7 June 1998
Source: Hardcopy The New York Times, June 7, 1998, p. A6.
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
Just before the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the American military discovered that Iraqi soldiers captured in a covert operation had immunity to deadly anthrax, heightening fears in Washington that Baghdad was preparing to wage germ warfare, a new book says.
The book, "Against All Enemies: Gulf War Syndrome: The War Between America's Ailing Veterans and Their Government" (Ballantine) by Seymour M. Hersh, says the secret finding of Iraqi immunity played a role in accelerating the Pentagon's crash program to vaccinate American troops against anthrax before the war.
Ultimately, some 150,000 coalition soldiers were immunized against the disease. Anthrax normally afflicts animals like cattle and sheep, but it can kill humans.
The death rate for untreated pulmonary anthrax is more than 90 percent. Pentagon officials feared an Iraqi germ attack could kill up to 200,000 American troops, the book says.
Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, setting off an international crisis. In February 1991, an American-led coalition expelled Iraqi troops in a ground war that saw no known use of biological weapons.
Mr. Hersh, an investigative journalist, says in the book that an elite American team penetrated deep into Iraq before the war and kidnapped several Iraqi soldiers.
"It's pretty well known, but not the specifics," said Jim Brown, an Army veteran who lives in Hannibal, Mo., and is director of Gulf Watch, a veterans advocacy group.
"It was actively going on behind Iraqi lines," said a retired military official, who held a senior post during the gulf war and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In the book, Mr. Hersh says blood samples drawn from the captured Iraqi troops showed "they had recently built up an immunity to anthrax," one of the deadliest agents for biological warfare.
The Pentagon was uncertain, he added, whether the Iraqis had been inoculated with anthrax vaccine or had developed a natural immunity to the disease, which occurs in animal populations in parts of Iraq.
"Military planning had to assume the worst-case scenario--that the Iraqis would not be affected by a biological attack," he wrote.
A formerly secret document declassified in 1996 by the Army, a chronology of germ actions and analyses during the gulf war, suggests that Pentagon officials were deeply interested in Iraqi blood samples and what they might reveal about Baghdad's preparations for germ warfare. The document was recently obtained by The New York Times from Veterans for Integrity in Government, a group based in Centreville, Va.
"Defectors from Iraqi Republican Guards still in custody of Saudis," the document says in a note dated Nov. 21. 1990 -- before the war. "Blood would reveal types and strains of BW agents they have been protected against," the "BW" referring to biological warfare.
In the late 1980's, American military and intelligence officials gathered much circumstantial evidence that Iraq had embarked on a large program to make germ weapons, but the intelligence was generally vague. In the months before the gulf war, American officials were unsure whether Iraq was ready and willing to use germ weapons. Thus, at least in theory, the blood samples offered key evidence of Iraq's intentions.