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Last Updated

11 May 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2003


After a Disappointing Start, U.S. Retools Weapons Search

By Bob Drogin, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON Few Americans are watching the search for stashes of deadly germs, poison gases and other illicit weapons in postwar Iraq as closely as retired biologist William Capers Patrick III.

After all, during the Cold War, Patrick helped construct the same kind of mobile bioweapons labs for the Pentagon that the Bush administration insists Saddam Hussein built. He even used his trucks to produce some of the same lethal pathogens, including anthrax.

"We got all our equipment into a standard trailer, an 18-wheeler," said Patrick, 77, disclosing the U.S. effort for the first time. "They make very good units. You can produce your agent as you move along. The Soviets did the same thing."

Patrick's wheeled labs as well as other labs hidden on ships at sea were ordered destroyed along with deadly microbes such as tularemia, Q fever and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus after President Nixon disbanded the secret germ warfare program in 1969.

Whether Hussein also grew microbes in trucks is still unclear. The Pentagon announced Wednesday that it may have found a biowarfare lab in a tractor-trailer that was seized by Kurdish fighters at a roadblock April 19 in northern Iraq. Weeks of tests are planned.

The truck's discovery has excited senior Bush administration officials, and it's no wonder.

Amid growing skepticism about the central White House rationale for invading Iraq, officials are eagerly awaiting any evidence to prove U.S. charges that Hussein's regime secretly produced hundreds of tons of biological and chemical agents.

"The events of the past few weeks have a lot of us in the community worried about the quality of intelligence that informs major policy decisions," said Steven M. Block, a biophysicist at Stanford University and member of a high-level Pentagon advisory panel. "We have people in custody. We have the ability to interrogate anyone we want. You'd think by now one person would come forward with one good lead With each passing day, it becomes a greater embarrassment."

The seizure of the suspected mobile lab gave the Pentagon the impetus for another unveiling. Facing complaints that the secrecy-shrouded weapons hunt has been poorly planned, unevenly executed and beset by bureaucratic turf wars, senior defense officials publicly defended and described the operation for the first time. They also spelled out plans for a significantly expanded effort.

Among the disclosures: Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, will take charge of the effort when he flies to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar on May 20. Dayton ultimately will lead about 2,000 scientists, interrogators, intelligence analysts, former U.N. weapons inspectors and others for a variety of missions in Iraq, including the weapons hunt.

"There seems to be no sense of urgency about this, which is confusing to me," said George A. Lopez, director of policy studies at Notre Dame University's Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and chairman of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. "We're losing evidence, we're losing opportunity."

But Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, insisted at a news briefing that the Pentagon had a "comprehensive" approach aimed at "unraveling the puzzle that is the weapons of mass destruction program."

Each morning, he said, weapons and intelligence experts share notes and select priorities at the Central Command operations center outside Baghdad. Specialists then are dispatched to scour suspect sites, to interview Iraqis familiar with the program or to translate and analyze weapons-related procurement and technical documents and computer data.

So far, he said, the teams have searched about 110 Iraqi sites 70 from a master list of 580 prepared before the war by U.S. intelligence and 40 resulting from leads from Iraqis or documents gathered since the war.

The hunt has several layers. Initial assessments of suspect sites are done by seven military teams, including four that arrived in Iraq in mid-April. The teams have six members each and carry radiation dose-meters and other portable chemical and biological detection gear.

If suspicious materials are found, two "mobile exploitation teams" with more sophisticated equipment are called in to run more thorough scientific tests. Samples also are sent to two military labs in the U.S., as well as what Cambone called a "non-U.S. laboratory," which he declined to identify, for independent analysis.

If illicit weapons or production facilities are found, two private defense contractors hired by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency will have primary responsibility for destroying them. Raytheon Co. and KBR, a subsidiary of Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer, Halliburton Co., will each send 60 people to Iraq this month as the first phase of the weapons elimination effort, according to a senior defense official.

In addition to finding weapons, the officials said, they aim to compile a "cradle-to-grave" portrait of the ousted regime's reputed programs to design, build and deploy weapons of mass destruction. So far, they said, the evidence is fragmentary and mostly comes from documents and interrogation of relatively junior Iraqi technicians.

The failure to find clear proof so far has sparked a bitter debate over the intelligence repeatedly cited by President Bush and his aides before the war. When Secretary of State Colin L. Powell laid out the U.S. case against Iraq to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, he insisted the evidence was indisputable. "What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence," he said.

A U.S. military official involved in the hunt acknowledged that he is disappointed as well. "The assumption was a lot of stuff would be found by now," he said.

Nancy W. Gallagher, a former State Department arms control specialist now at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, said she fears the administration "vastly overstated" the evidence it had. "I presume they were trying to make the strongest case they could without revealing sources and methods," she said. "But now we're seeing that their best intelligence wasn't necessarily very good."

U.N. weapons inspectors, who returned to Iraq in November and searched more than 500 sites before being withdrawn on the eve of the war, tend to agree. They chased numerous CIA tips about suspected weapons caches and other evidence based on defector accounts, satellite photos, intercepted conversations and other intelligence. None panned out.

"I acted on almost a dozen intelligence tips," said one former inspector, who asked not to be identified. "Sometimes it was amazingly specific. You know, 'Go into the basement, there's a door marked 4, go in there, then there's a long corridor, then you'll find a room filled with equipment.' Except there never was."

In some cases, U.N. teams determined that what the CIA insisted were decontamination vehicles a telltale sign that chemical or biological production was underway nearby were firetrucks or other emergency vehicles.

U.N. teams searching vaccine plants and other biological facilities also looked for evidence of mobile labs, according to Rocco Casagrande, who ran the U.N.'s bio-analysis lab in Baghdad and who went on more than 50 U.N. searches before the inspectors were withdrawn.

"Almost every place we went, we looked for signs of truck repair or heavy equipment manufacture, two activities that don't normally go together" with normal biological work, said Casagrande. "We never found it."

It's possible that Hussein built mobile weapons labs but never used them. One Iraqi defector said Hussein built production facilities for the future, not to produce stockpiles of bioagents that could quickly degrade or be discovered.

It's also possible that the labs were more benign. During the early 1970s, Iraq used mobile labs to produce a common pesticide called Bacillus thuringiensis "out in the cotton fields, as these cultures had a very short shelf life" according to Dr. Martin Hugh-Jones, a Louisiana State University scientist.

Patrick, who headed the "product development division" of the Pentagon's biowarfare program in the 1950s and '60s, said he isn't surprised that no proof of an illegal-weapons program has yet been found. He noted that it took four years of intensive investigations after the 1991 Persian Gulf War before he and other U.N. inspectors uncovered Hussein's vast germ warfare program in 1995.

Patrick said America's mobile labs were built as backup facilities that could be hidden if Soviet missiles destroyed the main U.S. germ facilities. Iraqi defectors have said Hussein had a similar goal for his mobile labs.

"If you want to have a surreptitious BW [biological warfare] program, I can't think of a better way than to use a trailer," Patrick said.