(CNN) — The U.S. government suppressed information about chemical weapons it found in Iraq, and several servicemembers were injured by their exposure to those weapons, The New York Times is reporting.
In an article published late Tuesday, the newspaper says it found 17 American servicemembers and seven Iraqi police officers who were exposed to mustard or nerve agents after 2003. They were reportedly given inadequate care and told not to talk about what happened.
“From 2004 to 2011, American and American-trained Iraqi troops repeatedly encountered, and on at least six occasions were wounded by, chemical weapons remaining from years earlier in Saddam Hussein’s rule.
“In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and American officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
“The United States had gone to war declaring it must destroy an active weapons of mass destruction program. Instead, American troops gradually found and ultimately suffered from the remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West,” the newspaper reported.
It quoted a former Army sergeant who suffered mustard burns in 2007 and was reportedly denied hospital treatment.
“I felt more like a guinea pig than a wounded soldier,” he told the Times.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby on Wednesday addressed the allegations at a press briefing in Washington.
When asked whether injured U.S. servicemembers were denied treatment, or told to keep quiet, he said he couldn’t speak to “what guidance or decisions their unit commanders or medical staff may have given them at the time.”
He added: “I just don’t have that level of detail. This happened a long time ago and it was on an individual basis.”
Kirby estimated that about 20 U.S. servicemembers were exposed to material from chemical munitions, from around the mid-2000s to 2010 or 2011.
“The Secretary’s expectation is that servicemembers and their families are going to get the care and support that they need, and if they aren’t, he wants to make sure that leadership address that,” Kirby said about U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“But this is an issue for their chains of command to deal with, leadership at all levels to deal with. There’s no need for — and I don’t expect that there’s going to be — a Pentagon-level review of these particular cases,” Kirby said.
The newspaper suggested several reasons why the U.S. government might have wanted to suppress the chemical weapons finds.
For one, in five of the six cases 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,” the newspaper reported.
For another, the weapons were old — made before 1991 — and therefore did not back up U.S. intelligence that at the time suggested Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program.
“In case after case, participants said, analysis of these warheads and shells reaffirmed intelligence failures. First, the American government did not find what it had been looking for at the war’s outset, then it failed to prepare its troops and medical corps for the aged weapons it did find,” the Times reported.