Is it just me, or does this ring with illigitimacy?
Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert
By JUDITH MILLER
[W] ITH THE 101ST AIRBORNE DIVISION, south of Baghdad, Iraq, April 20 --
A scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq's chemical weapons program for more than a decade has told an American military team that Iraq destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment only days before the war began, members of the team said.
They said the scientist led Americans to a supply of material that proved to be the building blocks of illegal weapons, which he claimed to have buried as evidence of Iraq's illicit weapons programs.
The scientist also told American weapons experts that Iraq had secretly sent unconventional weapons and technology to Syria, starting in the mid-1990's, and that more recently Iraq was cooperating with Al Qaeda, the military officials said.
The Americans said the scientist told them that President Saddam Hussein's government had destroyed some stockpiles of deadly agents as early as the mid-1990's, transferred others to Syria, and had recently focused its efforts instead on research and development projects that are virtually impervious to detection by international inspectors, and even American forces on the ground combing through Iraq's giant weapons plants.
An American military team hunting for unconventional weapons in Iraq, the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, or MET Alpha, which found the scientist, declined to identify him, saying they feared he might be subject to reprisals. But they said that they considered him credible and that the material unearthed over the last three days at sites to which he led them had proved to be precursors for a toxic agent that is banned by chemical weapons treaties.
The officials' account of the scientist's assertions and the discovery of the buried material, which they described as the most important
discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons, supports the Bush
administration's charges that Iraq continued to develop those weapons and lied to the United Nations about it. Finding and destroying illegal weapons was a major justification for the war.
The officials' accounts also provided an explanation for why United States forces had not yet turned up banned weapons in Iraq. The failure to find such weapons has become a political issue in Washington.
Under the terms of her accreditation to report on the activities of MET Alpha, this reporter was not permitted to interview the scientist or visit his home. Nor was she permitted to write about the discovery of the scientist for three days, and the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials.
Those officials asked that details of what chemicals were uncovered be deleted. They said they feared that such information could jeopardize the scientist's safety by identifying the part of the weapons program where he worked.
The MET Alpha team said it reported its findings to Washington after testing the buried material and checking the scientist's identity with experts in the United States. A report was sent to the White House on Friday, experts said.
Military spokesmen at the Pentagon and at Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, said they could not confirm that an Iraqi chemical weapons scientist was providing American forces with new information.
The scientist was found by a team headed by Chief Warrant Officer Richard L. Gonzales, the leader of MET Alpha, one of several teams charged with hunting for unconventional weapons throughout Iraq.
Departing from his team's assigned mission, Mr. Gonzales and his team of specialists from the Defense Intelligence Agency tracked down the scientist on Thursday through a series of interviews and increasingly frantic site visits.
While this reporter could not interview the scientist, she was permitted to see him from a distance at the sites where he said that material from the arms program was buried.
Clad in nondescript clothes and a baseball cap, he pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried. This reporter also accompanied MET Alpha on the search for him and was permitted to examine a letter written in Arabic that he slipped to American soldiers offering them information about the program and seeking their protection.
Military officials said the scientist told them that four days before
President Bush gave Mr. Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq or face war, Iraqi officials set fire to a warehouse where biological weapons research and development was conducted.
The officials quoted him as saying he had watched several months before the outbreak of the war as Iraqis buried chemical precursors and other sensitive material to conceal and preserve them for future use. The officials said the scientist showed them documents, samples, and other evidence of the program that he claimed to have stolen to prove that the program existed.
MET Alpha is one of several teams created earlier this year to hunt for unconventional weapons in Iraq. Supported by the 75th Exploitation Task Force, a field artillery brigade based in Fort Sill, Okla., the teams were charged with visiting some 150 top sites that intelligence agencies have identified as suspect.
But the Pentagon-led teams, which include specialists from several
Pentagon agencies, have been hampered by a lack of resources and by geography.
Because the task force has two expensive, highly sophisticated, transportable labs in which chemical and germ samples can be analyzed quickly, it was kept at a safe distance from fighting at a desert camp in Kuwait, just across the Iraqi border.
Unable to move their task force closer to Baghdad, where most of the suspect sites and scientists who worked in them are situated, the mobile exploitation teams have had to rely on scarce helicopters to travel to suspect sites in the Baghdad area. Until recently, these were reserved mainly for soldiers going to battle. As a result, most of the teams had done almost no weapons hunting until the fighting had largely concluded.
Two weeks ago, MET Alpha was finally given a mission of inspecting barrels filled with chemicals that were buried on the outskirts of Al Muhawish, a small town south of Baghdad. A small team with little
equipment and virtually no supplies traveled to the town for what was supposed to be a half-day survey. The barrels turned out to contain no chemical weapons agents.
But during the survey of that site, Maj. Brian Lynch, the chemical officer of the 101st Airborne Division, told MET Alpha members about a report of suspect containers buried in the area that fit the description of mobile labs.
Other officers mentioned that a man who said he was an Iraqi scientist had given troops a note about Iraq's chemical warfare program. No one had yet followed up the report, they said, because of the fighting and also because similar tips had failed to produce evidence of unconventional weapons.
The team, with vehicles and supplies from the 101st Airborne Division, went out on its own to survey other sites and pursue the tip about the buried containers and the scientist. After completing a lengthy survey of one installation, Mr. Gonzales and other team members from the Defense Intelligence Agency's Chemical Biological Intelligence Support Team decided to try to find the scientist.
Mr. Gonzales tracked down the scientist's note, which had never been formally analyzed and was still in a brigade headquarters, along with the scientist's address, military officials said.
The next morning, MET Alpha weapons experts found the scientist at home, along with some documents from the program and samples he had buried in his backyard and at other sites.
The scientist has told MET Alpha members that because Iraq's unconventional weapons programs were highly compartmented, he only had firsthand information about the chemical weapons sector in which he worked, team members said.
But he has given the Americans information about other unconventional weapons activities, they said, as well as information about Iraqi weapons cooperation with Syria, and with terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda. It was not clear how the scientist knew of such a connection.
The potential of MET Alpha's work is "enormous," said Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division.
"What they've discovered," he added, "could prove to be of incalculable value. Though much work must still be done to validate the information MET Alpha has uncovered, if it proves out it will clearly be one of the major discoveries of this operation, and it may be the major discovery."
Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime