Investigation into Kuwaiti Girls' School ends

WASHINGTON, September 13, 2001 (GulfLINK) - An unidentified liquid discovered in a storage tank near a girls' school in Kuwait City shortly after the 1991 Gulf War was not a chemical warfare agent, the Department of Defense concluded in its final version of the "Kuwaiti Girls' School" case narrative released today. The report describes how multi-national investigators determined that the tank, left behind by retreating Iraqi forces, contained nitric acid, most likely inhibited red fuming nitric acid - IRFNA - a well-known component of the missile fuel used to power Iraq's Scud ballistic and Seersucker anti-ship missiles.

Originally released as a joint United States and United Kingdom interim report in 1998, the final Kuwaiti Girls' School case narrative officially marks the end of DoD's investigation of this incident. Since publishing the interim report, neither the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness, and Military Deployments nor the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence has received new information that changes the narrative's assessment about the absence of chemical warfare agents.

"This case was a milestone because it established the model for cooperation between our two countries' Gulf War investigations," said Dr. Michael E. Kilpatrick, chief of staff for the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness and Military Deployments. "The Minister of Defence and DoD developed an outstanding collaborative relationship that allowed us to definitely determine that chemical warfare agents were not present at the Kuwaiti Girls' School and that the storage tank actually contained nitric acid, most likely IRFNA."

After the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi forces commandeered many civilian properties to house personnel and store and maintain equipment. One of these was a school then known locally as the Al Badawiyah Girls' Sciences School. Iraq used the school and its grounds for testing and maintaining Seersucker missiles. The school and its grounds were also used in storing the missiles and the associated support equipment, parts and liquid fuel components. When the eventual outcome of the war became apparent, Iraq's forces abandoned their ad hoc facilities in Kuwait, leaving behind significant stores of weapons and supplies whose removal would have slowed escape.

"Iraq used the school as a Seersucker missile test and maintenance facility," said Bill Voelkner, one of the analysts investigating the incident at the Kuwaiti Girls' School. "During recovery operations immediately following the Gulf War, Coalition forces recovered six Seersucker missiles and various support equipment from the school."

In August 1991, a storage tank found outside the school wall was thought to contain chemical warfare agent. Following the discovery, elements of U.S. and United Kingdom forces tested the contents of the tank, analysts say. The results were inconsistent; some resulted in a positive reading for mustard agent while another resulted in a positive reading for phosgene, a choking agent. Other tests were inconclusive.

Initial on site testing of the contents of the storage tank fell to the British 21st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron. The commander conducted reconnaissance and used four testing methods: a chemical agent monitor, a U.K. one-color detector paper, a U.S. three-color detector paper and an M18A2 chemical agent detector kit.

Readings in the first test with a chemical agent monitor gave the highest possible reading for mustard agent. However, results of the second test using the U.K. one-color detector paper were negative. In the third test using the U.S. three-color detector paper, the results were inconclusive. The final test, made with an M18A2 chemical agent detector kit, was also inconclusive.

Based on the results of the M18A2 kit tests, the strong chemical agent monitor indication, and the equivocal results obtained with the U.S. detector paper, the commander reported that the tank probably contained mustard agent.

During a meeting the day after the first tests, the chief of staff for the American Task Force Victory suggested using the Fox nuclear, biological and chemical reconnaissance vehicles assigned to the U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment to conduct additional testing for chemical warfare agents. Unlike the chemical agent monitors and chemical detection kits that can test for a few agents or groups of agents, the Fox has a computerized, mobile mass spectrometer that can identify 60 known chemical warfare agents. The use of Fox vehicles was approved, and the U.S. 54th Chemical Troop was tasked to support the British 21st EOD Squadron in further testing.

On August 9, 1991, the joint U.S. and U.K. testing team conducted the second series of tests. Two Fox vehicles were used and each conducted its own testing with no communication between the vehicles to avoid possible biasing. The first Fox initially alarmed for phosgene. The Fox crew repeated the test with the same result. The crew ran a full spectrum printout to confirm the results and printed these to a hardcopy tape. The second Fox alarmed for phosgene and also mustard agent. The crew conducted a full spectrum analysis again to confirm the results and printed tapes of these results.

Additionally, in two separate instances, small amounts of the liquid accidentally penetrated chemical protective gear. Medical treatment was required - the injuries were treated with a topical cream. These injuries were inconsistent for exposure to either phosgene or mustard agent.

The spectrum printouts on the Fox tapes from both vehicles revealed that the mobile mass spectrometer could not identify the liquid from the tank and assigned it an unknown reading. Because both sets of tapes clearly show the unknown substance as predominant, the alarms for phosgene and mustard were not a definitive indication that chemical warfare agent was present. The Fox tapes were faxed to the U.S. Army Chemical Research, Development and Engineering Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., for analysis.

A third operation was mounted to secure samples for detailed analysis at the Chemical and Biological Defense Establishment, Porton Down, U.K. Rather than reopen the storage tank, the sampling team opted to collect samples from those already taken. The first collection attempt failed when the team members injected the unknown liquid into a pre-prepared storage tube containing an adsorbent resin. The liquid reacted violently breaking both the storage tube and the syringe. A modified collection method was used and two samples were successfully obtained.

The sampling team leader believes that nitric acid reacted with the adsorbent, giving off a gas that caused an overpressure in the first, sealed collection tube. He also reported that the liquid was of very low viscosity unlike mustard agent, which is similar to motor oil. This, and the nature of the injuries incurred in the previous testing activities, led him to surmise that he was dealing with a very powerful acid. After conferring with colleagues in Bahrain, he believed the liquid might be fuming nitric acid.

On September 24, 1991, Chemical and Biological Defense Establishment Porton Down released its analysis report of the liquid samples. The analysis revealed that the samples were "entirely consistent with the contents being nitric acid and there is no evidence of any CW [chemical warfare] dimension." These results were passed to officials in Kuwait who began preparations for disposing of the storage tank and its contents.

The matter was considered concluded until 1994 when a Senate committee investigating allegations of chemical agent use in the Gulf War was made aware of the events at the Kuwaiti Girls' School. The committee focused on three points: the validity of the tests run, the nature of the material in question and the injuries to the British soldiers during testing. Based upon the evidence presented before them, the committee concluded it was likely the tank contained a mix of chemical warfare agents.

"Based on information available to date, our assessment is that the tank did not contain chemical warfare agents, but instead contained nitric acid, most likely inhibited red fuming nitric acid, or IRFNA," continued Voelkner.

DoD argued that the Fox tapes and the British test results established that the liquid in the storage tank was IRFNA, not chemical warfare agent. However, DoD could not produce the Fox tapes at the time and misinterpreted some of the data provided by Chemical and Biological Defense Establishment Porton Down which damaged the credibility of the testimony. Additionally, the information provided by Chemical and Biological Defense Establishment Porton Down and DoD was dated 1994, and the Senate committee raised the concern that these post-event reports may have been biased.

Mounting public awareness and questions about the incident prompted the U.S. and U.K. governments to conduct a joint review of events surrounding the discovery, testing and disposal of the storage tank. Investigators from the U.S. Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness and Military Deployments and the U.K. Gulf Veterans' Illness Unit worked in conjunction to uncover the answers. The top priority was obtaining contemporary (1991) information about the testing and analysis of the liquid in the tank. The investigation included interviewing 30 people who were directly involved with the discovery, investigation and disposal of the tank in 1991 and coordination with 13 U.K. and 15 U.S. government agencies, the United Nations, the government of Kuwait and three non-government organizations.

"During the investigation, we uncovered information that was not known to either the Senate committee or the Presidential Advisory Committee," continued Voelkner. "This case narrative brings together, probably for the first time, many of the facts known only to a select few and gives us a better idea of what was actually in the tank."

The DoD also tested the Fox vehicle with red fuming nitric acid - RFNA - to determine if the same type of alarms would occur. Inhibited red fuming nitric acid - IRFNA - has an inhibiting agent to impede its corrosive nature, RFNA does not. The Fox tested with RFNA alarmed for cyclosarin but not mustard or phosgene as in 1991. However, the differences in the formulation of IRFNA and RFNA, as well as possible contamination of the samples taken at the school due to the IRFNA-caused corrosion of the sampling tube and plungers used in collection, readily account for the different type of alarm. The spectrum generated from these tests registered a predominantly unknown substance, just like those taken at the school in 1991. This unknown substance had an atomic mass unit 46 at 100 percent relative intensity which is reflective of RFNA.

In July 1997, the U.K. Ministry of Defence became aware that DoD could not find its copies of the original 1991 Fox tapes. CBDE Porton Down provided copies of the tapes which had been sent with the liquid samples in 1991. When examined in the U.S., the tapes revealed a match between the detection algorithm from the 1997 RFNA tests and the algorithm derived from the 1991 Fox tapes. There was no evidence in the 1991 tapes of either of the two chemical warfare agents - mustard and phosgene -were believed to have caused the Fox alarms in Kuwait. These results were confirmed through additional analysis by Bruker Daltonics, the manufacturer of the Fox vehicle mobile mass spectrometer, the Edgewood Research, Development and Engineering Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Edgewood, Md., and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The long process to determine just what was in the storage tank behind the Kuwaiti Girls' School was complicated by the multi-jurisdictional nature of the original testing and analyses. In addition, none of the individuals and parties involved had all of the information at any time. Conflicting test results and eyewitness testimony further obscured the ultimate facts. Eventually, the cooperative efforts of U.S. and UK government agencies brought all of the evidence to light, including the contemporary analyses and the revelation that Iraq had used the school as a Seersucker missile testing and maintenance site. The physical and circumstantial evidence conclusively pointed to nitric acid, most likely IRFNA, in the storage tank.