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AFTER THE WAR

U.S. Offers Details on Iraqi Rigs

CIA and DIA, faced with criticism of their performance, share a report to bolster the claim that Hussein had mobile weapons labs.

May 29, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The nation's top spy agencies, under increasing criticism for their intelligence on Iraq, produced new details Wednesday intended to show that two suspicious tractor-trailers discovered in northern Iraq last month were almost certainly mobile weapons laboratories.

A report by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency cites the discovery of the rigs as "the strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological warfare program," while acknowledging that analysis has turned up no residue suggesting that the labs were ever used to produce biological agents.

The report also says that a fermenter on one of the rigs bore a manufacturing stamp from this year, which officials said was evidence that Iraq was pursuing a biological weapons program weeks before the war.

The report was released at a time when the CIA and other intelligence agencies are under growing pressure to account for the United States' failure to find proof that Iraq possessed chemical or biological munitions.

In recent days, some lawmakers have accused the Bush administration of hyping the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime, while others have raised the possibility that the administration was misled by faulty intelligence.

In the face of such criticism, the CIA and DIA took the unusual step of arranging a conference call in which agency analysts and experts discussed the findings of their investigation of the labs with reporters in Washington.

They said their analysis of the rigs confirmed their prewar reporting that Iraq had developed mobile labs and that this goes a long way toward showing that Baghdad had an active biological weapons program.

Administration officials seized on the report Wednesday to beat back questions about whether the failure to find evidence of banned weapons had damaged U.S. credibility.

"You have to believe that Saddam Hussein was willing to live under sanctions for 12 years for no good reason if you really believe that he was not hiding a weapons-of-mass-destruction program," national security advisor Condoleezza Rice told reporters at the White House.

"We have found, in Iraq, biological weapons laboratories that look precisely like what Secretary [of State Colin L.] Powell described in his Feb. 5 report to the United Nations," Rice said.

During that presentation, Powell showed diagrams of mobile labs that he said were based on descriptions provided by at least four Iraqi defectors, including a chemical engineer who helped operate one of the labs.

One CIA official said Wednesday that more recent intelligence from Iraqi sources indicates that Baghdad had manufactured and weaponized biological agents within the last six months, although he acknowledged that the information has not been corroborated.

"We don't have the physical evidence, a bucket of botulinum toxin," the official said.

A senior administration official said expanded U.S. search teams now arriving in Iraq will change tactics and focus on "questioning scientists and regime thugs, using incentives like money and the prospect of getting out of trouble."

The official said the United States intercepted communications between Iraqis during the war "indicating that the stuff was being moved around and was being prepared to be used."

"It may not have made it from its storage sites to the field," the official said. "We had satellite pictures before the war that showed these guys burying MIG-25s. They bury everything."

CIA and DIA officials said that after a month of analysis, they could see no legitimate purpose for the suspicious rigs.

One official described the design of the tractor-trailers as "quite ingenious" and capable of producing such agents as anthrax, botulinum and clostridium. The systems could produce about 2 to 4 1/2 pounds of dried biological agent per month, officials said, enough to kill thousands of people.

The labs consist of fermenters, compressors and other equipment mounted on the bed of the trailers.

The United States has taken custody of two such trailers, one of which is damaged and missing equipment that may have been looted, officials said.

Officials believe that as many as 25 other trailers may exist. They said the labs are operational only when two or three trailers -- each with different equipment -- are connected.

Iraqi officials at the country's Al Kindi military research facility in Mosul said the trailers were used to produce hydrogen for military weather balloons, according to the report.

Officials at Al Naser al Adheem, the Iraqi company that manufactured the fermenters on the vehicles, also told investigators that the government said the equipment was to be used to produce hydrogen.

The CIA and DIA experts are skeptical of that theory, saying that smaller, safer hydrogen-generation systems are available commercially.

Experts also noted that hydrogen is a highly explosive gas and less suited than helium for use in weather balloons.

Independent analysts said they agreed with the CIA's conclusion that the vehicles were intended to produce biological weapons.

"Putting this kind of facility on wheels doesn't make sense" if it was for legitimate purposes, said David Franz, a former U.N. biological weapons inspector. "That, to me, is what takes this near a smoking gun."

Officials said Iraqi scientists and other regime figures in custody have not provided any new information on the purpose of the labs or on banned weapons.

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Times staff writers Doyle McManus and Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.

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