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 capital.

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 rivals.

"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 yet complete.

"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 administration official.

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 Iraq's disarmament.

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 evidence."

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."