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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Inability to Trace Anthrax Poses Large Security Threat, Experts Say

Terrorism: If source of germs can't be found, no one can be punished and attacks can't be deterred, some warn. Iraq offers a case in point.

November 07, 2001|AARON ZITNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Iraq had always said that its Al Hakam factory made pesticides out of harmless bacteria, a common process in the world of agriculture. But when Richard Spertzel visited in 1994, he decided something was not right.

Working deep in the desert, surrounded by bunkers and barbed wire, Al Hakam workers had set their machinery to turn the bacteria into tiny, gaslike particles rather than into a heavier substance that would settle easily on crops.

So Spertzel, chief of the United Nations biological inspectors who scoured Iraq after the Gulf War, ordered samples to be taken and analyzed. He suspected that Iraqi scientists were using the harmless bacteria as practice for processing a far more pernicious germ: the anthrax bacterium.

Today, U.S. officials are scrambling to find the source of the anthrax that has killed four Americans, and many weapon experts say that Iraq deserves a spot on the suspect list. But Spertzel's samples stand as the only examples of what "weaponized" bacteria from Iraq might look like, several former U.N. inspectors say.

U.S. investigators are using microscopes and chemical tests to chart the features of the bacteria turning up in American mailboxes. But there is nothing like an international fingerprint file of biological weapons to which they can compare those features to identify a suspect.

Even the material from Iraq is meager, despite a seven-year U.N. effort to detect that nation's biological weapons. Though it was never proved, U.N. inspectors believed that the Al Hakam samples showed Iraq's methods for making weapons-grade anthrax, at least as of 1994. Their analysis of the bacterial particles showed them to be less than 10 microns in diameter--a tiny size far better suited to a biological weapon than to a pesticide, which would typically use particles five times bigger, Spertzel and others say.

U.S. investigators are comparing the Al Hakam samples to the mysterious U.S. anthrax in an attempt to learn whether both were produced the same way, several weapon experts said.

Now, some weapon specialists are warning that the difficulty in tracing the anthrax bacteria reveals a glaring weakness in U.S. national defenses, one that stretches far beyond the question of Iraq's involvement in the anthrax attacks.

"If you can't attribute [weapons] material to someone, you give the guys who make it a free pass," said David Kay, former chief U.N. inspector of Iraqi nuclear weapon programs. "You can never convince coalition partners and maybe even your own public of who did it so that you can rally support to retaliate."

And if the United States cannot credibly say to its enemies that it will retaliate, he said, then it will have little power to deter attacks in the first place.

Kay and others argue that federal officials must start a new Manhattan Project to find ways to fingerprint biological warfare agents from around the world. "We need to be able to say to rogue nations: 'Use your stuff and we'll likely figure it out before the sun rises on your capital,' " said Scott Layne, a physician at UCLA's School of Public Health.

The U.S. abandoned its efforts to make offensive biological weapons in 1969, but at least 13 nations are known or suspected to have active programs. They include several nations hostile to the U.S., including Iran, Libya and North Korea.

U.S. officials say they do not know who is behind the anthrax attacks. President Bush on Saturday said that "we do not yet know who sent the anthrax--whether it was the same terrorists who committed the attacks on September the 11th, or whether it was other international or domestic terrorists."

But Iraq has drawn a high level of suspicion, and not only because of lingering hostility to the United States from the Gulf War. Iraq is one of the few nations that has admitted stockpiling anthrax as a weapon. And Czech officials raised a range of tantalizing questions about Iraq's role when they confirmed last month that an Iraqi intelligence official met last April in Prague with Mohamed Atta, a suspected leader of the Sept. 11 hijackings.

At the same time, Iraq stands as a case study in how hard it can be to penetrate a nation's weapon program--even under an intense international spotlight.

After the Gulf War, Iraq agreed to a U.N. Security Council resolution that allowed inspectors to search for and destroy any chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, as well as equipment that made the weapons and missiles used to deliver them.

What followed was a seven-year cat-and-mouse game in which Iraq tried to hide evidence of its weapon programs. But it was the U.N.'s biological inspectors who faced the heaviest interference as they tried to search Iraqi factories, interview scientists and hunt for documents.

For the first four years of the U.N. program, beginning in 1991, Iraq denied that it had developed offensive biological weapons. U.N. inspectors believed otherwise, but they could not prove their case.

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