In early August 1991, personnel from Passive Barriers Limited, a British explosive ordnance firm, discovered a storage tank believed to contain chemical warfare agent next to the perimeter wall of the Kuwaiti Girls' School in Kuwait City, Kuwait. Witnesses described the tank as emitting brown vapors through two bullet holes in the tank. Initial field tests suggested the possible presence of mustard agent, but the results were inconclusive. American and British military personnel conducted four operations in August 1991 to determine if the tank contained chemical warfare agent and to permanently seal the holes in the tank.
Major Jonathan Watkinson, commander of the 21st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron, British Royal Engineers, commanded joint British and American operations to identify the contents of the tank. He used several types of chemical warfare agent detection equipment including a Chemical Agent Monitor, both one- and three-color chemical warfare agent detector papers, and an M18A2 chemical warfare agent detection kit. The Chemical Agent Monitor registered 8 bars, a positive result, for mustard agent. The chemical warfare agent detector papers and the M18A2 kit produced inconclusive results. After Major Watkinson's initial tests, two Fox nuclear, biological, and chemical reconnaissance vehicles sent to the girls' school initially alerted for the possible presence of the chemical warfare agents mustard and phosgene. MM-1 initial alerts, however, do not verify the presence of chemical warfare agents. The Fox crews took additional steps, known as spectrum analyses, that disproved the initial results of mustard and phosgene but indicated the presence of an unknown substance.
To confirm the presence or absence of chemical warfare agents in the tank, a British sampling team extracted liquid from the tank for laboratory analysis. The samples remained in the custody of the sampling team or an authorized individual until delivered to the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down, United Kingdom. The United Nations had designated the laboratory at Porton Down as a preeminent authority to analyze samples of chemical warfare agents sent from Iraq. Scientists at the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment produced an initial report on the laboratory analyses of the samples taken from the tank. Their 1991 initial report stated that the samples were consistent with the tank containing nitric acid and there was no evidence of any chemical warfare agent in the tank.
In 1994, the tank found at the Kuwaiti Girls' School became a focus of government and media scrutiny in the United States and the United Kingdom when veterans and the general public feared possible exposure of soldiers to chemical warfare agents. The American public and Gulf War veterans suspected Iraq's chemical warfare agent inventory could be a possible cause of reported undiagnosed illnesses in Gulf War veterans. A contemporary press article that appeared in the British newspaper, The Sunday Observer, reported the 1991 discovery of a container full of mustard agent in Kuwait City, Kuwait. The United States Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs launched an investigation to determine if in fact the tank contained a chemical warfare agent, thus possibly exposing military personnel. The Senate committee reviewed documentation and interviewed US military personnel who participated in the testing or sampling of the tank's contents at the Kuwaiti Girls' School. Although some of the initial results of Major Watkinson's field tests using various types of chemical detection equipment supported the Senate committee's conclusion that a chemical warfare agent may have been present in the tank, laboratory and Fox vehicle analysis did not. Despite the laboratory evidence to the contrary, the Senate committee disagreed with the Department of Defense and concluded publicly that chemical warfare agent had been present in the storage tank. In the United Kingdom, parliamentary questions born out of the US Senate committee's declaration have repeatedly been raised.
In 1997, the United States Department of Defense commenced a joint investigation with the Ministry of Defence in the United Kingdom. This investigation revealed new evidence confirming the tank did not contain a chemical warfare agent, but most likely contained nitric acid. This evidence included copies of the two Fox vehicles' MM-1 mobile mass spectrometer tapes produced at the tank site on August 9, 1991. Chemical experts at the Edgewood Research, Development, and Engineering Center, mass spectrum experts at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the manufacturer of the MM-1 mobile mass spectrometer all analyzed the mass spectrometer tapes produced at the tank site. They concluded definitively that the tank did not contain chemical warfare agent, but indicated the presence of nitric acid.
The liquid samples extracted from
the tank at the Kuwaiti Girls' School provide physical evidence that the tank did not
contain chemical warfare agent, but did contain nitric acid, most likely inhibited red
fuming nitric acid. We acknowledge that the tank probably did not contain pure nitric
acid, but more likely contained a mixture of nitric acid and other unknown substances or
contaminants as a result of exposure to the environment (for example, water, sand, and
pollutants). The tank emitted brown-colored fumes, indicating the tank contained red
fuming nitric acid, which is composed of nitric acid, water, and several forms of nitrogen
oxide. We also believe the tank contained an inhibitor due to the lack of corrosion of the
tank as described by eyewitnesses. However, because the liquid sample was not tested
specifically for an inhibitor, we cannot confirm with certainty what inhibitor, if any,
was in the tank. Therefore, we conclude that the tank contained nitric acid-most likely
inhibited red fuming nitric acid. This chemical is an oxidizer used in Seersucker missiles
that were maintained at the girls' school.
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