Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Why that New York Times story about chemical weapons in Iraq is important

I didn’t see what the big deal was about the New York Times story on chemical weapons in Iraq, mainly because in ’03-’04 everyone there knew there was lots of old stuff lying around, a fact that later was discussed in some Pentagon documents. Here’s a note from my friend Alex Horton explaining why he ...

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U.S. Government
U.S. Government

I didn't see what the big deal was about the New York Times story on chemical weapons in Iraq, mainly because in '03-'04 everyone there knew there was lots of old stuff lying around, a fact that later was discussed in some Pentagon documents.

Here's a note from my friend Alex Horton explaining why he thinks it is significant:

"The story says old chem rounds in caches were a known and communicated threat in 2004, so yes, you're partially right. But the briefings stopped after that, and situational awareness eroded as new units rotated in. Ismay was an EOD officer and had no idea that these rounds were already turning up by the hundreds and wounding several folks by the time he arrived in the surge era. My platoon was never made aware of this threat despite our deep dive into a lot of caches, including artillery rounds. I would not even know how to deal with mustard exposure. It wasn't something we trained for or thought about. We didn't keep any NBC equipment on our trucks or kit. We would've been totally screwed had this happened to us in the field.

I didn’t see what the big deal was about the New York Times story on chemical weapons in Iraq, mainly because in ’03-’04 everyone there knew there was lots of old stuff lying around, a fact that later was discussed in some Pentagon documents.

Here’s a note from my friend Alex Horton explaining why he thinks it is significant:

"The story says old chem rounds in caches were a known and communicated threat in 2004, so yes, you’re partially right. But the briefings stopped after that, and situational awareness eroded as new units rotated in. Ismay was an EOD officer and had no idea that these rounds were already turning up by the hundreds and wounding several folks by the time he arrived in the surge era. My platoon was never made aware of this threat despite our deep dive into a lot of caches, including artillery rounds. I would not even know how to deal with mustard exposure. It wasn’t something we trained for or thought about. We didn’t keep any NBC equipment on our trucks or kit. We would’ve been totally screwed had this happened to us in the field.

Not to mention the rescinded Purple Hearts, skeptical VA doctors who never heard of chemical weapon injuries, and DoD revealing the number of wounded as over 600 only after this story came out. I feel like I follow Iraq news and issues more than the average person, and I didn’t know any of that. 

Besides, this story isn’t about the weapons, as I noted, but their effect on our guys. And I really don’t think anyone in journalism or government knew the scope of those effects until this story."

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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