about Epidemiology & the department

Epidemiology academic information

Epidemiology faculty

Epidemilogy resources

sites of interest to Epidemiology professionals

Last Updated

29 May 2003

Source: Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2003


U.S. Concludes Iraqi Trailers Were Biological-Weapons Labs


WASHINGTON -- Two trailers the U.S. believes to be Iraqi production labs for biological weapons had an inefficient design and contained chemicals unrelated to making biological agents, according to an intelligence-agency report.

Yet their only plausible use was as mobile facilities for making biological agents, a month-long investigation by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded. That finding is based largely on the trailers' similarity to descriptions of mobile labs given by Iraqi defectors before the war. The major source of the information was a chemical engineer at the plant that operated the vehicles, CIA officials said.

The trailers are the only publicly disclosed possible evidence the U.S. has found in Iraq in its search for proof of Iraqi efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction -- a major justification for the U.S. invasion. U.S. officials have gone to considerable lengths to document their reasons for believing the trailers were meant for secret weapons work. The CIA made available several officials, including weapons experts with degrees in chemical engineering and microbiology, to explain the findings. Biological-weapons production "is the only consistent, logical purpose for these vehicles," the report says. It says the trailers, one of which had been looted, appear designed to produce slurries of bacteria, including anthrax and botulinum toxin. Officials said Iraq is believed to have other trailers for drying and processing the product into weapons-grade agents, but no such vehicles have been found.

Officials acknowledged it was possible the two trailers were never used to produce biological agents, and said they may have been idled to avoid detection. Investigators found no traces of biological agents on the vehicles. But a fermenter installed in one of the trailers was made in Iraq earlier this year, indicating work on the vehicles was under way even while United Nations weapons inspectors were in Iraq.

Iraqis questioned recently have told the U.S. that biological weapons were produced in Iraq from 1998 to as recently as six months before the U.S. invasion, a U.S. intelligence official said. He didn't provide details.

No stocks of biological weapons have been found in Iraq, and the Bush administration has been forced to acknowledge that Iraq may not have possessed weapons of mass destruction immediately before the U.S. invasion. In a speech Tuesday in New York, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Iraq may have destroyed its weapons of mass destruction before the war.

Late last year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair published a dossier of intelligence on Iraq's alleged chemical-, biological- and nuclear-weapons programs, which asserted among other things that Iraq could deploy chemical weapons within 45 minutes. Mr. Blair, traveling to Kuwait on his way to visit Iraq Thursday, told reporters he still had "no doubt" allies would find stocks of chemical or biological weapons, rather than just evidence of a program.

The two trailers found near Mosul contained storage tanks and a system for capturing exhaust gases, which the U.S. says was aimed at hiding weapons production. The fermenters, however, weren't well-suited to weapons work because growth agents couldn't be easily added or removed, an official said. "It's probably not how you would want to design a bioweapons plant. It was designed to evade inspections, not to be efficient," an intelligence official said.

Defectors have told the U.S. that an accident on one such trailer killed 12 during a production run in 1998. The incident, the report says, shows "Iraq was producing [biological-weapons] agent at that time." The Iraqis later altered the design, installing a cooling system to prevent overheating, the U.S. said.

The report says sodium azide and urea were found in one of the fermenters. U.S. intelligence officials said the caustic chemicals may have been put there to mislead weapons inspectors in case the vehicles were discovered. "It's a strange combination of materials," said one official, adding that the two chemicals are sometimes used in production of conventional explosives.

Iraqi officials at the Al Kindi Research, Testing, Development and Engineering facility, where one of the trailers was found, told interrogators they were used for making hydrogen gas to fill weather balloons. Tests on one trailer yielded traces of aluminum powder, which could be used for making hydrogen. U.S. officials said that while the trailers' equipment could be used to make hydrogen, the system was far larger than needed to fill weather balloons and certainly bigger than other commercially available mobile hydrogen-production units. The U.S. officials said testing on the aluminum powder indicated the concentrations were insufficient for making hydrogen gas.

Iraqi officials at the plant that produced the fermenters for the trailers told U.S. investigators that they had been told the units were for hydrogen production. The Iraqis also told the investigators that they didn't believe hydrogen production was the real use, but that "they had learned not to ask questions," a U.S. official said.

-- Marc Champion in Kuwait contributed to this article.