Concern Grows Over Weapons Hunt Setbacks
Disorganization, delays and faulty intelligence have hampered the Pentagon-led search for Saddam Hussein’s suspected weapons of mass destruction, causing growing concern about one of the most sensitive and secretive operations in postwar Iraq, according to U.S. officials and outside experts familiar with the effort.
The slow start has created so many interagency squabbles that a National Security Council military staffer at the White House has been assigned to mediate among the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the CIA, the Energy Department and other government agencies involved in the hunt.
And some weapons experts warn that the lapses have even raised the threat of arms proliferation from Iraq.
Two classified videoconferences involving commanders in Iraq, at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar and in Washington, were organized over the last week to help straighten out the mess, officials said. The DIA’s deputy director for intelligence operations, Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, also flew to Baghdad to investigate the disorder and organize reinforcements for the hunt.
“Everybody recognizes that it’s gotten off to a rocky start,” said one official who helped draft the Pentagon’s weapons search plans and has seen reports coming back from Iraq. “Frankly, the whole situation is very confusing at the moment.”
David Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector, was critical of the initial U.S. effort. “Unity of command is not present,” said Kay, who is now a senior fellow at the nonprofit Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. “There’s not even unity of effort.... My impression is this has been a very low priority so far, and they’ve put very little effort into it.”
While the administration has urged patience over a weapons search in a country that has yet to be stabilized, President Bush hinted at the problems last week when he noted that U.S. teams had visited 90 sites so far without finding any evidence of illegal activity. Bush raised the possibility for the first time that Hussein’s regime may have destroyed, rather than simply hidden, any chemical and biological weapons.
Bush previously had cited Iraq’s failure to account for allegedly vast stockpiles of anthrax material, botulinum toxin, mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agents -- as well as more than 30,000 munitions, ballistic missiles and mobile biological weapons laboratories -- as the chief justification for going to war. Despite numerous false alarms, no weapons of mass destruction have been found.
A military officer involved in the search called the situation “very fluid ... right now.” He said it will take 60 to 90 more days “at the earliest” for the program to get fully geared up.
The search program’s problems are not insolvable, and Bush administration officials say they remain confident that they ultimately will unravel any clandestine weapons programs. But for now, officials describe the following shortcomings:
* The Pentagon originally planned to deploy about 20 “mobile exploitation teams” of up to 30 people each to scour weapons sites, interrogate scientists and analyze documents. But only two such teams are now hunting for weapons in Iraq. Because relatively junior warrant officers are leading the teams, their reports must go through multiple layers before reaching senior commanders.
* The Pentagon hasn’t supplied enough transport helicopters and military guards to the teams. This limits the teams’ movements and their ability to use two highly sophisticated chemical and biological laboratories that were left at an air base in northern Kuwait in shipping containers. “They’ve been totally unusable,” one official said.
* Because of the delays, scores of suspect Iraqi military sites, industrial complexes and offices were stripped of valuable documents, equipment and electronic data before U.S. forces or the exploitation teams reached them. Not all the looting appears to have been random, and U.S. officials believe Iraqi officials deliberately burned or removed some critical evidence to prevent detection.
* New recruits for the program -- including a graduate student in international affairs in Boston, a molecular biologist from a U.S. national laboratory and up to a dozen former U.N. weapons inspectors -- complain about repeated delays and inadequate information as they await a weeklong training program at Ft. Benning, Ga., and deployment to Iraq.
* The search for hundreds of Iraqi weapons scientists, engineers and technicians, and the interrogation of the handful in custody, appears haphazard.
Gen. Amir Saadi, who ran Iraq’s chemical weapons program for years and was Iraq’s chief liaison to U.N. inspectors before the war, waited at his Baghdad home for a week after U.S. forces entered the capital before his German-born wife arranged his surrender.
“He wasn’t on the lam, he wasn’t in a bunker, he wasn’t in Syria,” said Steve Black, a former U.N. inspector. “He just got tired of waiting for someone to knock on his door.”
Similarly, it took a week for the CIA and DIA to send a three-member interrogation team from Washington to debrief Jafar Jafar, the founder and former chief of Iraq’s secret nuclear weapons program, who gave himself up in the United Arab Emirates.
A third senior scientist, Emad Ani, who directed Iraq’s 1980s program to produce deadly VX nerve gas, also has turned himself in to U.S. authorities. So far, according to a U.S. intelligence official, the top scientists are all “sticking to the party line, that Saddam destroyed all his WMD [weapons of mass destruction] long ago.”
A junior Iraqi scientist who surrendered has told U.S. interrogators that Iraq burned or destroyed chemical weapons and germ warfare equipment shortly before the war began, U.S. officials said. But the scientist joined the weapons program only in the 1990s, and “his depth and breadth of knowledge is very limited,” said an official familiar with his debriefing.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a news conference Friday that his “personal view” was that U.S. forces will find Iraq’s unconventional weapons “only when they find people who will say precisely where things are.”
A senior State Department official, speaking Saturday on condition of anonymity, described the investigation as “a forensic case” in which documents and interrogations will be key.
“The answers to the questions may come from the top, or they may come from a truck driver or a major whose unit was involved in transporting or dumping these things,” he said. “All of those are people we would want to talk to.”
Finding them may not be easy. The U.S. teams have access to an unpublished list of 500 names of scientists, engineers, technicians and others that Iraq provided the U.N. Security Council in December. But a U.N. official in New York said the list is of little use.
“They deliberately used confusing spelling, and, more importantly, it doesn’t tell you where to find anyone,” he said. “There’s no Yellow Pages or phone directory in Baghdad. At the moment, there aren’t even phones.”
In addition, continued widespread instability in the country is making it difficult for teams to conduct the measured surveys and careful testing needed to fully understand any clandestine weapons procurement and production schemes, U.S. officials said.
“We will have to wait and be patient,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said last week in a BBC interview. “Let the troops finish the work they’re doing now, securing and stabilizing the country. And as more and more people come forward who are now free to speak, I think the evidence will be more forthcoming. We’ve got exploitation teams in country now, as I speak, and these exploitation teams are finding interesting things, interesting documents and having interesting interviews.”
But the failure since the war began March 20 to find any clear evidence that Hussein stockpiled unconventional weapons, or even had active programs to produce them, has caused at least some officials to question the administration’s claims.
90 Sites Checked
U.S. intelligence so far has been unable to identify precisely what illegal weapons Hussein might have had and where he might have stored them. The mobile exploitation teams, as well as special operations forces and Army and Marine site survey units, have visited 90 of the top 150 “hot” sites that U.S. intelligence indicated were most likely to hold illegal weapons. None so far has.
“I now think it is probably unlikely that we will find rooms of chemical or biological bombs ready for delivery,” said a former senior Defense Department official who has been tapped to go to Baghdad to assist an interim government.
“Look, the intelligence is conclusive that we know they had a program,” the former senior official said. “It’s not conclusive that we know where to go to find the bombs and the bugs. What we got was a long list of places to go and look at. But that whole list could be wrong.”
Rumsfeld has also appeared to downgrade his assessment of some U.S. intelligence. In response to a question Friday, he said previous assertions that Hussein had secretly retained 12 to 20 Scud missiles were “a speculation. We have not found whether or not that is a correct conclusion in the intelligence community.”
The U.S. intelligence official said the CIA remains “confident that [Hussein] had a major program. We’ll be able to find evidence of it given enough time.”
For now, the Army is running the hunt, relying on a former field artillery brigade from Ft. Sill, Okla. The newly named 75th Exploitation Task Force, or 75th XTF, is in charge of the mobile exploitation teams, or METs, that were assembled and given special training in January. The groups are backed by an elite DIA group called the Chemical Biological Intelligence Support Team.
Only two of four operating METs are searching for weapons of mass destruction, officials said. The other two have been reassigned to investigate war crimes and other issues. The teams include members of the military as well as civilians, including explosives experts, intelligence analysts, FBI agents, scientists and former U.N. weapons inspectors.
An interagency task force is being created under the Central Command to expand the operation over the next three months with up to 1,000 additional scientists, technicians, analysts and others. In addition to searching for weapons, the new Iraq Survey Team will collect and screen confiscated documents and assist in the search and interrogation of Iraqi war crimes suspects and suspected foreign terrorists.
Among those awaiting deployment are about a dozen former U.N. inspectors, including Richard Spertzel, who headed the U.N. hunt for Iraq’s biological weapons in the mid-1990s. Reached at home outside Washington on Friday, Spertzel declined to comment.
But other former U.N. inspectors in the U.S. and Europe are almost uniformly critical of the pace and scope of the effort.
By failing to secure suspect sites, Kay and others warned, the Pentagon could not guarantee that critical blueprints, weapons parts, precursor chemicals and other valuable material have not been spirited out of the country for sale to other nations or to terrorist groups.
“They’ve increased the proliferation threat,” Kay said. “And they’ve made it more difficult to ever unravel what really happened. You can’t reconstitute burned documents or stolen computer hard drives unless you find copies.”
Terence Taylor, who heads the Washington office of the nonpartisan International Institute for Strategic Studies, said he fears there is a “real risk that certain materials could leak out” of Iraq.
He said U.S. teams have yet to recover crucial nonnuclear components from Iraq’s former nuclear bomb program, including HMX high explosives and sophisticated circuitry.
“They haven’t got the right people on the ground yet,” said Taylor, who was a nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq from 1993 to 1997. “And to do that, they need offices, security, computers, all kinds of things. Most of that still isn’t in place.”
Jonathan Tucker, a former U.N. bioweapons inspector who is a senior fellow at the congressionally funded U.S. Institute for Peace, said the weapons teams “are stretched pretty thin.” He added, “I don’t think they’ve performed very well so far.”
But the senior State Department official said the search program will prove its worth in coming months. “We have very well-trained people. They’re being reinforced. They’re using the best equipment in the world. We have a lot of skilled interrogators. We still believe the [weapons] program will be found. In what state it is, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.