How many bio-weapons labs are too many?

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: Jun 04, 2003 12:00 AM

Democrats tempted to make a partisan issue out of the quality of U.S. intelligence prior to the Iraq War are setting themselves up for a question they don't want to answer: How many secret bio-weapons labs are too many?

Saddam had at least two.

In fact, we knew he had such facilities before the war. They were one of the reasons we went to war. That we uncovered this carefully guarded secret of Saddam's regime represents not a failure of U.S. intelligence but a triumph.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the United Nations on Feb. 5, he played a tape of a conversation between an Iraqi colonel and a brigadier general that was intercepted on Nov. 26, 2002. The colonel worked at a facility slated for a visit by U.N. inspector Mohammed El Baradei. He was worried because he had a "modified" vehicle that Iraq did not want inspectors to see.

"We have a modified vehicle," said the colonel. ". . . What do we say if one of them sees it?"

"You didn't get a modified," said the general. "You don't have a modified?"

"By God, I have one," said the colonel.

Further in the conversation, the general says, "I'll come to you tomorrow. I have some comments. I'm worried that you all have something left." The colonel protests, "We have evacuated everything. We don't have anything left."

Powell also showed the Security Council schematic drawings of mobile units Saddam had built for producing biological weapons. "In a matter of months," said Powell, "they can produce a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the Gulf War."

Powell said the United States had four human sources for these mobile bio-weapons facilities. One was an Iraqi chemical engineer who had supervised one of the facilities before defecting. Another was an Iraqi civil engineer who had been in a position to know of the facilities. A third was another unspecified person in "a position to know." The fourth was an Iraqi major who had defected.

Powell did his homework before making these assertions. "I went out to the CIA, and I spent four days and four nights going over everything that they had as holdings," Powell told reporters last week. "And everything I presented on the 5th of February, I can tell you, there was good sourcing for, was not politicized, it was solid information that was being presented to us for our consideration for that briefing, not by political appointees, but by the analysts who were responsible for it."

"I knew that it was the credibility of the United States that was going to be on the line on the 5th of February," said Powell.

Did his faith in the CIA pay off?

On May 28, the CIA released a paper entitled, "Iraqi Mobile Biological Warfare Agent Production Plants." It describes three vehicles recovered in Iraq by U.S. forces -- a truck fitted with a "toxicology laboratory" that "could be used to support BW or legitimate research" and two tractor-trailers similar to the mobile units described by Powell at the United Nations.

"We have investigated what other industrial processes may require such equipment -- a fermentor, refrigeration, and a gas capture system -- and agree with the experts that BW agent production is the only consistent, logical purpose for these vehicles," concluded the CIA.

The New York Times reported May 21 that the units "could be used to produce an estimated 500 liters of liquid anthrax and 50 liters of botulinum toxin per batch within two to three days -- millions of lethal doses."

"The manufacturer's plates on the fermentors list production dates of 2002 and 2003 -- suggesting Iraq continued to produce these units as late as this year," said the CIA.

U.S. intelligence, it turns out, found some very deadly needles in a haystack as big as Iraq.

Why did the U.S. change the regime in Baghdad? President Bush stated it plainly in his State of the Union Address: "Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option." Those who argue that what has been discovered in Iraq thus far changes this calculation must answer one question: How many secret Iraqi bio-weapons factories would have been too many?