Puncturing Saddam's weather balloon

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: Feb 04, 2004 12:00 AM

President Bush should insist that his commission investigating the performance of U.S. intelligence agencies answer this question: What did we know about Saddam's weather balloon program, and when did we know it?

This is not a facetious suggestion.

The president's decision to name a commission came after the highly respected David Kay -- who resigned as director of the Iraq Survey Group, saying he didn't believe Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction -- told the Senate Armed Services Committee that an outside investigation was needed.

The most contentious point in Kay's testimony came when Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan asked Kay if it had been accurately reported that he believed "there is a consensus in the intelligence community" that two specially outfitted Iraqi trailers "were intended to produce hydrogen for weather balloons or possibly rocket fuel, but not for producing biological warfare agents."

"That's probably not my exact words, but roughly accurate," said Kay. "I think the consensus opinion is that when you look at those two trailers, while they had capabilities in many areas, their actual intended use was not for the production of biological weapons."

"It's been an ongoing struggle to understand those two vans," Kay subsequently noted, adding that others "hold a different opinion" than his. But Sen. Levin used Kay's initial response to deride Vice President Dick Cheney, who as late as Jan. 22 had described the trailers as "conclusive evidence" that Saddam "did in fact have programs for weapons of mass destruction."

Levin's thrust at Cheney sparked a rebuttal from Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, and who has presided over his own committee's extensive review of pre-war intelligence. "The reason that the vice president apparently keeps referring to the trailers as mobile labs is that that is the view of the CIA as I speak," said Roberts.

Outside the hearing, I asked Sen. Roberts if he was personally convinced the trailers were for producing biological weapons. "Well, that's the latest CIA assessment," said Roberts. "You heard Dr. Kay that some of the experts say that it was the case and some of the experts say that it wasn't. I'm not too sure we'll ever know for sure."

So, whose analysis is more plausible? The CIA's or Kay's?

At the U.N. last February, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Iraq had built trailers for manufacturing bio-weapons. He cited four human sources, including "an Iraqi chemical engineer who supervised one of these facilities" and "actually was present during biological agent production runs."

U.S. forces in Iraq then discovered two trailers much like those Powell described. On May 28, 2003, the CIA published a paper, saying "they probably are second- or possibly third-generation designs of the plants described by the source" -- the Iraqi chemical engineer.

The trailers were not complete setups, concluded the CIA, but were likely "part of a two- or possibly three-trailer unit" that would also include equipment for "growth media preparation and postharvest processing."

Officials at al-Kindi, the builder, "claimed that the trailers were used to chemically produce hydrogen for artillery weather balloons." While this "would be a plausible cover story," said the CIA, the trailers were "inefficient" for that purpose. Also, there were "commercially available, safe and reliable" devices to do that, and residue on one trailer included "sodium azide and urea, which do not support Iraqi claims the trailer was for hydrogen production."

The CIA's bottom line: "We have investigated what other industrial processes may require such equipment -- 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."

Yet, David Kay dissents -- and he's a very credible authority on the issue.

Any serious review of U.S. intelligence must resolve this conflict between the CIA and Kay.

For the sake of argument, suppose the CIA had collected, before the war, all the information about these trailers that's publicly available now. Suppose the CIA reached the same conclusion, then, that David Kay has reached now.

A CIA briefer would've had to tell the president something like this: Mr. President, we've discovered two unique trailers in Iraq. An Iraqi engineer tells us he made bioweapons on such a trailer. Three other sources provided corroborating information. The company that built the trailers says they're for making hydrogen for weather balloons, but they're inefficient for that purpose. The trailers are indeed capable of producing biological agents. But our consensus opinion, sir, is that "their actual intended use was not for production of biological weapons."

You'd think a president would ask: How did you arrive at that conclusion? And that's exactly what the president's commission should now ask David Kay.