloodletting and the rise of the Islamic State, this long-hidden chronicle illuminates the persistent risks of the country’s abandoned chemical weapons.
Many chemical weapons incidents clustered around the ruins of the Muthanna State Establishment, the center of Iraqi chemical agent production in the 1980s.

Remaining rockets

Since June, the compound has been held by the Islamic State, the world’s most radical and violent jihadist group. In a letter sent to the United Nations this summer, the Iraqi government said that about 2,500 corroded chemical rockets remained on the grounds, and that Iraqi officials had witnessed intruders looting equipment before militants shut down the surveillance cameras.

The U.S. government says the abandoned weapons no longer pose a threat. But nearly a decade of wartime experience showed that old Iraqi chemical munitions often remained dangerous when repurposed for local attacks in makeshift bombs, as insurgents did starting in 2004.

Participants in the chemical weapons discoveries said the U.S. suppressed knowledge of finds for multiple reasons, including that the government bristled at further acknowledgment it had been wrong about Hussein having an active weapons program.
Others pointed to another embarrassment. In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.

Nonproliferation officials said the Pentagon’s handling of many of the recovered warheads and shells appeared to violate the Convention on Chemical Weapons. According to this convention, chemical weapons must be secured, reported and destroyed in an exacting and time-consuming fashion.

The Pentagon did not follow the steps, but says that it adhered to the convention’s spirit.

“These suspect weapons were recovered under circumstances in which prompt destruction was dictated by the need to ensure that the chemical weapons could not threaten the Iraqi people, neighboring states, coalition forces, or the environment,” said Jennifer Elzea, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

The convention, she added, “did not envisage the conditions found in Iraq.”

Nonetheless, several participants said the U.S. lost track of chemical weapons that its troops found, left large caches unsecured, and did not warn people — Iraqis and foreign troops alike — as it hastily exploded chemical ordnance in the open air.

C.J. Chivers,
The New York Times