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Re: [casi] WMD search

Here is the article from

Published on Sunday, May 11, 2003 by the Washington
Frustrated, U.S. Arms Team to Leave Iraq
Task Force Unable To Find Any Weapons

by Barton Gellman

BAGHDAD -- The group directing all known U.S. search
efforts for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is
winding down operations without finding proof that
President Saddam Hussein kept clandestine stocks of
outlawed arms, according to participants.

The 75th Exploitation Task Force, as the group is
formally known, has been described from the start as
the principal arm of the U.S. plan to discover and
display forbidden Iraqi weapons. The group's
departure, expected next month, marks a milestone in
frustration for a major declared objective of the war.

Leaders of Task Force 75's diverse staff --
biologists, chemists, arms treaty enforcers, nuclear
operators, computer and document experts, and special
forces troops -- arrived with high hopes of early
success. They said they expected to find what
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described at the
U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5 -- hundreds of tons of
biological and chemical agents, missiles and rockets
to deliver the agents, and evidence of an ongoing
program to build a nuclear bomb.

Scores of fruitless missions broke that confidence,
many task force members said in interviews.

Army Col. Richard McPhee, who will close down the task
force next month, said he took seriously U.S.
intelligence warnings on the eve of war that Hussein
had given "release authority" to subordinates in
command of chemical weapons. "We didn't have all these
people in [protective] suits" for nothing, he said.
But if Iraq thought of using such weapons, "there had
to have been something to use. And we haven't found
it. . . . Books will be written on that in the
intelligence community for a long time."

Army Col. Robert Smith, who leads the site assessment
teams from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, said
task force leaders no longer "think we're going to
find chemical rounds sitting next to a gun." He added,
"That's what we came here for, but we're past that."

Motivated and accomplished in their fields, task force
members found themselves missing vital tools. They
consistently found targets identified in Washington to
be inaccurate, looted and burned, or both. Leaders and
members of five of the task force's eight teams, and
some senior officers guiding them, said the weapons
hunters were going through the motions now to "check
the blocks" on a prewar list.

U.S. Central Command began the war with a list of 19
top weapons sites. Only two remain to be searched.
Another list enumerated 68 top "non-WMD sites,"
without known links to special weapons but judged to
have the potential to offer clues. Of those, the tally
at midweek showed 45 surveyed without success.

Task Force 75's experience, and its impending
dissolution after seven weeks in action, square poorly
with assertions in Washington that the search has
barely begun.

In his declaration of victory aboard the USS Abraham
Lincoln on May 1, President Bush said, "We've begun
the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons,
and already know of hundreds of sites that will be
investigated." Stephen A. Cambone, undersecretary of
defense for intelligence, told reporters at the
Pentagon on Wednesday that U.S. forces had surveyed
only 70 of the roughly 600 potential weapons
facilities on the "integrated master site list"
prepared by U.S. intelligence agencies before the war.

But here on the front lines of the search, the focus
is on a smaller number of high-priority sites, and the
results are uniformly disappointing, participants

"Why are we doing any planned targets?" Army Chief
Warrant Officer Richard L. Gonzales, leader of Mobile
Exploitation Team Alpha, said in disgust to a
colleague during last Sunday's nightly report of
weapons sites and survey results. "Answer me that. We
know they're empty."

Survey teams have combed laboratories and munitions
plants, bunkers and distilleries, bakeries and vaccine
factories, file cabinets and holes in the ground where
tipsters advised them to dig. Most of the assignments
came with classified "target folders" describing U.S.
intelligence leads. Others, known as the "ad hocs,"
came to the task force's attention by way of plausible
human sources on the ground.

The hunt will continue under a new Iraq Survey Group,
which the Bush administration has said is a larger
team. But the organizers are drawing down their
weapons staffs for lack of work, and adding expertise
for other missions.

Interviews and documents describing the transition
from Task Force 75 to the new group show that site
survey teams, the advance scouts of the arms search,
will reduce from six to two their complement of
experts in missile technology and biological, chemical
and nuclear weapons. A little-known nuclear special
operations group from the Defense Threat Reduction
Agency, called the Direct Support Team, has already
sent home a third of its original complement, and
plans to cut the remaining team by half.

"We thought we would be much more gainfully employed,
or intensively employed, than we were," said Navy
Cmdr. David Beckett, who directs special nuclear
programs for the team.

State-of-the-art biological and chemical labs, shrunk
to fit standard cargo containers, came equipped with
enough supplies to run thousands of tests using DNA
fingerprinting and mass spectrometry. They have been
called upon no more than a few dozen times, none with
a confirmed hit. The labs' director, who asked not to
be identified, said some of his scientists were also
going home.

Even the sharpest skeptics do not rule out that the
hunt may eventually find evidence of banned weapons.
The most significant unknown is what U.S.
interrogators are learning from senior Iraqi
scientists, military industrial managers and Iraqi
government leaders now in custody. If the
nonconventional arms exist, some of them ought to
know. Publicly, the Bush administration has declined
to discuss what the captured Iraqis are saying. In
private, U.S. officials provide conflicting reports,
with some hinting at important disclosures. Cambone
also said U.S. forces have seized "troves of
documents" and are "surveying them, triaging them" for

At former presidential palaces in the Baghdad area ,
where Task Force 75 will soon hand control to the Iraq
Study Group, leaders and team members refer to the
covert operators as "secret squirrels." If they are
making important progress, it has not led to
"actionable" targets, according to McPhee and other
task force members.

McPhee, an artillery brigade commander from Oklahoma
who was assigned to the task force five months ago,
reflected on the weapons hunt as the sun set outside
his improvised sleeping quarters, a cot and mosquito
net set down in the wreckage of a marble palace annex.
He smoked a cigar, but without the peace of mind he
said the evening ritual usually brings.

"My unit has not found chemical weapons," he said.
"That's a fact. And I'm 47 years old, having a
birthday in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces on a lake
in the middle of Baghdad. It's surreal. The whole
thing is surreal.

"Am I convinced that what we did in this fight was
viable? I tell you from the bottom of my heart: We
stopped Saddam Hussein in his WMD programs," he said,
using the abbreviation for weapons of mass
destruction. "Do I know where they are? I wish I did .
. . but we will find them. Or not. I don't know. I'm
being honest here."

Later in the conversation, he flung the unfinished
cigar into the lake with somewhat more force than

Team members explain their disappointing results, in
part, as a consequence of a slow advance. Cautious
ground commanders sometimes held weapons hunters away
from the front, they said, and the task force had no
helicopters of its own.

"My personal feeling is we waited too long and stayed
too far back," said Christopher Kowal, an expert in
computer forensics who worked for Mobile Exploitation
Team Charlie until last week.

'The Bear Wasn't There'

But two other factors -- erroneous intelligence and
poor site security -- dealt the severest blows to the
hunt, according to leaders and team members at every

Some information known in Washington, such as
inventories of nuclear sites under supervision of the
International Atomic Energy Agency, did not reach the
teams assigned to visit them. But what the U.S.
government did not know mattered more than what it did
know. Intelligence agencies had a far less accurate
picture of Iraq's weapons program than participants
believed at the outset of their search, they recalled.

"We came to bear country, we came loaded for bear and
we found out the bear wasn't here," said a Defense
Intelligence Agency officer here who asked not to be
identified by name. "The indications and warnings were
there. The assessments were solid."

"Okay, that paradigm didn't exist," he added. "The
question before was, where are Saddam Hussein's
chemical and biological weapons? What is the question
now? That is what we are trying to sort out."

One thing analysts must reconsider, he said, is: "What
was the nature of the threat?"

By far the greatest impediment to the weapons hunt,
participants said, was widespread looting of Iraq's
governmental and industrial facilities. At nearly
every top-tier "sensitive site" the searchers reached,
intruders had sacked and burned the evidence that
weapons hunters had counted on sifting. As recently as
last Tuesday, nearly a month after Hussein's fall from
power, soldiers under the Army's V Corps command had
secured only 44 of the 85 top potential weapons sites
in the Baghdad area and 153 of the 372 considered most
important to rebuilding Iraq's government and economy.

McPhee saw early in the war that the looters were
stripping his targets before he could check them. He
cut the planning cycle for new missions -- the time
between first notice and launch -- from 96 to 24
hours. "What we found," he said, was that "as the
maneuver units hit a target they had to move on, even
24 hours was too slow. By the time we got there, a lot
of things were gone."

Short and powerfully built, McPhee has spent his adult
life as a combat officer. He calls his soldiers
"bubbas" and worries about their mail. "It ain't good"
that suspect sites are unprotected, he said, but he
refused to criticize fighting units who left evidence

"You've got two corps commanders being told, 'Get to
Baghdad,' and, oh, by the way, 'When you run across
sensitive sites, you have to secure them,' " he said.
"Do you secure all those sites, or do you get to
Baghdad? You've got limited force structure and you've
got 20 missions."

A low point came when looters destroyed what was meant
to be McPhee's headquarters in the Iraqi capital. The
101st Airborne Division had used the complex, a
munitions factory called the Al Qadisiyah State
Establishment, before rolling north to Mosul. When a
reporter came calling, looking for Task Force 75,
looters were busily stripping it clean. They later set
it ablaze.

An Altered Mission

The search teams arrived in Iraq "looking for the
smoking gun," Smith said, and now the mission is more
diffuse -- general intelligence-gathering on subjects
ranging from crimes against humanity and prisoners of
war to Hussein's links with terrorists.

At the peak of the effort, all four mobile
exploitation teams devoted nearly full time to weapons
of mass destruction. By late last month, two of the
four had turned to other questions. This week, MET
Alpha, Gonzales's team, also left the hunt, at least
temporarily. It parted with its chemical and
biological experts, added linguists and document
exploiters and recast itself as an intelligence team.
It will search for weapons if leads turn up, but
lately it has focused on Iraqi covert operations
abroad and the theft of Jewish antiquities.

The stymied hunt baffles search team leaders. To a
person, those interviewed during a weeklong visit to
the task force said they believed in the mission and
the Bush administration accusations that prompted it.

Yet "smoking gun" is now a term of dark irony here.
Maj. Kenneth Deal, executive officer of one site
survey team, called out the words in mock triumph when
he found a page of Arabic text at a former Baath Party
recreation center last week. It was torn from a
translated edition of A.J.P. Taylor's history, "The
Struggle for Mastery in Europe." At a "battle update
brief" last week, amid confusion over the whereabouts
of a British laboratory in transit from Talil Air
Base, McPhee deadpanned to his staff: "I haven't a
clue where the WMD is, but we can find this lab."

Among the sites already visited from Central Command's
top 19 are an underground facility at North Tikrit
Hospital, an unconventional training camp at Salman
Pak, Samarra East Airport, the headquarters of the
Military Industrialization Commission, the Baghdad
Research Complex, a storage site for
surface-to-surface missiles in Taji, the Amiriyah
Serum and Vaccine Institute, a munitions assembly
plant in Iskandariyah and an underground bunker at the
Abu Ghurayb Palace.

The bunker, toured several days later by a reporter,
withstood the palace's destruction by at least two
satellite-guided bombs. The bombs left six-foot holes
in the reinforced concrete palace roof, driving the
steel reinforcing rods downward in a pattern that
resembled tentacles. The subsequent detonation turned
great marble rooms into rubble.

But the bunker, tunneled deep below a ground-floor
kitchen, remained unscathed. The tunnel dropped
straight down and then leveled to horizontal, forming
corridors that extend most of the breadth of the
palace. Richly decorated living quarters were arranged
along a series of L-shaped bends, each protected by
three angled blast doors. The doors weighed perhaps a

In a climate-control room, chemical weapons filters
and carbon dioxide scrubbers protected the air and an
overpressure blast valve stood ready to vent the
lethal shock waves of an explosion. And a
decontamination shower stood under an alarm panel
designed to flash the message "Gas-Gaz."

"Is it evidence of weapons of mass destruction?" asked
Deal. "No. It's probably evidence of paranoia."

"I don't think we'll find anything," said Army Capt.
Tom Baird, one of two deputy operations officers under
McPhee. "What I see is a lot of stuff destroyed." The
Defense Intelligence Agency officer, describing a
"sort of a lull period" in the search, said that
whatever may have been at the target sites is now
"dispersed to the wind."

All last week, McPhee drilled his staff on speeding
the transition. The Iraq Survey Group should have all
the help it needs, he said, to take control of the
hunt. He is determined, subordinates said, to set the
stage for success after he departs. And he does not
want to leave his soldiers behind if their successors
can be trained in time.

"I see them as Aladdin's carpet," McPhee told his
staff. "Ticket home."

 2003 The Washington Post Company

>I hear on the BBC World Service radio news that the
>Washington Post is reporting that US experts
>searching for WMD are winding down and planning
>to leave Iraq next month, saying they no longer
>expect to find anything.

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