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2015 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Large Newsroom finalist

The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons

 

About the Project

In the decade since the United States invaded Iraq, hundreds of books and countless articles have been written about America’s long and unhappy war. It is hard to imagine that in 2014, so many years and so many words later, there were any secrets left to reveal.

But C. J. Chivers, a seasoned war correspondent who has made himself an expert on global munitions, revealed one remaining secret of the war, a shameful chapter long buried by the Pentagon, hidden from Congress and concealed from the American public.

The United States government had for years suppressed one stunning fact: While American troops never found an active program of weapons ­of mass­ destruction, they instead found — and greatly suffered from — long­-abandoned chemical weapons: nyti.ms/1EVJYeW.

The Pentagon covered it up. Thousands of troops dispatched to Iraq were unaware of the danger they faced. Congress was misled, medical care was denied and soldiers were refused the honors and recognition they deserved for battlefield injuries.

Mr. Chivers, a former Marine who has embraced multimedia storytelling from war zones such as Syria and Ukraine, partnered with a team of reporters, graphics editors, interactive news designers and videographers to tell this hidden story of the Iraq war.

His narrative included online annotations, digital illustrations and authoritative infographics. The Times published online the detailed primary source materials Mr. Chivers used in his investigation, making accessible that which the Pentagon tried to hide: nyti.ms/1DaHTKr.

The Pentagon did not challenge a single fact or finding in Mr. Chivers’s report. Not a word. To the contrary, it quickly promised to review all of its actions and provide its soldiers with appropriate care and recognition.

The New York Times also chronicled this process online, providing a level of transparency that was dangerously lacking until we first reported the story: nyti.ms/1IikXhP.

Mr. Chivers’s stunning report shook up even those long cynical about the war in Iraq. The irrefutable 13-­minute video interviewing American and Iraqi soldiers, showing the discovery of chemical munitions and spelling out the medical consequences of chemical wounds, was undeniably compelling: nyti.ms/1rtCci3.

Much as Mr. Chivers’s reporting provided a microphone for soldiers who suffered wounds but were brushed aside by the military, our continued coverage of the issue online allowed other injured soldiers to come forward. The veracity of The Times’s reporting and the specificity of its digital presentation made a story hidden for so long impossible to ignore.

Two weeks after The Times’s report, the Pentagon said at least 25 American troops appeared to have been injured. A week later the Pentagon dropped a bomb: It conceded that 600 troops may have been exposed to chemical weapons: nyti.ms/1dMZeBX.

The full impact of The Times’s reporting was evident in March when the under secretary of the Army, Brad R. Carson, apologized, acknowledged that the military failed to follow its own policies, and announced new steps to provide medical support to those with lingering health effects and to recognize veterans who had been denied awards: nyti.ms/1HHl2r9.