WASHINGTON—U.S. intelligence officials said Wednesday that although they had no absolute proof, they were convinced that two trailers seized in Iraq by coalition forces were intended to be mobile biological-weapons laboratories.
The CIA published a white paper Wednesday titled "Iraqi Mobile Biological Warfare Agent Production Plants" detailing the inspection and testing of the two trailers and declaring that they're "the strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological warfare program."
CIA officials spoke to reporters in a conference call. One said, "We are highly confident that we have discovered what Secretary of State Colin Powell introduced at the United Nations in February—a mobile biological warfare lab."
The officials weren't identified because the CIA doesn't provide the names of its employees.
The white paper and the unusual telephone briefing apparently were intended to dampen a growing furor over the failure to find the alleged weapons of mass destruction that were a primary justification for the United States to go to war with Iraq. The absence of any "smoking gun" so far is a growing embarrassment for the U.S. government.
The findings, however, are unlikely to end the debate over where Iraq's alleged nuclear, chemical and biological weapons are, or whether they and the Scud missiles Baghdad was accused of hiding even existed on the eve of war.
Tests of samples recovered from a fermenter tank, liquid from pipes and swabs from a wipe-down of the trailers so far haven't produced any evidence that the Iraqis were producing bioweapons or "anything else," one analyst acknowledged. "It is not necessary to get positive samples to confirm that this is a biowar generator," he said.
The sampling process identified sludge found in the fermenter on one of the trailers as a mixture of sodium azide and urea, a caustic and puzzling mixture that isn't usually associated with any production process, including that for bioweapons.
"The combination of chemicals we found makes no sense," one official said.
However, the officials said, the size and configuration of the equipment made it highly improbable that it was intended to make hydrogen, biopesticides, vaccines or pharmaceuticals; as a mobile medical laboratory; for water purification; or to produce single-cell proteins for animal feed.
The intelligence officials concluded that the captured units, which were the first part of a two- or three-trailer production facility, could have produced a wet slurry of "any of the classical BW agents—botulinum or anthrax" that follow-on units could have purified, concentrated, dried and ground into 2 to more than 4 pounds of dry biological weapons per month.
"Two kilos (4.4 pounds) of dry agent is a lot," one official said. "It would kill a lot of people. A lethal dose of anthrax is 10,000 spores."
Intelligence officials think the Iraqis built as many as nine or 10 of the two- or three-trailer production facilities, which would mean that as many as 25 pieces of equipment are still missing. One of the two that were seized in April and May was built as recently as January, the officials said.
One tip-off to the value of the mobile plants, the intelligence officials said, was the fact that one of the trailers was captured while it was being towed by a heavy equipment transporter truck, usually used for moving heavy armored vehicles. The Kurd who was driving the truck, who later escaped, told U.S. troops manning a roadblock in northern Iraq that he'd stolen the rig for the value of the truck and cared nothing about the load it was carrying.
The officials said workers at the plant that manufactured the equipment said they were told it was to be used to make hydrogen for balloons for Iraqi Army artillery. The intelligence officials said the workers didn't believe that, and added that the idea apparently was a cover story intended to fool United Nations weapons inspectors.
The intelligence officers said smaller, cheaper and more efficient hydrogen generators were readily available on commercial markets.
"This was designed to evade inspection, not for efficiency," one of the American officials said. "The Iraqis concoct cover stories that work. If the trailer was found, it would not look like it was for BW (biological weapons) production."
The equipment, the intelligence officials said, closely matched that described by a U.S. intelligence source—an Iraqi chemical engineer who managed one of the mobile plants—as early as 1995.
The officials strongly suggested that their primary and backup sources weren't affiliated with the Iraqi National Congress, an organization of Iraqi exiles, or with its leader, Ahmad Chalabi, who other intelligence analysts and American diplomats said had provided fabricated, exaggerated and false information to U.S. officials and to media organizations.
The CIA white paper "Iraqi Mobile Biological Warfare Agent Production Plants" is available on the Internet at www.cia.gov/cia/publications/iraqi_mobile_plants/index.html
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.