Insight on the News - World

Issue: 05/13/03


The Hunt Is on for Saddam's Weapons

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

Liberals on Capitol Hill and in the media are screaming, "Where are the weapons?" Since the White House had argued that disarming Saddam was the main reason for going to war, not finding his forbidden weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) all lined up like prizes at a seaside shooting gallery has excited the president's political enemies to cry foul.

Ewan Buchanan, spokesman for chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, assures Insight that "it's far too early to tell" whether forbidden weapons remain in Iraq or where they might be. "It doesn't surprise me that U.S. forces haven't found anything yet. The main job of the troops so far has been security, not looking for weapons," he says.


So far, coalition forces have found large quantities of chemical-weapons defensive gear, scattered chemicals and a variety of suspicious-looking sealed storage sites whose contents still are being examined. At one point, soldiers stumbled on a series of large buried containers that military analysts initially believed resembled the "mobile biological-production labs" Secretary of State Colin Powell described to the United Nations during his briefing in February. Once examined in more detail they turned out to contain documents, potentially promising, and equipment for a conventional-ammunition loading line. "It looked at first like it was [chemical weapons]-related," a defense official tells Insight, "but in the end, it wasn't."


And while these sites and others whose contents have not yet been made public indeed could house portions of Saddam's suspected arsenal of illegal weapons, Pentagon and White House officials acknowledge that they haven't yet found anything like the suspected 100 to 500 tons of chemical-weapons agents or precursors Powell mentioned before the war, let alone biological-weapons material, secret nuclear-production labs or telltale documents. Indeed, at a press briefing in Doha, Qatar, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks acknowledged the obvious. "We've not found any weaponized chemicals, biological agents or any nuclear devices at this point," he told reporters, who promptly headlined CENTCOM's failure. Lost in the media spin was Brooks' more telling statement: "That work is ongoing, as I've mentioned. And we'll be patient about it, and we'll remain very deliberate about how we do our work."


One reason for the patience and the dogged determination is the wealth of detailed information, much of it already in the public domain, about Saddam's quest to build chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Information on Saddam's foreign suppliers repeatedly has leaked to the press, both from the U.N. inspectors and from various allied governments. For years, the Iraqi National Congress (INC) has spirited out defectors from Iraqi weapons programs who have provided details from inside Saddam's secret maze of weapons plants. The hard job now is getting up-to-the-minute intelligence. "What you think is good intelligence turns out to be not so good when you get up close," a top U.N. intelligence analyst who worked on the Iraqi programs tells Insight. "They [the Iraqis] were very skilled at cleaning up after their defectors so that, when we went to inspect, what they had told us about was already gone."


The United States now is analyzing samples of chemical agents taken from dozens of locations and combing through computer hard drives and documents seized in government offices and from secret stashes discovered behind freshly cemented walls throughout Iraq. The search will be long, complex and riddled with ambiguity, not least because Iraq's known weapons facilities were cleared well before the U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq last fall.


U.S. and U.N. officials tell Insight that the Iraqis most likely have hidden vital equipment and material in underground tunnels or behind fake walls in hospitals and private homes, in the desert and in mountains and even in rivers, where U.S. troops found extraordinarily high levels of cyanide as they approached Baghdad. (The cyanide apparently had been dumped in haste by Iraqi intelligence units as coalition troops approached, with no concern for contaminating drinking water for the local population, to destroy traces of deadly weapons.) "The Iraqis built denial and deception into everything they did," one U.S. defense official tells Insight. If Saddam was producing weapons in secret in the weeks prior to the war, neither the United Nations nor the United States has figured out where he was doing it.


"I don't think we'll discover anything," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Pentagon employees at a town-hall meeting on April 17. "I think what will happen is we'll discover people who will tell us where to go find it. It is not like a treasure hunt where you just run around looking everywhere, hoping you find something."


On April 18, the Pentagon announced it was forming a 1,000-man "Iraq Survey Group" (ISG) to hunt for Saddam's forbidden weapons. Charles Duelfer, a former State Department official who was deputy-chief arms inspector for the United Nations before Hans Blix took over in 2000, has been tapped by the White House to join the U.S. inspection effort. The ISG will include U.S. military intelligence and CIA analysts, as well as other former U.N. arms inspectors who have been recruited by the United States because of their special knowledge of Iraq's weapons systems and its foreign procurement network. They will report to the Defense Intelligence Agency's deputy director for intelligence operations, a major general, who is expected to leave his current position and fly to Iraq by the time this issue of Insight reaches newsstands. They also are receiving invaluable assistance from the Free Iraqi Forces, U.S.-trained Iraqi irregular forces under the command of Arras Kareem, a top deputy to INC spokesman Ahmad Chalabi who personally has worked with Iraqi defectors and has extensive knowledge of Saddam's weapons programs.


Kareem's men already have tracked down many top Ba'ath Party leaders and turned them over to coalition forces for questioning and have led U.S. troops to suspected weapons sites. But it will take several weeks for the new U.S.-led inspection team to become fully operational and months before a clear picture emerges of Saddam's WMDs. In the meantime, the ranks of the ISG are expected to swell as specialists for other U.S. government agencies join the effort to hunt down Saddam's missing weapons.


Until now, whenever coalition forces have stumbled upon suspicious sites they have called in units of the 75th Intelligence Exploitation Task Force, a 3,000-man field-artillery brigade based in Fort Sill, Okla. But as priorities on the ground shift, two of the four Mobile Exploitation Teams (METs) of the 75th have been reassigned to tasks other than inspecting suspected WMD sites, including a search for sensitive documents that might provide clues to Saddam's relationship to al-Qaeda terrorists or the whereabouts of still-missing prisoners of war.


Pentagon officials now believe that many secret WMD production and storage sites already may have been looted, in some cases by Ba'ath Party runaways who have stripped them of incriminating evidence as they seek to avoid prosecution as war criminals. "Some of the looting is actually strategic," says Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith.


"The big advantage the United States has over us will be its ability to interview people," the U.N.'s Buchanan acknowledged. The United Nations politely asked the Iraqi authorities under Saddam if they could interview weapons scientists, but chief inspector Blix never insisted that the interviews take place without Iraqi-government surveillance and never provided security to the families of weapons scientists.


Buchanan believes the United States could have just the opposite problem now that Saddam is gone: "They could have too many people willing to come forward with leads and tips. Nobody here at the U.N. is crowing about how this is going. We know it's a long, painstaking job."


The U.N. intelligence analyst describes the limitations of Western intelligence before the war: "All we could do was look at the material balance between the equipment and chemicals we knew that Iraq had purchased from overseas, and what his people could show us or document that they had destroyed." The discrepancies were enormous and led to U.S. and U.N. allegations that Iraq was hiding between 100 to 500 tons of chemical-weapons agents, had destroyed several thousand liters of weaponized anthrax and had retained at least a dozen extended-range Scud missiles. "But the truth is, nobody really knows how many weapons Saddam could have," the analyst said. "What happened between the expulsion of U.N. inspectors in 1998 and our return in November 2002 is anyone's guess."


The U.S. insistence that Iraq was hiding massive quantities of forbidden weapons was "either a great bluff or a game of chicken," he says. "If the Iraqis have nothing, as they claim, they should have been encouraging their scientists to come forward and tell us in private how they destroyed the weapons. But they weren't doing this."


Just weeks before the war, Blix finally convinced Amir al-Saadi to make available a handful of scientists out of the hundreds of names the United Nations had presented to the Iraqi authorities. But in every case, the scientists insisted on being accompanied by an Iraqi government "minder," or that their interview should be taped and turned over to Iraqi intelligence, out of fear they would be accused of having betrayed state secrets.


Not a single scientist Blix sought to interview agreed to the conditions set out in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which was adopted unanimously last November, that the interview be conducted outside of Iraq. When Blix reported on the lack of cooperation by the Iraqi government, he never recommended that the Security Council consider it a "material breach" of its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions. And France and Russia conveniently forgot that they had voted for the requirement in the first place.


The failure of international inspections has convinced the Bush administration that it has the moral authority and the duty to conduct this latest effort to find Saddam's weapons alone.


"We're looking at a jigsaw puzzle, not a smoking gun," a defense official tells Insight. "We'll find pages from a document here, other pages from another document there, and have to piece them together. But I have no doubt that in the end, we will find significant facilities. There has got to be an underground lab or an underground complex in addition to the mobile production labs. These scientists are not going to chase mobile labs around the country, day after day, week after week. They've got families, homes. They need to have fixed facilities where they do their research. And we'll find them. It's just going to take awhile. We need to have the patience and the abilities of a homicide detective. It will be one thing, one detail, that they forgot to clear away that will give them away."


In one case that has become public, an Iraqi scientist who had worked in the chemical-weapons program turned himself over to U.S. troops in mid-April and led them to sites where his bosses had stockpiled deadly ingredients for chemical weapons and production equipment. A New York Times reporter embedded with the 101st Airborne, which was overseeing the investigation, described the find as "the most important discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons."


The United States is hoping to get help from several top Iraqi weapons scientists and program managers who have been captured or have given themselves up to coalition forces. Top among them are Jaafar Dhia Jaafar, the head of the Iraqi nuclear-weapons program, and Lt. Gen. Amir Hamoodi al-Saadi, a presidential scientific adviser.


Al-Saadi gave himself up to U.S. troops in Baghdad after calling a German TV crew to give an interview, reiterating the official Iraqi posture that the regime had destroyed all weapons of mass destruction shortly after the 1991 Gulf War. A German-trained chemical engineer who is married to a German woman, al-Saadi is widely credited with having built Iraq's vast chemical-weapons infrastructure and petrochemical industry. In the 1980s he supervised the procurement of missile technology in the West, especially from German companies, under the guidance of Saddam's cousin and son-in-law, Hussein Kamel al-Majid - who was murdered by Saddam's sons in 1996 when he returned to Iraq from Jordan after defecting several months earlier.


In an interview with this reporter in Baghdad in 1989, his first-ever with a Western journalist, al-Saadi boasted that Iraq had designed and produced its long-range missiles indigenously, at a time when most western observers found such claims unbelievable. Al-Saadi's genius for organization and for embedding weapons-production facilities within large civilian plants helped Iraq elude U.N. weapons inspectors in the immediate aftermath of Gulf War I. As Saddam's science adviser, he became the point man for the regime in misleading U.N. inspectors. "He and Jaafar may be telling a different story behind closed doors once they are sure what their fate will be," said the U.N.'s Buchanan. Both could face prosecution as war criminals and may be seeking to plea bargain with their captors in exchange for information.


"If anybody knows where the weapons are buried, it is Amir Saadi," a U.S. defense official says. "I'd be very surprised if he had been kept in the dark." Until the tongues of people such as al-Saadi, Jaafar and other Iraqi weapons scientists begin to wag, don't hold your breath that U.S. troops will stumble on Saddam's best-kept secrets by chance.


Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.