April 2, 2004
Pesticides, Precursors, and PetulanceBy Douglas Hanson
It has become established conventional wisdom that 'no stockpiles of WMD have been discovered in Iraq.' But this reading of the evidence uncovered to date is premature at best, and highly questionable. A closer look at the data, and at the uses made of it, is essential for those who wish to understand the genuine state of Iraq's WMD threat at the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Another Congressional committee hearing has come and gone for the head of the hapless Iraqi Survey Group (ISG). Charles Duelfer has testified that he did not know how much longer the weapons hunt might take, but that the "picture is much more complicated than I anticipated going in." In addition, he also figured out that pinning hopes on getting information from frightened Iraqi scientists was probably not the best way to find the locations of all those WMD stockpiles. (see my previous article Cased Not Closed: Iraq's WMDs).
Despite contracting out for assistance in document exploitation last October, only a small fraction of the seized documents have been analyzed. Keep in mind that the ISG is largely composed of personnel from the CIA, State Department, such as Duelfer, and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), such as the deputy, Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton. These are the same organizations that are currently getting raked over the coals for bureaucratic bungling of intelligence prior to 9—11.
In turn, the beleaguered agencies are deflecting this criticism to the President and his national security advisors, by essentially complaining the 'devil made me do it.' In other words, their technical and tactical incompetence and/or their motivation to embarrass the administration has allowed the ISG to make proclamations about WMD stockpiles that minimize the significance of their findings, or deliberately downplay and contradict the findings of Coalition forces in the field. Such is the case with chemical weapons (CW) precursors.
The anti—war left and the media continuously shift the goal posts about WMD stockpiles. But what does the term 'stockpile' mean for WMDs? One nuclear bomb is not really a 'stockpile,' but it would only take one, set off in an American city or dropped on US forces in the field, to make everybody wake up and smell the coffee.
What did we expect to find in Iraq, the equivalent of the Pantex Plant? In fact, we did find hundreds of metric tons of yellowcake and low—enriched uranium. But I digress.
'Stockpiles' of biological weapons? A stockpile of bio—weapons can be kept in a fridge in a scientist's house. Ricin and botulinum toxin have already been found in sufficient quantities to regenerate a biological weapon (BW) capability in short order. No, the standard established by the left and their allies in the media is that we must find chemical weapons (CW). That is, if the US has not found pallets of CW projectiles in ammo dumps or munitions factories or at Iraqi Army unit areas, well then that George Bush flat—out lied to us. In a fashion, the critics are correct concerning CW stockpiles. Here's why.
Chemical weapons are very potent in small amounts in a sterile setting. Hence, the bit in movies where the leading man dips a pen into a glass of water and says something to the effect that 'these few drops of nerve agent are enough to wipe out hundreds of thousands of people' is correct, but only if those people are crammed into the Silverdome. Chemical weapons have very important weaknesses: They can be destroyed by light, heat, water, and wind —— that is, the weather —— not to mention the heat from the explosive charge designed to disperse the agent. It is for this reason that CWs are employed en masse with strict targeting protocols, when attacking an army in the field.
Even if done properly, depending upon the equipment and training of your adversary, the killing and incapacitating effects may not be tactically significant. For these reasons, Saddam initially 'tested' his CW on unsuspecting Kurd civilians to gain an accurate medical picture of chemical agent effects. Simply put, anyone contemplating use of CW needs a lot of it, and it must be delivered at the right time and place.
UNSCOM inspectors understood these factors when they concluded in 1995 that, at the time of Operation Desert Storm in January of 1991, Iraq had largely solved key technical issues. The problem of precursor storage and stabilization for VX, a powerful and persistent nerve agent was solved by Saddam's scientists. In addition, UNSCOM noted the development of prototypes for binary sarin (non—persistent nerve agent) artillery shells and 122mm rockets. Binary rounds consist of two non—lethal substances that combine upon detonation to form a lethal agent.
The technically advanced binary nature of these projectiles was amazing enough, but they also had developed 'quantities well beyond the prototype levels.' The DIA concurred with UNSCOM that Iraq had retained production equipment and chemical precursors to reconstitute a CW program absent an inspection regime.
Specifically, the DIA noted that Baghdad had rebuilt segments of its industrial chemical infrastructure under the 'guise of a civilian need for pesticides, chlorine, and other legitimate chemical products.' Pesticides are the key elements in the chemical agent arena. In fact, the general pesticide chemical formula (organophosphate) is the 'grandfather' of modern day nerve agents. Pesticides are also precursors of many other chemical weapons including Mustard—Lewisite (HL), Phosgene (CG) a choking agent, and Hydrogen Cyanide (AC) a blood agent.
It was not surprising then, as Coalition forces attacked into Iraq, that huge warehouses and caches of 'commercial and agricultural' chemicals were seized and painstakingly tested by Army and Marine chemical specialists. What was surprising was how quickly the ISG refuted the findings of our ground forces, and how silent they have been on the significance of these caches.
US forces participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom had the latest chemical detection gear, including chemical detection paper, chemical agent detector kits, improved chemical agent monitors, and sophisticated Fox Chemical Recon Vehicles. Some American GIs remembered well the shortfalls of this equipment in Gulf War I. Now all of these older devices had been improved, and new and more accurate devices had been issued. In fact, some mobile Army labs had highly sensitive mass spectrometers to test for suspicious substances. Who could argue the results of repeated tests using these devices without explaining how DoD had apparently been ripped off by contractors for faulty products? Apparently, the ISG could and did.
One of the reported incidents occurred near Karbala where there appeared to be a very large 'agricultural supply' area of 55—gallon drums of pesticide. In addition, there was also a camouflaged bunker complex full of these drums that some people entered with unpleasant results. More than a dozen soldiers, a Knight—Ridder reporter, a CNN cameraman, and two Iraqi POWs came down with symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve agent. A full day of tests on the drums resulted in one positive for nerve agent, and then one resulted in a negative. Later, an Army Fox NBC [nuclear, biological, chemical] Recon Vehicle confirmed the existence of Sarin. An officer from the 63d Chemical Company thought there might well be chemical weapons at the site.
But later ISG tests resulted in a proclamation of negative, end of story, nothing to see here, etc., and the earlier findings and injuries dissolved into non—existence. Left unexplained is the small matter of the obvious pains taken to disguise the cache of ostensibly legitimate pesticides. One wonders about the advantage an agricultural commodities business gains by securing drums of pesticide in camouflaged bunkers six feet underground. The 'agricultural site' was also co—located with a military ammunition dump, evidently nothing more than a coincidence in the eyes of the ISG.
Another find occurred around the northern Iraqi town of Bai'ji, where elements of the 4th Infantry Division (Mech) discovered 55—gallon drums of a substance that mass spectrometer testing confirmed was cyclosarin and an unspecified blister agent. A mobile laboratory was also found nearby that could have been used to mix chemicals at the site. And only yards away, surface—to—surface and surface—to—air missiles, as well as gas masks were found. Of course, later tests by the experts revealed that these were only the ubiquitous pesticides that everybody was turning up. It seems that Iraqi soldiers were obsessed with keeping their ammo dumps insect—free, according to the reading of the evidence now enshrined by the conventional wisdom that 'no WMD stockpiles have been discovered.'
Coalition forces continued to find evidence of CW after major combat operations had concluded. The US unit around Taji, just north of Baghdad discovered pesticides in one of the largest ammo dumps in Iraq. The unit wanted to use the ammo dump for their own operations, when they discovered the pesticides in 'non—standard' drums that were smaller in diameter but much longer than the standard 55—gallon drums.
Then in January of this year, Danish forces discovered 120mm mortar shells with a mysterious liquid inside that initially tested positive for blister agents. Further tests in Southern Iraq and in the US were, of course, negative. The Danish Army said, 'It is unclear why the initial field tests were wrong.' This is the understatement of the year, and also points to a most basic question: If it wasn't a chemical agent, what was it? More pesticides? Dishwashing detergent? From this old soldier's perspective, I gain nothing from putting a liquid in my mortar rounds unless that stuff will do bad things to the enemy.
Virtually all agencies concerned with Iraq's WMD programs have reached the conclusion that Saddam was an expert at delay, dispersion, and deception. His nuclear program had restarted as reported earlier this year by Dr. Kay, the previous head of the ISG. Also, 'seed agents' and other bio—toxins had been dispersed throughout Baghdad and Iraq to form the basis for the regeneration of a full—fledged BW program. This modus operandi was no different for the regeneration of Saddam's chemical weapons program. Operating under the guise of legitimate industrial and agricultural chemical production and storage, Iraq would have gone into full—scale conversion of its stockpile of chemical precursors into weaponized agents, had the Coalition not attacked and seized Iraq.
What is stunning is that the ISG seems incapable of connecting the dots to present to the American people the clear evidence of Saddam's flouting of 12 years of UN resolutions, and the grave consequences if we had failed to act. The ISG also owes a detailed explanation to DoD as to how 12 years of research, development, and money has apparently gone down the drain in the effort to upgrade the military's chemical detection capability and NBC training regimen. That the ISG can consistently contradict other technical specialists, while ignoring years of UNSCOM and US intelligence assessments, without accountability is unconscionable, and must be rectified as soon as possible.
Douglas Hanson was a US Army cavalry reconnaissance officer for 20 years, and is a Gulf War I combat veteran. He was an Atomic Demolitions Munitions (ADM) Security Officer, and a Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Defense Officer. As a civilian analyst, he has worked on stability and support operations in Bosnia, and was initially an operations officer in the operations/intelligence cell of the Requirements Coordination Office of the CPA in Baghdad. He was later assigned as the Chief of Staff of the Ministry of Science and Technology.