Experts Downplay Bioagent
A suspicious sample of biological material recently found by U.S. weapons hunters in Iraq probably was purchased legally from a U.S. organization in the 1980s and is a substance that has never been successfully used to produce a weapon, experts said.
The discovery of the hidden vial of C. botulinum Okra B, which was revealed in an Oct. 2 interim report by chief U.S. weapons hunter David Kay, was highlighted in speeches by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other senior administration officials as proof that President Saddam Hussein’s government maintained an illicit bio-weapons program before the war.
The significance of the vial is one of several elements of Kay’s report that are being called into question by U.S. biowarfare experts and former United Nations weapons inspectors. Although most praised Kay for uncovering numerous cases in which Iraq hid suspicious equipment and activities from U.N. inspectors, they said the report appeared misleading in several areas.
Overall, Kay, who returned to Iraq last week, reported that he had found no evidence so far to indicate that Hussein’s regime had reconstituted its chemical weapons program, or had taken significant steps to build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material, after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
He found considerable evidence, however, that Hussein secretly had begun an extensive effort after 1998 to design missiles that violated U.N. rules; had launched numerous schemes to procure missile technology and other prohibited equipment from foreign suppliers, including North Korea; and had maintained a clandestine network of about two dozen small laboratories, run by Iraq’s intelligence services, which Kay said contained equipment “suitable” for chemical or biological research.
The single vial of botulinum B had been stored in an Iraqi scientist’s kitchen refrigerator since 1993. It appears to have been produced by a nonprofit Virginia biological resource center, the American Type Culture Collection, which legally exported botulinum and other biological material to Iraq under a Commerce Department license in the late 1980s.
The vial of botulinum B -- about 2 inches high and half an inch wide -- was the only suspicious biological material Kay reported finding. It was sealed and stored in the scientist’s home with 96 other apparently benign vials of single-cell proteins and biopesticides.
In his 13-page declassified report, Kay said “a biological agent” could be produced from the botulinum sample. Speaking to reporters at the White House the next day, Oct. 3, Bush said the war in Iraq was justified and cited Kay’s discovery of the advanced missile programs, clandestine labs and what he called “a live strain of deadly agent botulinum” as proof that Hussein was “a danger to the world.”
But Dr. David Franz, a former chief U.N. biological weapons inspector who is considered among America’s foremost experts on biowarfare agents, said there was no evidence that Iraq or anyone else has ever succeeded in using botulinum B for biowarfare.
“The Soviets dropped it [as a goal] and so did we, because we couldn’t get it working as a weapon,” said Franz, who is the former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Md., the Pentagon’s lead laboratory for bioweapons defense research.
“From the weapons side, it’s not something to be concerned about,” agreed Dr. Raymond Zilinskas, another former U.N. inspector who is now director of the chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation program at the Monterey Institute in California.
Botulinum B is a source of botulism, a common form of deadly food poisoning that usually results from improper canning. It disperses quickly in the air, however, and thus is not effective as an airborne agent for weapons, Zilinskas said.
Asked for comment, a U.S. official who consulted with government experts said Kay “didn’t oversell this.”
“He stated a simple fact. What Dr. Kay said was botulinum B can be used to produce a biological agent,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Can that agent be used to produce a biological weapon? You bet.”
During the 1980s, Iraq produced botulinum A, a highly lethal neurotoxin that causes respiratory failure and can lead to death in 24 hours. According to U.N. reports, Iraqi scientists produced more than 19,000 liters of botulinum A and poured about 10,000 liters of the toxin into missile warheads and 400-pound bombs.
But U.N. inspectors found no evidence that Iraq ever produced botulinum B in its laboratories. A CIA spokesman said Kay has not yet traced the origin of the vial he obtained. But Zilinskas said the sample almost certainly came from American Type Culture Collection. “We know they bought their botulinum strains from the United States, including B,” he said.
In 1994, an investigation by the House Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee determined that American Type Culture Collection had been a primary supplier of botulinum, anthrax and other pathogens to Iraq. The organization, based in Manassas, Va., shipped at least seven batches of botulinum strains to Baghdad in May 1986 and September 1988, according to records released by the committee.
Nancy Wysocki, a spokeswoman for the bioresource center, said there was no way for her to know if her organization had exported the vial of botulinum B found in Iraq. But she said all botulinum and other exports to Iraq at the time had been approved by the Commerce Department. “Iraq was not an embargoed country in the 1980s,” she said.
The circumstances of the botulinum B find were one reason for Kay’s concern. Some of the other vials found in the scientist’s refrigerator had labels indicating they came from Al Hakam, which was one of Iraq’s chief bioweapons production labs before 1991. In addition, Kay said the scientist also was asked by the government to store other biological material, including a virulent strain of anthrax. He briefly did, but then returned the material. The scientist has passed a polygraph test, Kay said.
Terence Taylor, another former U.N. biowarfare inspector who now heads the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, said it is too early to dismiss the discovery of the vial.
“Just because botulinum B has not been used in a weapons program elsewhere, and we never found evidence of it in the 1990s, that does not necessarily rule out” transforming it into a weapon, Taylor said. “There’s not enough detail in Kay’s [unclassified] statement. And there’s a lot we still don’t know about their weapons programs.”
In addition to the doubts about the botulinum B, several outside experts are also questioning the significance of Kay’s claim that he uncovered covert “new research” in Iraq on such potential biowarfare agents as Brucella and Congo Crimean Hemorrhagic Fever as well as “continuing work” on ricin and aflatoxin that were not declared to U.N. inspectors.
CCHF, as the hemorrhagic fever virus is known, is common in Iraq. The World Health Organization reports that the disease, which can cause intense bleeding and death, is “endemic in many countries in Africa, Europe and Asia.” There is no evidence that Iraq or anyone else has weaponized it.
“There are public health reasons to work with it in that part of the world,” said Franz, the former bioweapons lab chief. “I wouldn’t find it alarming that they’re working on that.”
Brucella, which chiefly affects livestock, is also endemic to Iraq. U.S. military scientists weaponized the bacterium during the Cold War but did not consider it effective because it is slow acting and can be treated with antibiotics. U.N. inspectors have not found evidence that Iraq worked on Brucella as a weapon.
Aflatoxin causes vomiting and other incapacitating symptoms but is rarely lethal in humans. The fungal toxin is chiefly known for causing liver cancer. Iraq produced aflatoxin as a weapon in the 1980s, but nonproliferation program director Zilinskas said it has never been clear why.
“It’s not particularly toxic, and its primary effects are long term,” he said. “My feeling to this day is that it was a scam that the scientists put over on the decision-makers because it’s easy to produce and the decision-makers wouldn’t know it is useless as a biological weapon.”
Hussein’s regime also had sought to weaponize ricin, which can be highly lethal if inhaled, but ended the program in 1990 after field tests failed to kill animals, according to U.N. reports.
“They gave up using ricin as a weapon,” Franz said. “That was the right decision, in my opinion.” Because it is so difficult to produce the proper powdered form for aerosol distribution, he added, “you almost need to be hit by a brick of it to kill you.”
Former U.N. inspectors also questioned Kay’s plan to search Iraq’s 130 known ammunition storage sites for further evidence of chemical weapons; he has scoured 10 so far. Kay reported: “As Iraqi practice was not to mark much of their chemical ordnance and [was] to store it at the same [sites] that held conventional rounds, the size of the required search is enormous.”
U.N. inspectors found, however, that virtually all of Iraq’s “special munitions,” as chemical and biological weapons were known, carried distinctive, if inconsistent, markings. They included numbers, a black stripe, a white circle or a painted letter.
“Kay’s comment gives the impression [that chemical weapons] were kept with conventional munitions and he’ll have to check every shell,” said another former U.N. inspector, who asked not to be identified. “That’s baloney. They kept them separated from regular munitions, they had separate security, and they had a separate chain of command. They were never co-located with conventional munitions.”