TCS Daily

Germs of Truth

By Russell Seitz - May 8, 2003 12:00 AM

The favorite subject of those who opposed the war in Iraq is the coalition's failure to find the 4,000 barrels of chemical and biological warfare agents that President Bush invoked in justifying it. However, they tend to ignore the less convenient facts of the matter. There is a world of hurt in 500 tons of such malignant stuff, but in such a modest volume - roughly a twenty-five foot cube - the trucks carrying it can disappear into a fair sized traffic jam.

War gases and most of the chemicals that go into them are flammable. Indeed, America is disposing of the nerve gas once present in its arsenals by incineration. Biological agents are even more heat sensitive. When heated past 700 Fahrenheit, they become hard to tell from burnt toast. 500 tons is a drop in the bucket compared to the volume of burning oil that went up in smoke during the war. What proved useless as an aircraft deterrent may still have exemplified the principle of a dual use technology: Oil trench fires make dandy funeral pyres for immolating the evidence of non-nuclear ambition.

If the corpus delecti has already become part of the smog inventory over the Indian Ocean, score one for Saddam. The administration will feel the heat for as long as it takes to dig up Iraq's national stockpile of sand. The truth will out, but even with help from liberated scientists, this could be a big dig. The Democrats and diplomats demanding to know the fate of Iraq's slippery arsenal just don't want to hear how many suburbs of Ur of the Chaldees have eluded archaeological recovery for the last million days. Somebody may turn up a plague infested carcass chucked into Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 before the modern skunk juice comes to light. A lot of the chemical munitions that went unused in World War II are still rotting on the bottom of the Baltic.

To understand the hunt for contraband weapons today, consider what followed the last Gulf War. In its aftermath the problem was less finding the evidence than recognizing it for what it was - no single inspector was familiar with the bewildering variety of good, bad, and ugly technology that Saddam's technicians had acquired. This led to vast confusion and a feeding frenzy among policy analysts.

Many feared the worst. Along with a nuclear weapons program, UN inspectors found an arsenal of chemical weapons and dual use materials. A lot of it could be equally well applied to the growth and culture of lethal organisms or toxins, or the production of life saving antibiotics. There are even some biological culture medium ingredients that could be harmlessly employed to augment the formula of baby milk.

Looking over what others and I wrote in those heady days, one finds some themes that are being repeated. And others that are in danger of being forgotten, if not deliberately repressed.

Iraq, like Pakistan, had sent its best and brightest west to get PhD's in nuclear science and chemical engineering. These young people showed a lot of initiative in reviving ways and means of enriching uranium that had largely been forgotten by the existing nuclear powers. Between 1992 and 2002, these people didn't go away - they grew older and more knowledgeable.

The inspectors who arrived in 1992 found gadgets for uranium enrichment on an industrial scale. Analysts' jaws dropped as they realized that some Iraqi expertise stemmed from efforts to publicize proliferation risks in order to stem them. That these technologies were now obsolete did not mean that they did not work. Publishing the blueprints of old Manhattan Project facilities proved to be a handy shortcut on the road to nuclear ubiquity.

Following the Iraqis into the pre-history of atomic weapons, we found another risk: neptunium. This third nuclear fuel languished in obscurity for decades, but tens of tons of it, like plutonium, were produced in the course of generating nuclear power. But while plutonium from spent fuel is carefully safeguarded as weapons material, the neptunium's weapons potential went unrealized. It collected in repositories whose main line of defense was that their contents were too hot to handle.

But such radioactivity fades away in a matter of decades: people live in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, too. By the time of the Gulf War, some vintage neptunium had cooled down a thousand fold, and become fit for weapons use. But this problem went undiscovered by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and its director Hans Blix.

No IAEA safeguards existed in 1990, when an examination of the physics revealed the problem. The response to the publication of the facts was immediate - a fusillade of denial. Letters and articles appeared saying neptunium posed no threat at all. I found this baffling, but lacking additional data I assumed that my numbers were outclassed by classified ones.

In fact, the numbers were correct - the denials were a disinformation operation designed to buy time for the IAEA to rectify its failure of oversight, and the Department of Energy to circle its wagons around undefended tons of weapons grade neptunium. Last fall the DOE brought the first neptunium fueled nuclear reactor to criticality: an unsuspected
nuclear weapons material had become a source of nuclear energy.

Another irony may be playing out today in Iraq. Just as we lost track of a major nuclear proliferation hazard for decades, we tend to forget the symmetry of dual use technologies and materials. Chemicals with innocent or even life-saving uses may become feed stocks for nerve gas manufacture or biological warfare. But some times a cigar is a cigar.

A few weeks ago, troops clad cap a pied in sweltering CBW protective gear probed containers in the Iraqi desert for nerve gas. The false alarms produced by empty insecticide drums were not surprising, because organophosphate nerve gases are an offshoot of organophosphate insecticide research. This raises a question doves dislike: were Iraq's dual-use chemicals disposed of the old-fashioned way, by using them to manufacture mundane agrochemicals?

Iraq possesses a full-blown phosphate fertilizer industry (like America's, it produces uranium as a by-product) and all it needs to refine petroleum and manufacture organic chemicals. Some chemicals can be incorporated into organophosphate nerve gases and insecticides alike: little wonder chemical warfare test kits often give false positives.

Just as the transformation of neptunium into nuclear reactor fuel does not reduce the risk of the element's weaponization, the disappearance of nerve gas precursors into benign chemical factories can equally signify innocence. Or cunning.

Dual use chemicals have innocent uses by definition, but profitable use is another matter. That's why cheaper or better single use chemicals dominate the chemical economy. The suave Iraqi CBW general who claims its weapons exist no more can't recall just why all those dual use chemicals were acquired or what became of them. The burning question of the day is less where they are, than why Iraq sometimes bought both cheap and excellent single use compounds and mediocre and expensive ones as well?

A germ of truth is the best bodyguard a big lie can have.

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