Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday 11 May 2003
BAGHDAD -- The group directing all known U.S. search efforts for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is winding down operations without finding proof that President Saddam Hussein kept clandestine stocks of outlawed arms, according to participants.
The 75th Exploitation Task Force, as the group is formally known, has been described from the start as the principal component of the U.S. plan to discover and display forbidden Iraqi weapons. The group's departure, expected next month, marks a milestone in frustration for a major declared objective of the war.
Leaders of Task Force 75's diverse staff -- biologists, chemists, arms treaty enforcers, nuclear operators, computer and document experts, and special forces troops -- arrived with high hopes of early success. They said they expected to find what Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5 -- hundreds of tons of biological and chemical agents, missiles and rockets to deliver the agents, and evidence of an ongoing program to build a nuclear bomb.
Scores of fruitless missions broke that confidence, many task force members said in interviews.
Army Col. Richard McPhee, who will close down the task force next month, said he took seriously U.S. intelligence warnings on the eve of war that Hussein had given "release authority" to subordinates in command of chemical weapons. "We didn't have all these people in [protective] suits" for nothing, he said. But if Iraq thought of using such weapons, "there had to have been something to use. And we haven't found it. . . . Books will be written on that in the intelligence community for a long time."
Army Col. Robert Smith, who leads the site assessment teams from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, said task force leaders no longer "think we're going to find chemical rounds sitting next to a gun." He added, "That's what we came here for, but we're past that."
Motivated and accomplished in their fields, task force members found themselves lacking vital tools. They consistently found targets identified by Washington to be inaccurate, looted and burned, or both. Leaders and members of five of the task force's eight teams, and some senior officers guiding them, said the weapons hunters were going through the motions now to "check the blocks" on a prewar list.
U.S. Central Command began the war with a list of 19 top weapons sites. Only two remain to be searched. Another list enumerated 68 top "non-WMD sites," without known links to special weapons but judged to have the potential to offer clues. Of those, the tally at midweek showed 45 surveyed without success.
Task Force 75's experience, and its impending dissolution after seven weeks in action, square poorly with assertions in Washington that the search has barely begun.
In his declaration of victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, President Bush said, "We've begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons, and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated." Stephen A. Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday that U.S. forces had surveyed only 70 of the roughly 600 potential weapons facilities on the "integrated master site list" prepared by U.S. intelligence agencies before the war.
But here on the front lines of the search, the focus is on a smaller number of high-priority sites, and the results are uniformly disappointing, participants said.
"Why are we doing any planned targets?" Army Chief Warrant Officer Richard L. Gonzales, leader of Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, said in disgust to a colleague during last Sunday's nightly report of weapons sites and survey results. "Answer me that. We know they're empty."
Survey teams have combed laboratories and munitions plants, bunkers and distilleries, bakeries and vaccine factories, file cabinets and holes in the ground where tipsters advised them to dig. Most of the assignments came with classified "target folders" describing U.S. intelligence leads. Others, known as the "ad hocs," came to the task force's attention by way of plausible human sources on the ground.
The hunt will continue under a new Iraq Survey Group, which the Bush administration has said is a larger team. But the organizers are drawing down their weapons staffs for lack of work, and adding expertise for other missions.
Interviews and documents describing the transition from Task Force 75 to the new group show that site survey teams, the advance scouts of the arms search, will reduce from six to two their complement of experts in missile technology and biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. A little-known nuclear special operations group from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, called the Direct Support Team, has already sent home a third of its original complement, and plans to cut the remaining team by half.
"We thought we would be much more gainfully employed, or intensively employed, than we were," said Navy Cmdr. David Beckett, who directs special nuclear programs for the team.
State-of-the-art biological and chemical labs, shrunk to fit standard cargo containers, came equipped with enough supplies to run thousands of tests using DNA fingerprinting and mass spectrometry. They have been called upon no more than a few dozen times, none with a confirmed hit. The labs' director, who asked not to be identified, said some of his scientists were also going home.
Even the sharpest skeptics do not rule out that the hunt may eventually find evidence of banned weapons. The most significant unknown is what U.S. interrogators are learning from senior Iraqi scientists, military industrial managers and Iraqi government leaders now in custody. If the nonconventional arms exist, some of them ought to know. Publicly, the Bush administration has declined to discuss what the captured Iraqis are saying. In private, U.S. officials provide conflicting reports, with some hinting at important disclosures. Cambone also said U.S. forces have seized "troves of documents" and are "surveying them, triaging them" for clues.
At former presidential palaces in the Baghdad area, where Task Force 75 will soon hand control to the Iraq Survey Group, leaders and team members refer to the covert operators as "secret squirrels." If they are making important progress, it has not led to "actionable" targets, according to McPhee and other task force members.
McPhee, an artillery brigade commander from Oklahoma who was assigned to the task force five months ago, reflected on the weapons hunt as the sun set outside his improvised sleeping quarters, a cot and mosquito net set down in the wreckage of a marble palace annex. He smoked a cigar, but without the peace of mind he said the evening ritual usually brings.
"My unit has not found chemical weapons," he said. "That's a fact. And I'm 47 years old, having a birthday in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces on a lake in the middle of Baghdad. It's surreal. The whole thing is surreal.
"Am I convinced that what we did in this fight was viable? I tell you from the bottom of my heart: We stopped Saddam Hussein in his WMD programs," he said, using the abbreviation for weapons of mass destruction. "Do I know where they are? I wish I did . . . but we will find them. Or not. I don't know. I'm being honest here."
Later in the conversation, he flung the unfinished cigar into the lake with somewhat more force than required.
Team members explain their disappointing results, in part, as a consequence of a slow advance. Cautious ground commanders sometimes held weapons hunters away from the front, they said, and the task force had no helicopters of its own.
"My personal feeling is we waited too long and stayed too far back," said Christopher Kowal, an expert in computer forensics who worked for Mobile Exploitation Team Charlie until last week.
'The Bear Wasn't There'
But two other factors -- erroneous intelligence and poor site security -- dealt the severest blows to the hunt, according to leaders and team members at every level.
Some information known in Washington, such as inventories of nuclear sites under supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, did not reach the teams assigned to visit them. But what the U.S. government did not know mattered more than what it did know. Intelligence agencies had a far less accurate picture of Iraq's weapons program than participants believed at the outset of their search, they recalled.
"We came to bear country, we came loaded for bear and we found out the bear wasn't here," said a Defense Intelligence Agency officer here who asked not to be identified by name. "The indications and warnings were there. The assessments were solid."
"Okay, that paradigm didn't exist," he added. "The question before was, where are Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons? What is the question now? That is what we are trying to sort out."
One thing analysts must reconsider, he said, is: "What was the nature of the threat?"
By far the greatest impediment to the weapons hunt, participants said, was widespread looting of Iraq's government and industrial facilities. At nearly every top-tier "sensitive site" the searchers reached, intruders had sacked and burned the evidence that weapons hunters had counted on sifting. As recently as last Tuesday, nearly a month after Hussein's fall from power, soldiers under the Army's V Corps command had secured only 44 of the 85 top potential weapons sites in the Baghdad area and 153 of the 372 considered most important to rebuilding Iraq's government and economy.
McPhee saw early in the war that the looters were stripping his targets before he could check them. He cut the planning cycle for new missions -- the time between first notice and launch -- from 96 to 24 hours. "What we found," he said, was that "as the maneuver units hit a target they had to move on, even 24 hours was too slow. By the time we got there, a lot of things were gone."
Short and powerfully built, McPhee has spent his adult life as a combat officer. He calls his soldiers "bubbas" and worries about their mail. "It ain't good" that suspect sites are unprotected, he said, but he refused to criticize fighting units who left evidence unguarded.
"You've got two corps commanders being told, 'Get to Baghdad,' and, oh, by the way, 'When you run across sensitive sites, you have to secure them,' " he said. "Do you secure all those sites, or do you get to Baghdad? You've got limited force structure and you've got 20 missions."
A low point came when looters destroyed what was meant to be McPhee's headquarters in the Iraqi capital. The 101st Airborne Division had used the complex, a munitions factory called the Al Qadisiyah State Establishment, before rolling north to Mosul. When a reporter came calling, looking for Task Force 75, looters were busily stripping it clean. They later set it ablaze.
An Altered Mission
The search teams arrived in Iraq "looking for the smoking gun," Smith said, and now the mission is more diffuse -- general intelligence-gathering on subjects ranging from crimes against humanity and prisoners of war to Hussein's links with terrorists.
At the peak of the effort, all four mobile exploitation teams were devoted nearly full time to weapons of mass destruction. By late last month, two of the four had turned to other questions. This week, MET Alpha, Gonzales's team, also left the hunt, at least temporarily. It parted with its chemical and biological experts, added linguists and document exploiters and recast itself as an intelligence team. It will search for weapons if leads turn up, but lately it has focused on Iraqi covert operations abroad and the theft of Jewish antiquities.
The stymied hunt baffles search team leaders. To a person, those interviewed during a weeklong visit to the task force said they believed in the mission and the Bush administration accusations that prompted it.
Yet "smoking gun" is now a term of dark irony here. Maj. Kenneth Deal, executive officer of one site survey team, called out the words in mock triumph when he found a page of Arabic text at a former Baath Party recreation center last week. It was torn from a translated edition of A.J.P. Taylor's history, "The Struggle for Mastery in Europe." At a "battle update brief" last week, amid confusion over the whereabouts of a British laboratory in transit from Talil Air Base, McPhee deadpanned to his staff: "I haven't a clue where the WMD is, but we can find this lab."
Among the sites already visited from Central Command's top 19 are an underground facility at North Tikrit Hospital, an unconventional training camp at Salman Pak, Samarra East Airport, the headquarters of the Military Industrialization Commission, the Baghdad Research Complex, a storage site for surface-to-surface missiles in Taji, the Amiriyah Serum and Vaccine Institute, a munitions assembly plant in Iskandariyah and an underground bunker at the Abu Ghurayb Palace.
The bunker, toured several days later by a reporter, withstood the palace's destruction by at least two satellite-guided bombs. The bombs left six-foot holes in the reinforced concrete palace roof, driving the steel reinforcing rods downward in a pattern that resembled tentacles. The subsequent detonation turned great marble rooms into rubble.
But the bunker, tunneled deep below a ground-floor kitchen, remained unscathed. The tunnel dropped straight down and then leveled to horizontal, forming corridors that extend most of the breadth of the palace. Richly decorated living quarters were arranged along a series of L-shaped bends, each protected by three angled blast doors. The doors weighed perhaps a ton.
In a climate-control room, chemical weapons filters and carbon dioxide scrubbers protected the air and an overpressure blast valve stood ready to vent the lethal shock waves of an explosion. And a decontamination shower stood under an alarm panel designed to flash the message "Gas-Gaz."
"Is it evidence of weapons of mass destruction?" asked Deal. "No. It's probably evidence of paranoia."
"I don't think we'll find anything," said Army Capt. Tom Baird, one of two deputy operations officers under McPhee. "What I see is a lot of stuff destroyed." The Defense Intelligence Agency officer, describing a "sort of a lull period" in the search, said that whatever may have been at the target sites is now "dispersed to the wind."
All last week, McPhee drilled his staff on speeding the transition. The Iraq Survey Group should have all the help it needs, he said, to take control of the hunt. He is determined, subordinates said, to set the stage for success after he departs. And he does not want to leave his soldiers behind if their successors can be trained in time.
"I see them as Aladdin's carpet," McPhee told his staff. "Ticket home."
US Rivals Turn on Each Other as Weapons Search Draws a Blank
Paul Harris and Martin Bright in London, Taji and Ed Helmore in New York
Sunday 11 May 2003
One key argument for war was the peril from weapons of mass destruction. Now top officials are worried by repeated failures to find the proof - and US intelligence agencies are engaged in a struggle to avoid the blame
The Iraqi military base at Taji does not look like a place of global importance. It is a desolate expanse of bunkers and hangars surrounded by barbed wire and battered look-out posts. It is deserted apart from American sentries at the gate.
Yet Taji, north of Baghdad, is the key to a furious debate. Where are Saddam's weapons of mass destruction? Was the war fought on a platform of lies? Taji was the only specific location singled out by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his address to the UN when he argued that evidence compiled by US intelligence proved the existence of an illegal weapons programme. 'This is one of 65 such facilities in Iraq,' Powell said. 'We know this one has housed chemical weapons.'
But The Observer has learnt that Taji has drawn a blank. US sources say no such weapons were found when a search party scoured the base in late April. By then it had already been looted by local villagers. If Taji ever had any secrets, they are long gone. That is bad news for Britain and the United States. The pressure is building to find Saddam's hidden arsenal and time is running out.
Last week the US flew 2,000 more experts into Iraq. The Iraq Survey Team will join 600 experts already there. Organisations in Iraq hunting for weapons now include teams from the US and British armies, the CIA, the FBI and the Defence Threat Reduction Agency. Yet at more than 110 sites checked so far they have found nothing conclusive. It has been an exercise in false alarms. Suspect white powder at Latifiyah was only explosives. Barrels of what was thought to be sarin and tabun nerve agents were pesticides. When a dozen US soldiers checked a suspect site and fell ill, it was because they had inhaled fertiliser fumes. Each setback ratchets up the political pressure. Infighting between government departments and intelligence agencies is becoming vicious on both sides of the Atlantic. Having fought a war to disarm Iraq of its terrible weapons, neither the US nor Britain can admit that Iraq never had them in the first place. The search for weapons of mass destruction cannot be allowed to fail.
The search is especially vital for The Cabal. In the brave new world of post-11 September America, this tight group of analysts deep in the heart of the Pentagon has been the driving force behind the war in Iraq. Numbering no more than a dozen, The Cabal is part of the Office of Special Plans, a new intelligence agency which has taken on the CIA and won. Where the CIA dithered over Iraq, the OSP pressed on. Where the CIA doubted, the OSP was firm. It fought a battle royal over Iraq and George Bush came down on its side.
The OSP is the brainchild of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who set it up after the 2001 terrorist attacks. It was tasked with going over old ground on Iraq and showing that the CIA had overlooked the threat posed. But its rise has caused massive ructions in the normally secretive world of intelligence gathering.
The OSP reports directly to Paul Wolfowitz, a leading hawk in the administration. They bypassed the CIA and the Pentagon's own Defence Intelligence Agency when it came to whispering in the President's ear. They argued a forceful case for war against Saddam before his weapons programmes came to fruition. More moderate voices in the CIA and DIA were drowned out. The result has been a flurry of leaks to the US press. One CIA official described The Cabal's members as 'crazed', on a 'mission from God'.
But for the moment The Cabal and Rumsfeld's Pentagon have won and Powell's doveish State Department has lost. Tensions between the two are now in the open.
'Rumsfeld set up his own intelligence agency because he didn't like the intelligence he was getting,' said Larry Korb, director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. 'He doesn't like Powell's approach, a typical diplomat, too cautious.'
Former CIA officials are caustic about the OSP. Unreliable and politically motivated, they say it has undermined decades of work by the CIA's trained spies and ignored the truth when it has contradicted its world view.
'Their methods are vicious,' said Vince Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counter-terrorism. 'The politicisation of intelligence is pandemic, and deliberate disinformation is being promoted. They choose the worst-case scenario on everything and so much of the information is fallacious.' But Cannistraro is retired. His attacks will not bother The Cabal, firmly 'in the loop' of Washington's movers and shakers. Yet, even among them, continued failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is a growing fear. The fallout from the war could bring them down.
The warning was there in black and white. Citing 'intelligence' sources, Tony Blair produced an official dossier that concluded Iraq could fire its chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so.
It was a terrifying prospect and ramped up the pro-war argument when the dossier was produced last September. But cold analysis after the war tells a different story.
Iraq was abandoned by the UN weapons inspectors, then bombed, invaded and finally brought under US and British military control. During that entire time the 'button' was never pressed on its weapons of mass destruction. Now both the pro-war party and the anti-war lobby want to know why. Can this mysterious lapse be explained or did the weapons never exist?
They could have been hidden. Iraq is the size of California with mountains and deserts in abundance. Ibrahim al-Marashi, an Iraqi expert whose work was heavily plagiarised in a now infamous Downing Street dossier published on the eve of war, has detailed a sophisticated concealment network set up in the 1990s and headed by Saddam's son Qusay. At the heart of the operation was Saddam's son-in-law and cousin, Hussein Kamil, who defected in 1995 to Jordan, where he revealed the concealment techniques to Western intelligence agencies.
But, according to al-Marashit, the main cache of weapons of mass destruction should have been found in Saddam's home city of Tikrit. But Tikrit has fallen and as yet nothing has been found, leaving US officials clutching at straws. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the weapons were hidden so well that the Iraqis themselves were unable to use them.
A more worrying possibility is that they were looted. Across Iraq - not just in Baghdad and Basra - practically every government and military facility was looted long before US or British troops were able to control them. It might be that the weapons are now on the black market. 'It means the weapons would now be proliferating, which is exactly what the war was meant to stop,' said Garth Whitty, a former weapons inspector in Iraq in the 1990s.
But there are problems with that argument. Barrels of nerve agent are not easy to sell. The war's critics point to a more obvious conclusion - in the run-up to the war the Iraqis were simply telling the truth. They had no weapons of mass destruction.
A massive picture of intelligence misuse has emerged. Aside from Downing Street's plagiarised dossier, there are allegations that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. The documents that the accusation were based on were shown to be false by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but that had not stopped Britain and America warning of Saddam's nuclear threat. In fact, the forgeries were obvious. One Niger Minister, whose signature was on a document, had been out of office for a decade when the forgeries were produced. A US envoy sent to investigate the claims reported to the CIA in February 2002 that they were fakes. But the OSP and the White House ignored him.
Other selective use of intelligence occurred. Much was made of the OSP's body of Iraqi defectors, but they chose which defectors they wanted to listen to. Kamil's terrifying description of Iraq's capabilities in the early 1990s and its efforts to conceal its arsenal was touted as killer proof. The fact that Kamil also told his interrogators the weapons had later been ordered destroyed was suppressed.
Other defectors may have had their own agendas. Kamil described one, Dr Khidhir Hamza, as a 'professional liar' - but told US intelligence what it wanted to hear and said Iraq was close to building a nuclear bomb. No one now believes that. But Hamza has now returned to Iraq as part of a Pentagon team to rebuild the country, in charge of atomic energy. Kamil also returned to Iraq - but when Saddam was in power. He was executed.
Perhaps the most damning evidence is the lack of intelligence emerging from captured Iraqi officials. The list is impressive: Huda Ammash, known as 'Mrs Anthrax'; General Hossam Amin, responsi ble for talks with weapons inspectors; General Amir Saadi, Saddam's science adviser; General. Rashid al-Ubaidi, an arms adviser; and Abdul Hwaish, believed responsible for all Iraq's military capabilities. If anyone knows about the weapons, it is these people. They have powerful motivation to 'cut a deal' and tell what they know.'Why is no one coughing?' said Whitty.
In a quiet corner of Baghdad International Airport sits a truck and trailer painted military green. Its canvas sides have been rolled up to reveal the pipes and vats of some form of biological fermentation machine. It was stolen in Mosul two weeks ago then handed over to Kurdish militia when the thieves realised it was no ordinary truck. The Kurds passed it on to the Americans.
It is the only concrete sign that any weapons of mass destruction may have existed. The firm which made it has said six others were similarly kitted out. It has a strong resemblance to the 'mobile bio-weapons labs' described by Powell to the UN, but is it the smoking gun? Not even the most desperate Pentagon official goes that far. No trace of biological weapons residue has been found inside. The truck was apparently thoroughly cleaned out with bleach before it was stolen.
Yet many experts believe something will be found. Before the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq did have a massive chemical and biological weapons programme. Some is probably still lying around. If sufficient quantities can be uncovered, perhaps it will be enough for a public eager to feel the war was worth it. Finding nothing is unthinkable.