The Central Intelligence Agency worked with the U.S. military 10 years ago on a secret operation to purchase old Iraqi chemical weapons to ensure they didn't fall into the hands of terrorists and militant groups, according to The New York Times
Current and former officials told the newspaper that Operation Avarice was conducted from 2005-06. The U.S. government acquired and destroyed at least 400 Borak rockets, some with the active nerve agent sarin, which was one of the condemned chemical weapons of Saddam Hussein's regime that went unaccounted for by United Nations inspectors.
The U.S. government used a sole secretive Iraqi seller and consider the program a nonproliferation success, the Times reported. It is not publicly known how much the government paid for the rockets, and military officials say they did not know the identity of the seller, who was a CIA source.
"Without speaking to any specific programs, it is fair to say that together with our coalition partners in Iraq, the U.S. military worked diligently to find and remove weapons that could be used against our troops and the Iraqi people," Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement, according to the Times, but refused to get more specific about the program.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Richard Zahner, who was the top American military intelligence officer in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, said he was not aware of any other intelligence program as successful in diminishing the chemical weapons stockpile that remained after the Iraqi invasion.
"This was a timely and effective initiative by our national intelligence partners that negated the use of these unique munitions," he told the Times.
However, the presence of chemical weapons — stemming from Iraq's war with Iran in the 1980s — is newly disclosed information. It was not shared with the public or troops at the time, supporting claims by veterans that during the war the military was not forthcoming about the risks of chemical exposure and did not have an adequate medical system for treating possible victims.
According to the Times, American troops were exposed to chemical weapons several times since 2006 and, in some cases, officers forbade victims of exposure to discuss what had occurred. The Pentagon has confirmed that hundreds of veterans have reported on health-screening forms that they believed they had been exposed to chemicals during the war.
"If we were aware of these compounds, and as it became clear over the course of the war that our troops had been exposed to them, why wasn't more done to protect the guys on the ground?" Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told the Times. "It speaks to the broader failure."
During the mission, the CIA worked with an Army intelligence battalion and chemical weapons specialists to meet with the seller and collect the warheads. Technicians would destroy them by detonating them, but some were taken for further testing and analysis.
The New York Times reported for the first time in October that during a seven-year time frame, from 2004 to 2011, soldiers serving in Iraq encountered the abandoned chemical weapons
, calling it "a largely secret chapter of America's long and bitter involvement in Iraq."
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