Chemical Arms: Old and Deadly Scourge Returns

Times Staff Writer

It’s the stuff of thrillers: After years of secret research, a Third World country hostile to the United States develops the capability to manufacture chemical weapons. Western intelligence agents, risking their lives to seek proof, discover that a terrorist group based there is considering using the deadly arms on Western targets.

American intelligence agencies issue an alert to check for similar installations worldwide. Despite formidable obstacles--chemical weapons are cheap to manufacture, the formulas are available in college textbooks and the finished product is easy to hide--agents are able to discover that at least 20 other countries have such technology.

Increased Vulnerability

This shocking discovery spurs the United States, the Soviet Union and 38 other nations to seek a worldwide treaty banning the manufacture as well as the use of chemical weapons. But experts predict that if such a treaty is possible at all, it will take at least 12 years to implement--a delay during which the world’s vulnerability to chemical weapons will only increase.


Frightening as this scenario is, it is not fiction.

A problem many considered solved in the 70 years since the mustard gas and phosgene nightmares of World War I, the Pandora’s box of deadly chemical weapons has once again been opened. And this time, U.S. officials warn, it may be impossible to put the lid back on.

Over the last month alone, the United States has discovered two more nations that have clandestinely developed chemical warfare materials, bringing the total to 22, and there are growing suspicions about others.

At the same time, arms negotiators predict that the earliest hope for a ratified treaty banning chemical weapons--possession of which, at the moment, is not illegal anywhere in the world--is the year 2000.


“We’re trying to catch a train that has already left the station,” lamented a State Department official.

“It’s a much more dangerous world out there now,” said a Pentagon official. “Some of our adversaries now have chemical weapons, and they will consider using them.”

Why have chemical weapons, banned by near-universal agreement in revulsion against the horrors of World War I, again become a threat? And how are they spreading in the face of such widespread opposition?

Four Characteristics

The answer is that chemical weapons have four characteristics that put them in a class by themselves: They are simple to make, relatively easy to deliver, appallingly effective and almost impossible to defend against on a large scale and maintain military effectiveness.

Unlike nuclear and biological weapons, which require advanced scientific research and massive funds, “chemical weapons are comparatively easy,” said a Reagan Administration source. “You can make the basic compounds in a kitchen sink or a high school lab.”

The deadly poisons can replace explosives in conventional weaponry, such as artillery, rockets and bombs. And the new potential of using chemicals in long-range missiles could add another dangerous dimension to the trend, analysts contend.

Tiny amounts of some chemicals are deadly. A pinprick of nerve gas on the skin can kill, and the same amount placed in front of a fan would kill everyone in a normal-size room.


And although protective gear and antidotes have been developed for the military, civilians are totally exposed virtually everywhere in the world. The possibilities were evident when, Iran claimed, Iraqi chemical weapons killed 3,000 to 5,000 Kurds in the village of Halabja in March.

World Response

Iraq’s alleged use of chemical arms was probably the most wide-scale since World War I, and the civilian deaths finally triggered a world response.

The House and Senate last month passed bills imposing economic sanctions against Iraq, although that legislation is currently stymied in a House-Senate conference. Separately, President Reagan, at the United Nations, called for an international conference on chemical warfare.

The Iraqi case was startling not only for the indiscriminate scope of the alleged attacks but because it brought the rest of the world, which had not been aware of Iraq’s chemical warfare potential, face to face with a terrifying problem that many had long considered solved.

Chemical weapons have clearly spread beyond the control of the superpowers, former inhibitions on their use are eroding and the conclusion of an effective international treaty is fraught with difficulties.

‘Puts You on First Team’

“If you can’t go nuclear, it’s the one weapon that puts you on the first team,” said Neil C. Livingstone, adjunct professor of national security studies at Georgetown University in Washington. “A lot of Third World countries without any hope of a nuclear capability will be reluctant to give it up.”


Only the United States and the Soviet Union have openly acknowledged possessing chemical weapons. The United Nations has charged Iraq with using gas against Iran.

Beyond those three nations, a cross section of American and European analysts say 11 others are widely believed to have already acquired such weaponry or to be developing the capacity. These are China, Cuba, Egypt, France, Iran, Israel, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Nine more nations--Afghanistan, Argentina, Burma, Chile, Ethiopia, India, Laos, Pakistan and South Africa--are believed to be trying to acquire chemical weapons. The six Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe are believed to be helping Soviet research and development, but none is thought to have an independent capability.

Developed by Germans

Chemical weaponry, developed the most extensively by the Germans during World War I, ranges from mustard gas and cyanide to nerve agents.

Mustard gas burns whatever it touches and usually kills after it is inhaled; the lungs fill with fluid, and the victims drown. Cyanide is a blood agent, which blocks the capacity of the blood to carry oxygen, so victims generally suffocate.

Nerve gas, which may be dispersed either as a gas or as a thick liquid, blocks the functioning of the nervous system, causing convulsions, blindness and ultimately death through respiratory failure. U.S. troops are equipped with a nerve-gas antidote that is injected into the thigh, although military analysts concede that the colorless and odorless gas moves so fast that there is rarely sufficient warning.

The only antidote for mustard gas is a treated gauze pad to wipe on affected areas, and foreign doctors treating some of the apparent Iranian victims of Iraqi chemicals discovered the inadequacy of this treatment.

The most effective protection is a combination of gas masks and cumbersome body suits that limit maneuverability. U.S. tests at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization air base two years ago showed that, within the first few hours after personnel donned the protective clothing, the rate at which the crews could run test flights had dropped to 40% of normal. Within 12 hours, the rate dropped to zero--everyone was too exhausted.

Terrorist Potential

Defense Department officials are now concerned about two other potential developments: self-sufficiency in production of chemical weapons and their use as terrorist weapons.

So far, Third World countries have depended on foreign chemical manufacturers to obtain weapon ingredients, which are also used in pesticides. They mix the chemicals into lethal compounds and load them into munitions at home.

Private firms in NATO countries, particularly West Germany, have been leading sources of the ingredients, sometimes unwittingly. Monitoring or limiting sales of the basic chemicals had been ways to curb proliferation.

Now, however, some Third World producers are learning to make chemical weapon ingredients from their constituent parts, which are widely used in making textiles, paint and even cosmetics and ink.

More ominous is the nucleus of countries, notably including Syria, that in the view of U.S. and European analysts are moving toward independent production of chemical weapons.

“Iraq has a greater stockpile,” Harvard biochemist Matthew Meselson said, “but Syria is more advanced in developing its capability.” He said Syria can now independently make mustard gas, one of the chemicals that killed an estimated 90,000 troops in World War I.

‘Syria Is Closing In’

“It’s just like countries that buy kits for cars,” said a European analyst who asked not to be identified by name. “Gradually they learn how to make more and more of their own parts, and then get to the point where they can build one from scratch.” Under the guise of peaceful scientific research, he said, “Syria is closing in.”

Thomas J. Welch, deputy assistant secretary of defense, said fewer than half a dozen countries had chemical weapons when the United States stopped production in 1961. “When Congress requested resumption in 1987, we counted 20 countries,” he said. “Now, there are 22.”

Several officials believe there are others that they have not been able to identify, notably in Latin America. U.S. intelligence is now on a worldwide alert for evidence of chemical weapon possession.

“If a nation can make fertilizer or insecticide, it’s capable of making chemical weapons,” Welch said. “Since most nations have that capability, certainly more than 100 have the capability of making chemical weapons.”

Magnifying the danger of proliferation is the fact that many Third World nations, previously dependent on major powers for the weapons into which chemicals are loaded, are now developing their own munitions. These include artillery shells, bombs and long-range missiles. Brazil and Argentina, for example, are now pushing their own surface-to-surface missiles in Third World markets.

So far, chemical weapons have been used only in conventional conflicts. But the Pentagon has quietly issued warnings about chemical terrorism since 1985.

U.S. intelligence sources claim that unnamed terrorist groups have since considered using poison chemicals but, so far, rejected the idea. Fears remain high, however, because some nations with a new chemical warfare capability are past or current sponsors of terrorism, such as Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Pentagon Closed Off

“We have hardened against conventional terrorist attacks, putting cinder blocks and potted plants around government buildings,” said a Defense Department analyst. “The Pentagon has been closed off, and we put barriers around the White House. But that stuff can’t stop an aerosol of chemical or biological agents.”

In “America the Vulnerable,” Georgetown University’s Livingstone and Joseph D. Douglass Jr., a government consultant and arms specialist, describe “a world where the click of a camera shutter releases a deadly virus into a room; of death-dealing envelopes and postage stamps with a toxin in the glue; of terrorist groups armed with chemical/biological weapons capable of inflicting thousands of casualties without warning.”

Few restrictions govern the manufacture of chemical weapons. “There is no law anywhere in the world that says you can’t make all the chemical weapons you want,” said Gary B. Crocker, a State Department analyst. “And there is no law that says you can’t transfer chemical weapons.”

Ban Signed in 1925

The only ban, signed by 106 nations after widespread use of chemical warfare in World War I, is the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which bans the use but not the possession of chemical weapons. Forty nations are negotiating in Geneva over a treaty that would give the nations of the world 10 years to eliminate existing stockpiles of chemical weapons and to stop manufacturing new ones.

Reagan Administration sources now say a treaty is probably within reach in two years. The pact would need to be ratified, after which nations would have a full decade to destroy facilities and stockpiles.

“This allows a substantial period for violation,” said Gordon Burck of the Federation of American Scientists. “There’s another problem. No one is sure what’s out there, and no one wants to admit having it just as it’s being banned.”

The negotiations, now seven years old, could also collapse before final agreement. One U.S. official involved in the Geneva talks said the United States would not sign if there were holdouts among nations suspected of chemical warfare capability, such as Libya, which is reportedly now building its own installations.