Special Search Operations Yield No Banned Weapons
By Barton Gellman; Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2003;
Shortly before the first bombs fell on Baghdad earlier this month,
special operations teams from the United States, Britain and Australia
swept low over Iraq's western desert to seize four targets of highest
priority to the U.S. Central Command. The teams set down at camouflaged
structures believed to house chemical warheads, Scud missiles and
eight-wheeled transporter-erector launchers, known as TELs.
After short firefights, the teams secured the sites, according to
sources briefed on the after-action reports. But the mission turned up
nothing. There were "no missiles, no TELs and no chemicals" where
blueprints and scale-model terrain tables had directed the teams to
look, one knowledgeable official said.
Ten days into a war fought under the flag of disarmament, U.S.-led
troops have found no substantial sign of Iraqi weapons of mass
destruction. In some ways, that is unsurprising. The war is far from
won, and most of Iraq's covert arms production and storage historically
have taken place within a 60-mile radius of Baghdad. That is roughly
the forward line of U.S. armored columns in their thrust to the Iraqi
At the same time, U.S. forces have tested 10 of their best
intelligence leads, four that first day and another half-dozen since,
without result. There are nearly 300 sites in the top tier of a much
larger list that the Defense Intelligence Agency updated in the run-up
to war, officials said. The 10 sites reached by Friday were among the
most urgent. If equipped as suspected, they would have posed an
immediate threat to U.S. forces. "All the searches have turned up
negative," said a Joint Staff officer who is following field reports.
"The munitions that have been found have all been conventional."
Two disarmament planners said the Bush administration is determined
to conduct the weapons hunt without the U.N. agencies that hold
Security Council mandates for the job. Administration officials
distrust the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection
Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Administration officials are negotiating contracts with private
companies for some of the work. They have also begun to recruit
inspectors -- the cohort, one official said, will grow to as many as
two dozen -- to break any remaining contracts with UNMOVIC and join a
parallel effort under U.S. command.
The White House will consider "a role for an international entity"
to verify U.S. discoveries after the fact, two officials said, but that
augurs another clash in the Security Council. Hans Blix, UNMOVIC's
executive chairman, said in an interview Wednesday that the commission
would not accept "being led, as a dog" to sites that allied forces
choose to display.
Planners now predict the "near term" of the weapons hunt could last
eight months or more. They are counting on help from Iraqi scientists
and facility managers who will no longer fear President Saddam Hussein,
or who can be made to fear the consequences of failure to cooperate
after his fall.
But U.S. analysts have also said that layers of secrecy may have
left the Iraqi scientists unaware of how much was produced, to whose
custody it was transferred, where it was hidden, how it was transported
and dispersed in subsequent moves, and where it may be now.
Some U.S. officials also caution that Iraqi weaponeers could have
competing motives for what they say. Desperate for leniency, they may
invent details to inflate their importance. Others may try to conceal
technology the can be sold for private gain. And even a friendly
successor government in Iraq may try secretly to preserve the means to
reconstitute nonconventional weapons, as a counterweight to regional
"The same conditions that led Saddam to proliferate are going to
apply to whoever's in power, in terms of Iran holding [similar]
weapons, and Israel," said a State Department official.
Bush administration officials are acutely aware that their declared
war aims call for an early display of evidence. John S. Wolf, assistant
secretary of state for nonproliferation, recently said that the seventh
floor of the State Department -- where Secretary Colin L. Powell and
other top political appointees work -- was keen on swift discovery of a
"smoking gun," according to someone present.
"The president has made very clear that the reason why we are in
Iraq is to find weapons of mass destruction," Wolf said in a telephone
interview yesterday. He added, "The fact that we haven't found them in
seven or eight days doesn't faze me one little bit. Very clearly, we
need to find this stuff or people are going to be asking questions."
In the fighting thus far, U.S. forces have taken custody of one
potentially significant informant, a brigadier general who commanded an
ammunition depot at Najaf. "That's the first site that showed any kind
of promise," one senior official said, but "it was not anywhere close
to the top of the list." The general has not led U.S. forces to
forbidden weapons, and "whether he was knowledgeable or a caretaker
it's hard to tell" from early debriefings, the official said.
Searchers from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division "haven't seen
anything there that would tell us there are chemical or biological
weapons," said a military officer who consulted yesterday's updated
reports. Asked about Iraqi chemical protection gear found at Najaf and
elsewhere, the officer and other officials said there was no sign
suggesting they were freshly issued, actually worn by Iraqi troops or
linked to orders to fire chemical munitions.
Some planners said they foresaw laborious site surveys to update
the nearly 1,000 conducted since 1991 by U.N. inspectors. The broadest
U.S. intelligence list of suspect facilities, officials said, numbers
about 1,400. Najaf is one such site, and after a week the search is not
"If they're working from a list of 1,400 sites, they are really
suffering," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science
and International Security and a former U.N. inspector. Albright said
he still believed there was a hidden nuclear weapons program to be
found. "Even 200 or 300 is a lot. I think they are struggling."
Increasingly aware of their limited manpower and expertise, White
House officials have backed Defense Department efforts to create a
substitute organization for UNMOVIC and the Vienna-based IAEA.
"We're trying to do something here that's never been done, and
we're just trying to get the mechanisms in place," said a senior Bush
Officials at the two U.N. agencies said in interviews that the
United States would not have access to more than 1 million pages in
their archives on Iraq, although they acknowledged that the U.S.
government had obtained some of the data informally.
State Department officials are warning that the Security Council
will resist U.S. efforts to conduct inspections on its own. This week,
British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged President Bush privately to let
U.N. inspectors back in as soon as possible.
The Security Council debate is important because the United States
wants to lift economic sanctions on Iraq as soon as the current
government falls. But the council must vote to do that, and some
members are warning already that they will not support such a vote
until U.N. weapons inspectors -- not U.S. military forces -- certify
Bush's top advisers, those at the cabinet level and their immediate
deputies, have not yet met to resolve interagency disputes over who
will pay for the disarmament mission and what to do about U.N.
inspectors. But two people familiar with the working group now guiding
U.S. policy said they foresaw "a role for an international entity" that
was limited to validating U.S. discoveries after the fact.
To locate and identify the forbidden weapons, the Pentagon has
recruited four or five of the most experienced U.N. inspectors to
resign from UNMOVIC. They will take unspecified roles in Kuwait at the
Weapons of Mass Destruction Intelligence Exploitation Base under Army
Maj. Gen. James A. Marks.
The recruits must sign waivers acknowledging the perils of a war
zone and must hold or obtain a security clearance recognized under U.S.
intelligence-sharing agreements. In practice that will limit the
inspectors to those from closely allied governments including Britain,
Australia and perhaps Canada.
Charles Duelfer, the first and most senior of the recruits, told a
former colleague by e-mail last week that he had joined the weapons
search, and hoped others would too, because the government had few
experts with personal knowledge of Iraqi weaponeers and their records.
He did not reply to a request for comment.
Some associates in New York describe Blix as dispirited and angry
about the talent raids. In an interview Wednesday, Blix said three of
his UNMOVIC inspectors had come to him for advice about the recruitment
effort, but "we have not heard one word from Washington" directly. Blix
said that he was attempting to "maintain operational readiness" by
keeping inspectors "available on the roster," but in general he
maintained a careful neutrality.
"They are free individuals," Blix said. "If they want to terminate
their contracts, anyone can do that, including myself. . . . But they
would not be allowed to reveal anything that they have done here,
because that is part of their contract. They cannot take with them
their files." Blix has previously said he did not intend to renew his
contract when it expired in June.
At the IAEA, Director General Mohamed ElBaradei is described by two
associates as determined to regain primacy in verifying Iraq's nuclear
disarmament. "It is clear that [the IAEA] mandate still exists, and the
credibility of the findings and the assessment will rely on that," one
of them said. ElBaradei believes he has "full responsibility" under
compulsory U.N. Security Council resolutions dating from April 1991,
and has "a unanimous international community, minus one" to take the
lead as soon as fighting stops.
"We have a lot of rights vis-a-vis the Iraqi government," Blix
said. "We can go into any government office, we can ask for any
document, we can interview any person. . . . If we were to go in now,
could we go into the allied headquarters and ask for their files? If
they had got hold of some interesting Iraqi ammunition, could we ask
General [Tommy R.] Franks or somebody else for an interview? I can see
important questions coming up there, and they lead me to caution and to
go to the Security Council."
An interagency and international team of scientists and engineers
known as XTF 75, for exploitation task force, intended as a mobile
detective unit, is still in Kuwait and has yet to deploy into Iraq.
Each large Army and Marine combat unit has a small "site survey team,"
expected to summon the mobile task force if fighting brings U.S. forces
to a suspicious site. But XTF 75, organized around an artillery
headquarters company from Fort Sill, Okla., needs transport helicopters
to carry a heavy burden of delicate equipment. Officials said these
helicopters can operate only in "a permissive environment."
Presuming that U.S. forces will find banned weapons stocks, the
Defense Threat Reduction Agency, or DTRA, is negotiating potentially
costly contracts with multinational companies to destroy them. One of
the companies is KBR, formerly Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary
of Halliburton, which Richard B. Cheney chaired until his selection as
George W. Bush's running mate in July 2000.
Wendy Hall, a Halliburton spokeswoman, said the company "currently
has two task orders" from the defense agency, but "due to the
sensitivity of the details KBR is not in a position to elaborate at
this time." A DTRA spokesman declined to comment.
Blix, in a 90-minute conversation, reiterated his disappointment
with the outbreak of war but acknowledged that an occupying power will
have advantages in the weapons hunt -- above all the removal of a
feared police state that may have inhibited scientists from telling all
they knew. He also said the Americans will need every advantage they
can get. Gaps in the known Iraqi record -- for instance, 10,000 liters
of unaccounted-for growth media that could have been used to
manufacture anthrax -- are far from positive proof that the weapons
exist, he said.
The United States and Britain have said "they should deliver the
anthrax, while we would say they should present any anthrax," Blix
said. "Now that's a very basic difference in the attitude to the
He added, speaking of the U.S.-led search teams: "Good luck to
them. We are also damned interested in learning if they find something."