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After a Disappointing Start, U.S. Retools Weapons Search

May 11, 2003|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Few Americans are watching the search for stashes of deadly germs, poison gases and other illicit weapons in postwar Iraq as closely as retired biologist William Capers Patrick III.

After all, during the Cold War, Patrick helped construct the same kind of mobile bioweapons labs for the Pentagon that the Bush administration insists Saddam Hussein built. He even used his trucks to produce some of the same lethal pathogens, including anthrax.

"We got all our equipment into a standard trailer, an 18-wheeler," said Patrick, 77, disclosing the U.S. effort for the first time. "They make very good units. You can produce your agent as you move along. The Soviets did the same thing."

Patrick's wheeled labs -- as well as other labs hidden on ships at sea -- were ordered destroyed along with deadly microbes such as tularemia, Q fever and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus after President Nixon disbanded the secret germ warfare program in 1969.

Whether Hussein also grew microbes in trucks is still unclear. The Pentagon announced Wednesday that it may have found a biowarfare lab in a tractor-trailer that was seized by Kurdish fighters at a roadblock April 19 in northern Iraq. Weeks of tests are planned.

The truck's discovery has excited senior Bush administration officials, and it's no wonder.

Amid growing skepticism about the central White House rationale for invading Iraq, officials are eagerly awaiting any evidence to prove U.S. charges that Hussein's regime secretly produced hundreds of tons of biological and chemical agents.

"The events of the past few weeks have a lot of us in the community worried about the quality of intelligence that informs major policy decisions," said Steven M. Block, a biophysicist at Stanford University and member of a high-level Pentagon advisory panel. "We have people in custody. We have the ability to interrogate anyone we want. You'd think by now one person would come forward with one good lead.... With each passing day, it becomes a greater embarrassment."

The seizure of the suspected mobile lab gave the Pentagon the impetus for another unveiling. Facing complaints that the secrecy-shrouded weapons hunt has been poorly planned, unevenly executed and beset by bureaucratic turf wars, senior defense officials publicly defended and described the operation for the first time. They also spelled out plans for a significantly expanded effort.

Among the disclosures: Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, will take charge of the effort when he flies to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar on May 20. Dayton ultimately will lead about 2,000 scientists, interrogators, intelligence analysts, former U.N. weapons inspectors and others for a variety of missions in Iraq, including the weapons hunt.

"There seems to be no sense of urgency about this, which is confusing to me," said George A. Lopez, director of policy studies at Notre Dame University's Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and chairman of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. "We're losing evidence, we're losing opportunity."

But Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, insisted at a news briefing that the Pentagon had a "comprehensive" approach aimed at "unraveling the puzzle that is the weapons of mass destruction program."

Each morning, he said, weapons and intelligence experts share notes and select priorities at the Central Command operations center outside Baghdad. Specialists then are dispatched to scour suspect sites, to interview Iraqis familiar with the program or to translate and analyze weapons-related procurement and technical documents and computer data.

So far, he said, the teams have searched about 110 Iraqi sites -- 70 from a master list of 580 prepared before the war by U.S. intelligence and 40 resulting from leads from Iraqis or documents gathered since the war.

The hunt has several layers. Initial assessments of suspect sites are done by seven military teams, including four that arrived in Iraq in mid-April. The teams have six members each and carry radiation dose-meters and other portable chemical and biological detection gear.

If suspicious materials are found, two "mobile exploitation teams" with more sophisticated equipment are called in to run more thorough scientific tests. Samples also are sent to two military labs in the U.S., as well as what Cambone called a "non-U.S. laboratory," which he declined to identify, for independent analysis.

If illicit weapons or production facilities are found, two private defense contractors hired by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency will have primary responsibility for destroying them. Raytheon Co. and KBR, a subsidiary of Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer, Halliburton Co., will each send 60 people to Iraq this month as the first phase of the weapons elimination effort, according to a senior defense official.

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