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."