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Experts Downplay Bioagent

The vial of bacteria found in Iraq probably was bought legally and its type has never been turned into a weapon, scientists say.

October 17, 2003|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A suspicious sample of biological material recently found by U.S. weapons hunters in Iraq probably was purchased legally from a U.S. organization in the 1980s and is a substance that has never been successfully used to produce a weapon, experts said.

The discovery of the hidden vial of C. botulinum Okra B, which was revealed in an Oct. 2 interim report by chief U.S. weapons hunter David Kay, was highlighted in speeches by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other senior administration officials as proof that President Saddam Hussein's government maintained an illicit bio-weapons program before the war.

The significance of the vial is one of several elements of Kay's report that are being called into question by U.S. biowarfare experts and former United Nations weapons inspectors. Although most praised Kay for uncovering numerous cases in which Iraq hid suspicious equipment and activities from U.N. inspectors, they said the report appeared misleading in several areas.

Overall, Kay, who returned to Iraq last week, reported that he had found no evidence so far to indicate that Hussein's regime had reconstituted its chemical weapons program, or had taken significant steps to build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material, after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

He found considerable evidence, however, that Hussein secretly had begun an extensive effort after 1998 to design missiles that violated U.N. rules; had launched numerous schemes to procure missile technology and other prohibited equipment from foreign suppliers, including North Korea; and had maintained a clandestine network of about two dozen small laboratories, run by Iraq's intelligence services, which Kay said contained equipment "suitable" for chemical or biological research.

The single vial of botulinum B had been stored in an Iraqi scientist's kitchen refrigerator since 1993. It appears to have been produced by a nonprofit Virginia biological resource center, the American Type Culture Collection, which legally exported botulinum and other biological material to Iraq under a Commerce Department license in the late 1980s.

The vial of botulinum B -- about 2 inches high and half an inch wide -- was the only suspicious biological material Kay reported finding. It was sealed and stored in the scientist's home with 96 other apparently benign vials of single-cell proteins and biopesticides.

In his 13-page declassified report, Kay said "a biological agent" could be produced from the botulinum sample. Speaking to reporters at the White House the next day, Oct. 3, Bush said the war in Iraq was justified and cited Kay's discovery of the advanced missile programs, clandestine labs and what he called "a live strain of deadly agent botulinum" as proof that Hussein was "a danger to the world."

But Dr. David Franz, a former chief U.N. biological weapons inspector who is considered among America's foremost experts on biowarfare agents, said there was no evidence that Iraq or anyone else has ever succeeded in using botulinum B for biowarfare.

"The Soviets dropped it [as a goal] and so did we, because we couldn't get it working as a weapon," said Franz, who is the former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Md., the Pentagon's lead laboratory for bioweapons defense research.

"From the weapons side, it's not something to be concerned about," agreed Dr. Raymond Zilinskas, another former U.N. inspector who is now director of the chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation program at the Monterey Institute in California.

Botulinum B is a source of botulism, a common form of deadly food poisoning that usually results from improper canning. It disperses quickly in the air, however, and thus is not effective as an airborne agent for weapons, Zilinskas said.

Asked for comment, a U.S. official who consulted with government experts said Kay "didn't oversell this."

"He stated a simple fact. What Dr. Kay said was botulinum B can be used to produce a biological agent," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Can that agent be used to produce a biological weapon? You bet."

During the 1980s, Iraq produced botulinum A, a highly lethal neurotoxin that causes respiratory failure and can lead to death in 24 hours. According to U.N. reports, Iraqi scientists produced more than 19,000 liters of botulinum A and poured about 10,000 liters of the toxin into missile warheads and 400-pound bombs.

But U.N. inspectors found no evidence that Iraq ever produced botulinum B in its laboratories. A CIA spokesman said Kay has not yet traced the origin of the vial he obtained. But Zilinskas said the sample almost certainly came from American Type Culture Collection. "We know they bought their botulinum strains from the United States, including B," he said.

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