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How Iraq's Biological Weapons Program Came to Light

Author: William J. Broad and Judith Miller
Publication: Not Specified
Document Dated: February 26, 1998
Date Posted: February 26, 1998

On a January day in 1995, Dr. Rod Barton, a United Nations weapons inspector with a gambler's instinct, decided to try bluffing the Iraqis. Ever since their defeat in the Persian Gulf war, they had steadfastly denied ever making any kind of germ weapons, despite much evidence to the contrary.

Barton, a 46-year-old Australian biologist, did not have much in his hand -- just two pieces of paper. The documents proved nothing but were provocative: They showed that in the 1980s, Iraq had bought about 10 tons of nutrients for growing germs, far more than needed for civilian work, from a British company.

"That was all I had," Barton recalled in an interview. "Not a full house, just two deuces. So I played them both."

Sitting across from four Iraqi generals and scientists in a windowless room near the University of Baghdad, Barton laid the documents on the table. Did these, he asked, help refresh the Iraqis' memories?

"They went ashen," he recalled.

That meeting marked a turning point. In the months that followed, Iraq dropped its denials and grudgingly admitted that it had run an elaborate program to produce germ weapons, eventually confessing that it had made enough deadly microbes to kill all the people on earth several times over.

U.N. officials say these disclosures are still seriously incomplete, as does Washington, which has come to the brink of military conflict with Baghdad over the issue.

The U.N. inspectors are now poised to return to Iraq under an accord in which Iraq has promised full cooperation. But the story of the seven-year hunt for secret biological weapons, as recounted by U.S., U.N. and private experts, suggests that the inspectors may have a rocky time. It also shows why they believe that Baghdad is still hiding missiles and germ weapons, and the means to make both.

Among the disclosures were these:

-- Just before the gulf war in 1991, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's son-in-law began a crash military program intended to give Iraq the ability to wipe out Israel's population with germ weapons, an Iraqi general told inspectors. MiG fighters, each carrying 250 gallons of microbes, were to be flown by remote control to release anthrax over Israel. One pilotless plane was flight-tested with simulated germs just before the war began, but the attack was never attempted.

-- The locations of more than 150 bombs and warheads built by the Iraqis to dispense germs are a mystery, as are the whereabouts of a dozen special nozzles that Iraq fashioned in the 1980s to spray germs from helicopters and aircraft.

-- On nearly all recent missions, inspectors have found undeclared "dual use" items like germ nutrients, growth tanks and concentrators, all of which have legitimate uses but can also make deadly pathogens for biological warfare.

Today, despite progress in penetrating Iraqi secrecy, inspectors say they remain uncertain about most of Saddam's facilities to wage biological warfare.

The inspectors have found traces of military germs and their seed stocks but none of the thousands of gallons of biological agents that the Iraqis made before the 1991 gulf war. Baghdad says it destroyed the older material but offers no proof.

And the inspectors are unsure of the extent to which Iraq has solved the technical challenges of delivering germs to targets -- a problem that bedeviled other states experimenting with biological arms.

Finally, the U.N. inspectors have suspicions -- but no proof -- that Baghdad is hiding germs and delivery systems. Their worries are based, in part, on a chilling calculus of missing weapons: The United Nations can account for only 25 of the 157 germ bombs that Iraq has acknowledged making for its air force.

And inspectors have no idea of the whereabouts of some 25 germ warheads made for missiles with a range of 400 miles; Baghdad says it destroyed them but, again, offers no proof.

Richard Butler, chairman of the U.N. Special Commission charged with eliminating such weapons, said in report after report that the uncertainties are disturbing and legion. He recently told the Security Council that the 639-page document that comprises Iraq's latest "full, final and complete" declaration, its fifth to date, "fails to give a remotely credible account" of Baghdad's long effort to make biological arms.

THE PROLOGUE: Iraq Renounces Germ War, but ...

n the 1950s and '60s, the world's major armed forces experimented widely with germ warfare. Eventually they concluded that the nightmarish weapons were too repugnant and too difficult to use.

By 1972, the global threat of biological war seemed to recede as Iraq joined the United States, the Soviet Union and more than 100 other nations in signing the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The accord banned possession of deadly biological agents except for defensive work like research into vaccines, detectors and protective gear.

But it was only a pledge. It had no formal means of enforcement and plenty of room for activities that were ambiguous as to whether they were defensive or offensive.

Indeed, Iraq's clandestine effort to acquire biological weapons, some inspectors now suspect, actually began shortly after it lent its support to the convention.

The allure was great. Unlike nuclear arms, dangerous germs are cheap and easy to come by. Yet their effects on people are potentially just as extensive and grim as those of a nuclear bomb, if slower to act. A microbe that divides every 30 minutes can produce more than a billion descendants in hours, and a bubbling vat of offspring in a week or so. Even a few can be dangerous.

Anthrax, normally a disease of cattle and sheep, can kill a human after exposure to less than 10,000 germs, all of which would fit comfortably on the period at the end of this sentence. Signs of pulmonary anthrax infection include high fever, labored breathing and vomiting. It is usually fatal within two weeks. A vaccine can prevent the infection, and it can be treated with huge doses of antibiotics if caught in its early stages.

U.S. military and intelligence officials in the 1980s gathered much evidence that Iraq had developed a large program to build biological arms, with the work focused on anthrax.

The West tried to block the effort. In 1988 the Iraqis ordered a 1,325-gallon fermenter to grow germs from a Swiss company, Chemap, and arranged to buy several more. But the United States and its allies persuaded Switzerland to drop the sale, said Dr. Jonathan B. Tucker, a former federal arms-control official who is now a germ-weapon expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

The perceived threat was so great that on the eve of the gulf war, President George Bush warned Saddam that Iraq would pay a "terrible price" if it used biological or chemical weapons.

But the intelligence about germ warfare was generally imprecise, and as the U.S.-led coalition prepared for war after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, planners could identify only one potential germ factory in Iraq. That site, Salman Pak, not far from Baghdad, was bombed in the gulf war.

Though only one factory was identified, the U.S. military started a crash program to vaccinate as many troops as possible against anthrax and opened a campaign to knock out refrigerated bunkers suspected of holding biological arms. After the war, U.S. officials were embarrassed to find that the suspicious bunkers held only conventional arms, sheltered from the desert sun.

After losing the war, Saddam, as a condition of surrender, agreed to declare within 15 days all his nuclear, chemical and biological arms and the long-range missiles needed to deliver them, and then to destroy them all.

The United Nations set up a group to make sure he kept his word. Until it verified destruction of the weapons, Iraq was barred from selling oil, virtually its sole source of foreign exchange.

Later, the United Nations relented a bit and allowed some oil exports to pay for food and medicine and to make reparations to Kuwait.

THE HUNT: Hide and Seek In the Wilds

ozens of science detectives, many with military backgrounds, were assembled from several nations after the war to discover the truth about the biological arms. The inspectors, men and women ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, worked out of dingy, roach-and-rat-infested hotels in Baghdad.

Their first foray was to Salman Pak, a town and military center southeast of Baghdad on an isolated bend of the Tigris River. About 30 inspectors with the commission, known as Unscom, went there in August 1991 because the site was considered the heart of Iraq's germ-warfare complex.

Sheltered by high walls, air defenses and a military unit, the installation had been bombed during the war, and inspectors were eager for a close-up look at what remained.

They were shocked, inspectors recalled. Two weeks before the team's arrival, the Iraqis had leveled much of the site, removing production gear, demolishing two buildings and bulldozing the rubble. Piles of ashes and melted binders suggested that the Iraqis had kindled bonfires of documents.

Iraqi officials insisted that research at the site was peaceful, intended to develop vaccines and other protection against dread diseases.

But the investigators suspected the site had a military purpose, and eventually found a chamber for dispersing germs on test subjects that was big enough to hold "large primates, including the human primate," one inspector recalled.

The Iraqis said the chamber had been used merely for testing the effectiveness of vaccines on such animals as sheep, donkeys, monkeys and dogs. But they had hauled the chamber to a garbage dump some 20 miles from Salman Pak and then crushed it with a bulldozer, apparently trying to keep it out of sight.

Tucker, of the Monterey Institute, a former Unscom member, said the inspectors had detected "a pattern of circumstantial evidence" of germ-weapon production at Salman Pak but had found no smoking gun.

While at Salman Pak, the Iraqis told the inspectors of another plant at Al Hakam, a site an hour's drive southwest of Baghdad that sprawled across seven square miles of isolated desert.

Filling some of the buildings at Al Hakam were mazes of pipes, valves, pumps and stainless-steel tanks. The Iraqis said they were for making animal feed and bacterial pesticide. But the buildings were spaced unusually far apart and surrounded by barbed wire, dummy bunkers, air defenses and many guard posts.

Again, the evidence was equivocal. The inspectors suspected much but had no proof.

In May 1992, Baghdad finally gave the United Nations its first "full, final and complete disclosure" about its germ program, a report in which Baghdad denied having ever dabbled in any kind of biological arms and called for the inspections and sanctions to end.

Though the germ team kept running into dead ends, their colleagues seeking other types of weapons kept making breakthroughs. Inspectors seeking chemical arms found arsenals full of nerve agents like tabun and sarin, tiny amounts of which are lethal. And to their shock, nuclear teams found Iraq had made considerable progress in building an atomic bomb.

The germ sleuthing from 1991 to 1994 was hindered, in part, by the lack of a experienced professionals at headquarters in New York to direct the effort: Three years after the gulf war, the headquarters still had no full-time staff biologist.

But congressional investigators were zooming ahead. By early 1994, they had learned that the American Type Culture Collection, a company in Rockville, Md., that sells microbes to scientists, had shipped up to 36 stains of 10 deadly pathogens to Iraq in the 1980s, doing so with government approval. Some had come from Fort Detrick, Md., the Army's main center for defensive germ research.

"I was horrified," recalled James J. Tuite III, a congressional aide who tracked the shipments for Sen. Donald Riegle, D-Mich., then chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. "These were clearly agents that could be used for biological warfare." Arguably, they also had use in making vaccines, though experts with access to intelligence data about Baghdad's ambitions doubted that explanation.

THE SLEUTH: Trying to Unravel A Tangle of Clues

n April 1994, under increasing pressure from the United Nations to come up with something or drop the germ investigation, Unscom hired Dr. Richard Spertzel, who soon became the head of the biological team.

A portly man of military bearing, Spertzel, then 61, had served for nearly three decades in the Army before retiring in 1987 as a colonel. For 21 years he had worked in the world of military germs, both defensive and offensive, much of the time at Fort Detrick.

Spertzel brought valuable expertise. He belonged to a generation that knew about germ weapons from personal experience, from the days when the United States had made them and envisioned their use in war.

By all accounts, Spertzel re-energized the Iraq inquiry. He pored over documents -- "the evidence was almost shouting out," he recalled -- and took his worries to Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish diplomat who then headed the United Nations effort to eliminate Iraq's weapons systems.

Ekeus ordered new inspection teams into the Iraqi hinterlands. But he also warned Spertzel that they had to find evidence of military germs soon, or give Iraq a clean bill of health.

By November 1994, Spertzel and three other experts in Iraq were interviewing and re-interviewing Iraqi scientists, picking apart their accounts and analyzing statements and records for discrepancies.

The team included Dr. David Kelly, a former Oxford University microbiologist; Barton, the Australian biologist, and Lt. Col. Hamish Killip, of the British Royal Engineers. They came together in argumentative camaraderie, at times calling themselves the Gang of Four.

The team soon uncovered a secretive Iraqi group known as the Technical and Scientific Materials Import Division. Part of the Organization of Military Industrialization, it appeared to focus on germ warfare; for instance, it supplied Salman Pak. The inspectors immediately knew the discovery was significant.

"We were all very awake," recalled Barton, who recently left the U.N. commission.

With that high card, the team was able to conduct a very narrow, pointed search for records. To aid its hunt, the commission wrote in December 1994 to a handful of nations seeking help in uncovering documents about sales of biological materials to that Iraqi group.

One reply came from Israel, said two U.S. intelligence experts familiar with the episode, confirming a recent account of it in The Times of London. The Israelis provided key trade documents that helped illuminate a central if seemingly mundane foundation of the Iraqi germ program -- microbial food.

The nutrients that bacteriologists use to feed and breed germs are known as growth media. A specialized blend of sugars, proteins and minerals that keep microscopic life flourishing, growth media have many legitimate uses in hospitals and clinics, mainly as a way to identify illnesses. For instance, a swab from the back of a patient's throat is placed in a small dish of diagnostic media, and the presence of disease germs is indicated by the visible growth of bacterial colonies.

But Iraq was found to have been importing growth media by the ton, enough for growing teeming hordes of germs and filling many hundreds of biological weapons, if not thousands.

The intelligence experts and the London Times report said the Israelis had documented exports in the 1980s to Iraq from Oxoid, a British company. Israel, the experts said, provided two letters of credit that referred to sales of about 10 tons of growth media to Iraq.

The documents were vital in building a case that Iraq had produced biological weapons. The inspectors, who under U.N. rules cannot talk about companies or countries other than Iraq, refused to discuss how the documents were obtained but emphasized their importance.

"That clinched it," said Kelly, the former Oxford don.

Spertzel, the chief biological inspector, called it "breakthrough information, frankly," adding, "It was conclusive enough to sit down with Iraq and be very challenging."

Barton used the bank documents to play his bluff in January 1995 -- and it worked. Almost immediately, Baghdad acknowledged the purchases and produced evidence that it had bought even more germ nutrients. All told, from Iraq and other sources, the team eventually found that Iraq had imported about 40 tons of growth media, roughly 30 times more than needed for any conceivable civilian uses.

And where was it now?

Iraqi officials had an answer. It was for regional hospitals and laboratories that were making vaccines and detecting diseases.

Spertzel asked Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack, 44, a German member of the team, to test that explanation. During March 1995, she and her team tracked down the growth media at warehouses and pharmaceutical factories; much of it turned out to be stored at Al Hakam, the big plant in the desert.

"But I could still only account for 22 to 23 tons," she recalled. "That meant that more than 17 tons were missing."

Clearly, Baghdad had more explaining to do. Tensions rose. Eventually the Iraqis said much of the growth media sent to hospitals had been destroyed in riots after the 1991 war.

As the team kept up the pressure, the Iraqis panicked. The meetings between Unscom members and the Iraqi officials turned into shouting matches. "It was a free-for-all," Barton said.

The breakthrough came on July 1, 1995, at an evening session in Baghdad. Dr. Rihab Taha, an acknowledged leader of Iraq's civilian germ effort, made a huge admission. It came grudgingly, inspectors said, and with no direct eye contact. Taha kept looking down at her notes as she spoke.

Yes, she said, almost in tears at the strain of the moment, Iraq had produced a horde of germs for biological warfare.

An eerie quiet followed. Inspectors wanted to ask questions but refrained.

"There was not a lot of discussion," Barton recalled. "None of us thought we would hear a real confession."

The Iraqis acknowledged, among other things, that the factory at Al Hakam had produced thousands of gallons of deadly anthrax and botulinum toxin -- enough, in theory, to wipe out whole cities and even nations.

For the first time, the Iraqis had confessed to a military program for making germs. But no more than that. They still denied having ever developed weapons designed to release those germs over enemy targets.

THE DEFECTOR: A Breakthrough In a Chicken Coop

he overlord of the Organization of Military Industrialization was Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamal, Saddam's son-in-law and the second most powerful man in Iraq. He had risen from a lowly bodyguard to become director of Iraq's advanced-weapons procurement program and reportedly had a personality almost as swaggering and domineering as his father-in-law's, seeing himself as the natural successor.

Al Hakam had been his pet project, the inspectors learned, a personal triumph with which he planned to increase his prestige in the feuding family that ruled Iraq. But now, in early July 1995, his subordinates had been forced to reveal its dark purpose.

After Taha's dramatic admission, Iraq gave the U.N. team an ultimatum. According to team members, the Iraqis demanded that the United Nations bring all inspections to an end within a month. If not, the inspectors would have to go. The Iraqi ambassador who delivered the message said he was speaking on behalf of Kamal.

The inspectors replied that quick settlement was impossible given the new questions swirling around the germ work.

Iraqi threats mounted, and the inspectors prepared to leave Baghdad, some fearing for their safety.

"He was in an impossible situation," Barton said of Kamal. "He had given us an absurd ultimatum."

Then, suddenly, everything changed.

Late on the evening of Aug. 7, 1995, Kamal defected to Jordan. The move reportedly occurred after he had quarreled at a family dinner that was called to discuss Iraq's worsening economy and security, and that ended with shooting that left six bodyguards dead. After that he fled.

Inspectors said his flight was caused partly by their discovery of his biological weapons program, which damaged his standing with the ruling family.

Seeking to pre-empt any disclosures, Baghdad withdrew its ultimatum and, on Aug. 20, presented a trove of documents that it said "the traitor General Kamal," as they now called him, had hidden from the Iraqi government.

To reinforce the accusations against the general, the handing over of the documents took place at a shed on Kamal's chicken farm.

The documents ran to more that half a million pages, stored in boxes and steel trunks. There was a single, small, wooden box of documents about the biological-weapons program. Though far from complete, the papers showed that Iraq had done nearly everything in its power to prepare and use biological weapons.

In documents and additional admissions that year, Iraq said it had taken these actions:

-- Set its germ policy in 1974, seeking to build a stockpile of biological arms.

-- Did research on anthrax, botulinium toxin (which causes muscular paralysis resulting in death), aflatoxin (which causes liver cancer), tricothecene mycotoxins (which cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea), wheat cover smut (which ruins food grains), hemorrhagic conjunctivitis (which causes extreme pain and temporary blindness) and rotavirus (which causes acute diarrhea that can lead to death).

-- Field-tested germs in sprayers, 122-mm rockets, 155-millimeter artillery shells, tanks dropped from jet fighters and LD-250 aerial bombs.

-- Began a crash program to speed germ development in August 1990, just as it invaded Kuwait.

-- Built and loaded 25 germ warheads for Al Hussein missiles, which have a range of 400 miles. Botulinum toxin went into 16 of them, anthrax into 5 and aflatoxin into 4. The warheads were about 3 feet wide and 10 feet long. It also filled bombs designated R-400, which hold 20 gallons each. Botulinum toxin went into 100, anthrax into 50 and aflatoxin into 7.

-- Deployed these weapons in the opening days of the 1991 gulf war at four locations, ready for use, and kept them there throughout the war.

Iraq also said it had secretly destroyed all its biological agents and weapons in May or June 1991. This was a violation of the surrender agreement, and inspectors express serious doubts about the truth of that admission.

The date of the purported destruction was vague, Iraqi officials said, because no one could remember exactly when the order was given and no records were kept of the event.

After the defection of Kamal and the chicken-farm revelations, the U.N. inspectors and the Iraqis involved in germ warfare forged closer cooperation. Some inspectors feared that the honeymoon might not last, "so we decided to collect as much information as possible," Barton said. "We were vacuum cleaners."

In May 1996 the Iraqis, under U.N. supervision, began destroying Al Hakam, cutting up machinery with torches, burying items in cement and then dynamiting the rest of the plant. And the next month Iraq filed its fourth "full, final and complete disclosure," only to have the inspectors again dismiss it as sloppy lies.

U.N. officials eventually identified seven sites that had been directly used to produce biological weapons, including Salman Pak and Al Hakam.

In addition, the inspectors began monitoring universities, diagnostic laboratories and research centers, and installations that made vaccines, pharmaceuticals, beer and dairy products. All told, the United Nations was keeping its eye on about 100 Iraq sites, most with civilian equipment that could be turned to making germ weapons.

As for Kamal, he eventually returned to Iraq, repentant over his defection. Days later, he and his family died from gunshot wounds. Reports from Iraq said family members had turned on him. But the circumstances of his death remain unclear.

THE MYSTERIES: Germ-War Capacity Is Still an Enigma

verlooking the East River in New York, on the 30th and 31st floors of the U.N. building, is the inspectors' headquarters. The windowless conference room, known as the Bunker, is constantly jammed these days. Cubicles are packed with file cabinets and safes and documents. Wooden crates from the chicken farm are visible atop cabinets, part of a mountain of evidence.

Over the years the United Nations commission, whose staff is drawn from more than 30 different countries, has become a lightening rod for Iraqi criticism. Its inspectors are routinely vilified by name in the government-controlled press as spies. Some nations sympathetic to Iraq's plight, including Russia, have complained that the inspectors are overly aggressive and are taking too long. The inspectors, in response, have at times fired back, discussing their work with the news media.

U.N. officials say the inspectors still differ over how to interpret the evidence. Perhaps the most contentious issue is whether Iraq is now engaged in germ procurement and production.

The Russians recently acknowledged holding talks with Iraq in 1995 about selling a huge plant to be installed at Al Hakam, and inspectors say they have evidence of other buying discussions and sales.

Sprayers are an important part of the current mystery. Planes flying over farms use pipes and nozzles to spray fine mists of liquid pesticides on crops. The Iraqis, an inspector said, have admitted adapting at least six sprayers to make a mist of germs that would rain down on enemies, and importing parts for a dozen such conversions in all.

But the agricultural sprayers, he said, have disappeared. None have been turned over to inspectors, and their whereabouts and status are unknown -- whether lost or destroyed or ready to fly into action.

Are they a threat? Even if they exist, hidden by the Iraqi military, their effective use is clouded by huge uncertainties, inspectors said. A pilotless plane spraying 200 pounds of anthrax near a large city might kill a up to million people -- if the winds were right, if no rain fell, if the nozzles did not get clogged, if the particles were the right size, if the population had no vaccinations, and so on.

Iraq tried to develop just such a weapon, using a sprayer of Iraqi design. Barton said an Iraqi general had told inspectors that Baghdad had tried just before the gulf war to develop the capability to wipe out out most of Israel's population. MiG fighters were modified so they could be flown over Israel by remote control to release a spray of anthrax from specially modified fuel tanks.

"It would have caused massive casualties," he said, "if it was workable."

That kind of hedge appears in many of the analyses about Iraqi systems for dispensing germs, and it is a crucial unknown in assessing how far Iraq progressed toward making effective biological arms. The problem for the inspectors is that they have only limited information about how the dispensing systems would perform in war.

The inspectors agree that unless they can go anywhere in Iraq without notice to hunt for documents, scientists and equipment, the United Nations can offer the world only a false sense of security.

There are doubts about whether the latest agreement, negotiated over the weekend by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, provides sufficient access. Under the accord, the inspectors can visit the "presidential sites" that Iraq declared off-limits last fall. But they will be accompanied by diplomats appointed by the Security Council, and they must honor Iraq's "national security, sovereignty and dignity."

But while inspectors may disagree about what Iraq is doing now, there is no disagreement about Baghdad's potential to develop biological weapons.

"Most of us agree that if Unscom monitors left, the Iraqis could start up a biological weapons program the next day," Barton said.

Worry about Iraq's potential has been reinforced by what most inspectors agree is Baghdad's refusal in recent years to provide further documents about its biological program. Few inspectors seem to believe Iraq's assertions that most of the documents have been destroyed.

"Every little pencil they purchased has three requisition copies," Graatz-Wadsack said. "We've found documents in other programs going back to the late 1950s. So I don't believe they destroyed their biological documents. They have them hidden somewhere."

Inspectors see the missing documents as key to understanding the true dimensions of Iraq's effort to make germ weapons, saying they might provide a map to hidden plants, personnel and arms. The documents, inspectors say, are also useful to Iraq because they are thought to form a blueprint for resuming production of germ weapons.

Inspection teams may have been getting close to those records when Iraq began refusing the United Nations access to some sites last October. The inspectors also agree that as long as Iraq denies the inspectors access and information, they may never be able to certify that Baghdad is harboring no more germ weapons.

"I once asked: 'Is there an end game?' " Barton recalled. "We've been lied to so many times, can we ever trust the Iraqis to tell us the truth?"

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