The Second Operation - Conclusions of the Fox Vehicle Testing

At the end of this operation the tank was assessed to contain a chemical agent which tests had indicated as being a mixture of mustard and phosgene agents. Both sets of Fox tapes indicated an alarm for phosgene, not phosgene oxime, and one also indicated mustard. The phosgene alarm was, however, inconsistent with the agent’s known characteristics. Phosgene is a choking agent that produces pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) in those exposed to it. It is transported as a liquid and has a boiling point of 7.5 C (45.5 F). This means it would be a gas, not a liquid in the desert heat. It has a characteristic odor of sweet, newly mown hay. During World War I, shells filled with vaporized phosgene produced a white cloud which spontaneously converted to a colorless, low-lying gas.[108] The relatively low boiling point of phosgene makes its presence in the tank, which had been fuming for over four months in a desert environment, at temperatures up to 50 C implausible. Furthermore, phosgene’s the characteristics did not match the odor and color of the substance in the tank. Likewise, the injury sustained by Major Watkinson was in no way similar to that of a pulmonary agent. Finally, Iraq was not known to have phosgene in its chemical weapons inventory.[109]

As neither mustard nor phosgene would have produced immediate symptoms as this had upon contact with the Lance Corporal in charge of the EPDS, Captain Johnson questioned the identification of the substance. Based on the immediacy of reaction and the burning sensation, Captain Johnson concluded in his report of January 4, 1994 that phosgene oxime was the likely content.[110] Phosgene oxime causes a corrosive type of skin and tissue lesion. It is not a true vesicant, since it does not cause blisters. The vapor is extremely irritating and upon contact, both the vapor and solid cause immediate burning and irritation, followed by wheal-like skin lesions and eye and airway damage. Phosgene oxime is a solid at temperatures below 95 degrees F, and vaporizes at temperatures greater than 95 degrees F (39 C).[111]

Captain Johnson recently stated that representatives from his unit were unable thoroughly to review the Fox tapes to confirm the presence of chemical warfare agent or any other substance because Lieutenant Colonel Killgore ordered that the Fox tapes be released to him.[112] According to Lieutenant Colonel Killgore who had previous Fox training, the tapes indicated the presence of phosgene and mustard but not phosgene oxime.[113] Not having reviewed the tapes himself, Captain Johnson was unaware that the Fox vehicles did not register an alarm for phosgene oxime.

The spectra on both sets of Fox tapes indicated a predominant unknown substance in the tank.[114] Because the spectra clearly showed this unknown substance as predominant, the alarms for phosgene and mustard were not a definitive indication that chemical warfare agent was present. The Fox vehicle’s mobile mass spectrometer works in such a way that it is pre-programmed to search and alarm for known chemical warfare agents including phosgene and mustard. Since IRFNA is not a chemical warfare agent and is not recorded in the mobile mass spectrometer’s library, the Fox could not positively identify it. The mobile mass spectrometer is programmed so that if a substance is detected that is not in its library it will assign it an unknown reading, which duly appeared on both sets of tapes.[115]

Figure 16. Ammunition box containing samples of material in tank[116]

American and British soldiers’ noted that their gloves became warm and softened after contact with the material from the tank. This caused concern because there is no known chemical warfare agent capable of breaking down the glove’s material.[117] According to Major Watkinson:

"…[the British] Sergeant reported afterwards that he had to come out of the immediate area of contamination to change his gloves. This was as a result of gross contamination on his gloves, and he noted that the gloves started warming up. The implication was that the chemical was reacting with his NBC gloves. He did the obvious and sensible thing, which was to decontaminate them and to exchange them. This again was one of several indications that caused me a little concern, because this chemical that we were dealing with seemed to firstly penetrate NBC cloth, or the cloth of our NBC suit and secondly, in the case of gross contamination it seemed to react with our NBC gloves. If the chemical had been mustard gas, the NBC gloves should have provided sufficient protection and this was another factor that caused doubt about the chemical in the tank being Mustard."[118]

The American Sergeant in the hot line stated that the only conclusion he drew from the condition of his protective gloves was that, "there may have been some acid mixed in the tank."[119] In truth, if IRFNA was present in the tank, then mustard agent could not have been present, because IRFNA would have reacted with it. According to the US Army’s Program Manager for NBC Defense Systems, "The presence of chemical [warfare] agents, especially HD [sulfur mustard] in [red fuming nitric acid] RFNA[120] is extremely unlikely. Prior to 1980, RFNA was [apparently] the decontamination material of choice, both in laboratory and HD production facilities."[121]

The Second Operation - Subsequent Activity

According to Captain Johnson, all US forces, with the exception of the 54th, departed the area after the Fox tapes were taken. On orders, the 54th Chemical Troop secured the area until military police arrived.[122] In the interim, the 54th conducted its after action review; recounting events and evaluating operational procedure and equipment functioning. British forces were still active in the area and soldiers from 21st EOD Squadron were detailed to provide a guard on the tank and ammunition box to ensure that the samples in the ammunition box were not tampered with or removed.[123]

During the 54th’s review several unidentified individuals reportedly approached the tank. Captain Johnson stated that they were located 100-150 meters away and did not approach these individuals because they had already processed through the British command point.[124] They were reportedly Caucasian, wearing desert camouflage uniforms with no noticeable markings or patches. When the men approached the tank, Captain Johnson assumed that they were there to collect the samples. From his vantage point, he was unable to view the men’s actions fully.[125] In fact, the samples were not taken away by anyone that day. None of the British forces present that day can recall this incident or any individuals as described by Captain Johnson having passed through the British command point.

However, it is highly likely that these individuals were actually British soldiers from 21st EOD Squadron. Unlike US Army units, the British Army does not tend to mark combat jackets with unit insignia. Unit markings, as a rule, are limited to beret badges. In the Gulf these were often substituted for camouflage cloth caps without markings. Officers wear subdued rank markings on their sleeves. At a distance of 100 to 150 meters it would be difficult to see these rank markings. Enlisted soldiers, with the possible exception of a name tag on the left breast, do not wear any markings. It is entirely possible, therefore, that what Captain Johnson saw was in fact British servicemen from 21st EOD Squadron carrying out their normal duties.

Several hours later, Task Force Victory military police arrived and the 54th returned to Camp Doha. They were debriefed by the Squadron Commander and the Regimental Commander.[126] The Regimental Commander indicated that he was briefed that the 54th Chemical Troop had detected chemical warfare agents in the tank.[127] These results were based on the Fox vehicle alarms. Since Lieutenant Colonel Killgore had taken the Fox tapes, these alarms could not be confirmed.

In reviewing the Fox tapes, Lieutenant Colonel Killgore noticed that there was considerable interference - meaning that the tapes did not give a clean analysis. Based on this interference, he decided that the tapes should be analyzed by a lab with more sophisticated capabilities.[128] Lieutenant Colonel Killgore also stated that he intended to maintain custody of at least one set of samples from the tank. However, because the substance might have been phosgene, he decided that the samples may be too volatile to store at headquarters and that it would be imprudent to transport a sample in his vehicle.[129] Instead, the samples remained in the ammunition box next to the tank. (Figure 16)

Upon returning to headquarters, Lieutenant Colonel Killgore contacted the Chemical Research, Development, and Engineering Center (CRDEC) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD. He faxed the Fox tapes, along with a brief paper describing the operation, to the CRDEC for analysis.[130] The CRDEC acknowledged receiving the tapes and conducting an analysis, but to date has not been able to locate copies of this fax or the subsequent analysis done at that time. Likewise, none of the US or UK elements in the Kuwait theater of operations interviewed acknowledged receiving the CRDEC’s analysis of the tapes.

On the evening of August 9, Major Watkinson contacted the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) cell in Bahrain and informed Colonel Macel. Colonel Macel informed Lieutenant Colonel Killgore that the UN would be inspecting the tank.[131] According to the Sampling Team Leader’s statement, when Major Watkinson contacted the Chemical Weapons Evaluation Team, they were still part of a UN mission. However, when they arrived at the school, they were acting on behalf of the Chemical and Biological Defense Establishment, Porton Down, UK; their mission on behalf of the UN had ended. Aside from the members of the Sampling Team, none of the individuals contacted were aware of this, and thus believed the team was acting on behalf of the UN. The UN denies any involvement in the testing of the tank or taking any of the samples. According to the UN:

"Although it is possible that the people involved in taking samples were at one time temporary UNSCOM inspectors, UNSCOM was not involved in the taking of samples from the tank at the [Kuwaiti] Girls School in Kuwait. Chemicals in Kuwait are clearly not part of UNSCOM’s purview although UNSCOM does have interest in the contents of the tank as they probably originated from Iraq."[132]

The Third Operation - Obtaining Sampling for Detailed Analysis

On August 10, 1991, four members of the Sampling Team met with British EOD personnel, Colonel Macel and Lieutenant Colonel Killgore at Beteal Camp, where 21st EOD Squadron was located. At the camp, Major Watkinson briefed them about the first and second operations; an officer with EOD experience from the Kuwaiti Army was present during this briefing.[133] They were then briefed by Lieutenant Colonel Killgore and were given a copy of the Fox tapes.[134] The Sampling Team stated that they would take custody of the samples and provide an analysis of the contents of the tank.[135] The Sampling Team then interviewed Major Watkinson, the BDO and BDENGER of the second operation and the injured British soldier.[136]

The Sampling Team, accompanied by Colonel Macel, Lieutenant Colonel Killgore, Major Watkinson and members of 21st EOD Squadron then traveled to the Kuwaiti Girls’ School to conduct the sampling operation.[137] It was decided that the Sampling Team would take their samples from the bottles stored in the ammunition box rather than reopening the tank. This was accepted by the Sampling Team because the ammunition box had been under 24-hour guard since the second operation to ensure that its contents were not tampered with in any way.[138] The Sampling Team Leader labeled four tubes from a Sampling and Identification of Biological and Chemical Agents (SIBCA) kit in sequential order. (TAB I) The tubes contained XAD-4 resin[139] which had been sent to the Gulf as a means of transporting samples of chemical warfare agents safely.[140]

The Sampling Team Leader, plus a member of his team and Major Watkinson donned full IPE. They approached the ammunition box carrying further equipment from the SIBCA kit. Using a glass syringe with a four-inch stainless steel internal tube, the two members of the Sampling Team withdrew a sample from one of the bottles within the ammunition box.[141] Major Watkinson stood back and observed this activity. The Sampling Team then selected one of the pre-prepared tubes containing XAD-4 resin at random and proceeded to inject the sample into it through the rubber seal.[142] The first sample reacted violently when introduced into the tube, breaking both the tube and the syringe.

This reaction had potentially exposed the two Sampling Team members to a small amount of liquid agent contamination. They therefore conducted personal decontamination using hypochlorite solution and fuller’s earth.[143] They then retired to the decontamination line to assess the events. The Sampling Team decided to remove the rubber seals from the screw top of the pre-prepared tubes so as to attempt to place further liquid samples onto the absorbent contained within them. On returning to the ammunition box this method proved successful and two samples were taken in this way.

The first successful samples were captured in tubes #1 and #3. Therefore, either tube #2 or #4 was broken. The remaining unbroken tube was never utilized.[144]

While Major Watkinson was observing the Sampling Team’s activities, he noticed that vapor was again leaking from the tank. Once the Sampling Team had completed its activities, Major Watkinson and a Lance Corporal from 21st EOD Squadron acting as BDENGR attempted to reseal the tank. The two members of the Sampling Team remained in IPE and observed Major Watkinson’s activities. He removed each seal and, as no silicone sealant was available, he used chewing gum (this had similar properties to silicone sealant) and plaster of paris to fashion new seals.[145] Major Watkinson, the BDENGR and the two members of the Sampling Team then returned to the dirty line and were decontaminated.

The samples taken by the Sampling Team were then sealed in suitable containers to ensure they could not be tampered with. (Figure 17) The Sampling Team Leader, Major Watkinson, and Colonel Macel then signed the seals. The remaining bottles of liquid agent stored in the ammunition box were sealed over to the US Military Police who were now guarding the site.[146]

At the end of this operation, the Sampling Team Leader advised that a guard be maintained on the tank pending advice on destruction from the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment (CBDE) Porton Down, UK. He stated that the samples his team had taken would be treated as forensic evidence and that they would be accompanied by a signatory at all times.[147] They would not be opened until they arrived at CBDE Porton Down, where the seals would be broken in front of witnesses.

Figure 17. Samples taken for further analysis in the UK[148]

The Third Operation - Conclusions

In his statement, the Sampling Team Leader noted that:

"The original sample we were trying to take was onto an adsorbent, which is designed to take up chemical weapon agents. My theory, to which I still adhere, is that the nitric acid components reacted very quickly with the adsorbents and they gave off a gas, which just gave an enormous overpressure. So, the overpressure actually exploded the syringe. Chemical weapon agents in general are not actually very reactive chemicals. They have specific organic receptors on which they have their effect. So, they're not reactive. Our sampling kit was designed to deal with CW agents, which, as I say, are not reactive, whereas, this of course was obviously a very reactive chemical."[149]

Additional factors led the Sampling Team Leader to question the likelihood of this material being chemical warfare agent. According to him:

"In addition, my description of the liquid in the bottle was that it was of very low viscosity. Mustard is a very high viscosity liquid, similar to an engine oil. On top of that, of course I had the descriptions of the injuries that [the British soldier] and Major Watkinson had suffered, and these were again inconsistent with mustard derived burns, but were wholly consistent with a powerful acid, such as nitric."[150]

The sampling Team Leader did not discuss his views on the content of the tank with Major Watkinson or Colonel Macel.

However, once the Sampling Team Leader had had a chance to discuss the third operation with colleagues in Bahrain, he thought that the agent in the tank may be "fuming nitric acid".[151] This would be consistent with the use of similar tanks found in Iraq and may account for the detection of mustard agent by some of the detection equipment used during the first two operations. These points are recorded in the Sampling Team Leader’s post-operational report, but this was not copied to Major Watkinson or Colonel Macel at the time.

The Third Operation - Subsequent Events

After the conclusion of the third operation, the samples taken by the Sampling Team were flown back to Bahrain in the custody of the Sampling Team. There they were eventually handed over to a member of the UK Consulate while efforts were made to secure their passage to CBDE Porton Down, UK.[152] As mentioned above, the samples were treated as forensic evidence. Each person to whom the samples were transferred had to sign a custody sheet and ensure that there was no opportunity for the samples to be tampered with in any way.[153]

Meanwhile, 21st EOD Squadron regularly inspected the seals on the tank to ensure there was no further leakage.[154] On August 12, 1991 an inspection found that one of the seals had failed. The continued failure of the seals was probably due to the high temperature and the build up of vapor pressure inside the tank. According to Major Watkinson:

"Although we'd done lots of testing, we still hadn't fulfilled our original mission, which was to stop the vapor coming out of the tank. The various seals [used] should have been fairly robust. This again raised question marks. What appeared to be happening was that vapor pressure was building up inside the sealed container, which was pressurizing the seals and bursting them. I wouldn't have anticipated that this would occur with mustard gas, which is essentially not volatile and is quite oily. So, the chemical seemed to have quite a high vapor pressure, which was surprising."[155]

Major Watkinson therefore tasked the Commanding Officer (CO) of 3rd Troop 21 EOD Squadron, British Royal Engineers to seal the tank again so that it would be suitable for transportation should this be required.[156] Also, as two people had received minor injuries (Major Watkinson and another British soldier) during the first two operations, British Forces were concerned as to whether their IPE could provide adequate protection against the agent in the tank. Major Watkinson therefore tasked the CO of 3rd Troop to conduct tests on the British Mk IV NBC suit using the remaining liquid agent stored in the ammunition box. [157] Once these tests had been conducted he was instructed to dispose of any remaining liquid in the bottles for security reasons. The tank itself was deemed too large for anybody to remove.

This operation was slightly delayed in order to allow time for the fabrication of lead dowel plugs. These plugs were machine-tapered pieces of lead that were designed to fit the two bullet holes in the tank.[158]

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