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Last Updated

24 Mar 2003

Source: New York Times, March 24, 2003


Lab Technicians Eagerly Await Work


NORTHERN KUWAIT, March 23 Nothing distinguishes the complex of trailers parked at the edge of the desert encampment here south of the Iraqi border. Only the sign on the door barring "unauthorized" visitors belies the spirit of the welcome mat below. But the vehicles and their occupants, which are off-limits even to most soldiers here, are at the core of the Bush administration's effort to disarm Saddam Hussein of biological, chemical and other weapons of mass destruction.

Commanded and supported by the 75th Field Artillery Brigade from Fort Sill, Okla., the 21 men and women in charge of those trailers are members of an elite Defense Intelligence Agency group called the Chemical Biological Intelligence Support Team. Its mission here is to help find and survey suspected Iraqi weapons-related sites, collect samples of suspicious materials and analyze them in the mobile labs they assembled here 10 days ago. The samples are intended to prove to the court of world opinion, and before a court of law, if necessary, that Saddam Hussein, as President Bush alleges, has been hiding unconventional weapons.

Members of the unit prepared Saturday to make their first foray into southern Iraq to verify what initial reports indicated were envelopes of anthrax and documents for disseminating it that were found in the knapsack of an Iraqi prisoner of war in the city of Umm Qasr. But the deployment was canceled after an initial report from a site survey team was determined to be inaccurate.

The labs and their technicians have been preparing for days to analyze the samples they are certain will come. In the meantime, the scientists and unconventional weapons experts in the labs have been training and sampling the environment for traces of chemical or biological agents. This quality control testing, which also protects soldiers camped nearby, provides baseline information about the area.

"The military is getting double benefit from us," said a team group leader who showed the labs to a reporter and spoke on condition that he not be identified.

The labs are marvels of modern technology and Navy engineering. The biological trailer is equipped to handle lethal germ weapons that cause diseases like anthrax, plague and tularemia. The lab can also do DNA fingerprinting to identify the pathogen for key biological weapons.

An array of sophisticated machinery has been packed inside a relatively small trailer. One of the biologists who helped design the lab said it could produce an assessment of an agent within hours with a 90 percent level of confidence. After an initial analysis is completed here, the samples are to be taken in air-tight containers to the United States for further study and a final assessment.

The chemical lab, like its germ counterpart, has a small steel air-lock door through which samples are passed and the surrounding material decontaminated. The chemical lab, run by another veteran of the bio-defense program who works at the military lab at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Edgewood, Md., has a pressurized glove box through which the scientists can handle the most dangerous chemical agents and a gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer, which separates and characterizes particles by molecular weight.

A major challenge is to keep agents clean and cool. That requires reliable power no easy challenge in a harsh desert where overburdened generators often break down. Two backup generators weighing 600 pounds each have been shipped to this remote location.

As important as the equipment itself is the decision to design the labs and the process for collecting samples to forensic standards that will pass muster in a court of law. Those who collect the samples have been trained to record where and how samples have been collected, when they are received at the lab, that gloves have been changed so as not to contaminate the samples, and that other steps have been taken to document a "chain of custody," or what has happened to the samples in government hands.

The lack of such documentation led many scientists to challenge the government's assertion in the late 1970's and early 1980's that the Soviet Union had dropped unknown toxic weapons in Southeast Asia and on Afghans. The prevailing view today is that the illnesses identified were caused by bee feces, a theory that many military experts have never accepted.

The labs made their debut in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, when several members of the expert team here hunted for evidence that Al Qaeda and the Taliban had been experimenting with unconventional weapons. The lab in Afghanistan was smaller and less sophisticated.

Other lessons were learned from the hunt in Afghanistan, experts and military officers said. Among the most important was that someone needs to be in charge of such a mission. In Afghanistan, several government agencies involved in the search vied for resources, control of the mission and glory. That led military planners for Iraq to include weapons experts from several agencies in a military unit and assign a single commander the responsibility of integrating all the different agencies to accomplish the mission. Col. Richard R. McPhee, 47, a veteran of several wars and military engagements, was drafted and made the head of the new 75th Exploitation Task Force.

The support team was conceived by the Defense Intelligence Agency in the late 1990's and approved by the Pentagon in May 2001. Last year, George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, paid a rare public tribute to the group in awarding it a commendation for its contribution to the campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan.

"Doing this mission at all is challenging," one team member said. "Doing it in such a lousy environment and in combat is something else again."