WASHINGTON — The first satellite pictures in 1985 only added to the mystery. On an isolated patch of Libyan desert about 70 miles from Tripoli, a major construction project was under way. Curiously, it was in the middle of nowhere--no roads, no electricity, no ready labor force.
Then came the intelligence reports. A shadowy Arab businessman surfaced as a major supplier, using front companies and oddly circuitous routes to ship equipment to Libya. Ominously, in his dossier was information linking him to construction of a chemical weapons plant in Iraq.
More pictures from space focused on the plant's oversized ventilation equipment, a highly sophisticated system associated with production of deadly micro-toxins. As months passed, suspicion and alarm mounted among U.S. intelligence analysts.
Then the dogs died.
The lifeless bodies of a pack of wild desert dogs were detected, apparently exposed to an accidental toxic spill at the mysterious plant last August. In panic, the Libyans rushed to telephones and, in a major breach of security, used open international phone lines to seek emergency advice from the West German chemical firm that had helped build the plant.
Sophisticated electronic intelligence equipment plucked the conversations from the air, and Washington at last had what it considered solid proof: Libya was secretly preparing to make chemical weapons.
On such scattered and fragmented clues rests the nation's efforts to detect and curb the proliferation of chemical and biological warfare. Despite success in Libya, however, no one is claiming that the United States has developed an infallible monitoring system.
"We've got a long way to go before any of us can take comfort," said Stephen D. Bryen, recently retired deputy undersecretary for trade security policy at the Pentagon. "We've still got to get better organized. The fact is that no government is very well organized to deal with this problem."
Surveillance and Luck
Indeed, the combination of high-tech surveillance, old-fashioned spying, meticulous analysis and luck that were used to unravel the Libyan mystery demonstrates the difficulty of tracing the chemical gases and biological toxins that form the most insidious weapons in the modern arsenal of war.
Success, conceded one intelligence source, is "sometimes due to a damn good system; sometimes it's a matter of blind luck." And sometimes, even its supporters acknowledge, it does not come at all.
For example, a decade of concern and suspicion by Western intelligence analysts that Iraq was developing chemical weapons was not confirmed until the gruesome killings of Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians by mustard gas and nerve agents late in the brutal Iran-Iraq War.
Although Iraq continues to deny the use of the gases, both U.N. and U.S. agencies now believe the charge is true.
"We're doing better because our technical (surveillance) ability has improved . . . and we know better how to use our human agents," said Robert Kupperman, an expert on arms and terrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
But the fundamental problems are staggering: The ingredients of chemical weapons are literally garden-variety compounds that go into making everything from fertilizer and pesticides to the ink for ballpoint pens. Of necessity, they move freely in world commerce by the thousands of tons.
Nor is the manufacturing equipment necessarily a tell-tale clue. Although some pieces of equipment--notably the oversized ventilating system--were compatible with chemical weapons facilities, such systems are also used increasingly to curb air pollution from innocuous plants.
Few Share Zeal
Compounding the problem of monitoring and deterring chemical weapons proliferation is the fact that only a handful of nations--not including such critical European allies as West Germany--share this country's crusading zeal on the subject.
Resources for the effort are more limited in Europe than in this country. Europe's trade with the Mideast is vastly greater and thus harder to watch. And European nations--traditionally more dependent on trade than the United States--are leery about policing efforts that might interfere with the flow of commerce or stir resentment among important customers.
"Despite belated European Community measures against Libya . . . many countries are still dragging their feet," said Paul Wilkinson, a leading expert on terrorism at Aberdeen University in Scotland.
Despite the odds, the U.S. government continues to try to ferret out evidence of chemical weapons production and the movement of materials that could contribute to such production.
The dead dogs of August represented an extraordinary intelligence windfall. For the first time, U.S. monitoring had exposed a clandestine chemical warfare facility before it had even begun full production.