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November 5, 2007: This website is an archive of the former website, traprockpeace.org, which was created 10 years ago by Charles Jenks. It became one of the most populace sites in the US, and an important resource on the antiwar movement, student activism, 'depleted' uranium and other topics. Jenks authored virtually all of its web pages and multimedia content (photographs, audio, video, and pdf files. As the author and registered owner of that site, his purpose here is to preserve an important slice of the history of the grassroots peace movement in the US over the past decade. He is maintaining this historical archive as a service to the greater peace movement, and to the many friends of Traprock Peace Center. Blogs have been consolidated and the calendar has been archived for security reasons; all other links remain the same, and virtually all blog content remains intact.

THIS SITE NO LONGER REFLECTS THE CURRENT AND ONGOING WORK OF TRAPROCK PEACE CENTER, which has reorganized its board and moved to Greenfield, Mass. To contact Traprock Peace Center, call 413-773-7427 or visit its site. Charles Jenks is posting new material to PeaceJournal.org, a multimedia blog and resource center.

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Iraq: the Logic of Withdrawal

Published June 5, 2003
© 2003 Mark F. McCarty

 

 

The “Winnebagos of Death” – Just Another Scam?

 

Mark F. McCarty, mccarty@pantox.com

 

  It now emerges that, for at least the last two weeks, Iraqi scientists and technicians have been telling coalition interrogators that the “suspected mobile bioweapons labs” found in northern Iraq were in fact designed to produce hydrogen gas for use in military weather balloons.  According to articles that have appeared recently in the major U.S. media, this has been the consistent contention of scientists at the al-Kindi research and testing facility, where the labs were kept.  And officials at the al-Naser al-Adheem company, where the labs’ reaction vessels were manufactured, indicate that the Iraqi government had informed them that the labs were intended for hydrogen generation.  The bioweapons experts commissioned by the U.S. government confirm that these labs could be used for this purpose.  Indeed, this would explain why the labs are equipped with devices that can trap, compress, and store gases emerging from the reaction vessel. 

 

Analysis of residue on one of the reaction vessels indicates the presence of aluminum, as well as of a “caustic”, which, according to CIA analysts, indicated “an attempt to decontaminate and conceal the plant’s purpose.”  The term “caustic” probably refers to an extremely alkaline hydroxide salt, such as sodium or potassium hydroxide (known as “caustic soda” and “caustic potash”, respectively).  Aluminum reacts very avidly with sodium (or potassium) hydroxide solutions to yield sodium (potassium) aluminate and  hydrogen gas.  In other words, the residue found in the central reaction vessels in these labs contains the key reactants required to generate hydrogen gas.    

 

Presumably none of the Iraqis questioned have deviated from the story that these labs were intended for hydrogen production.  Although details of their testimony have not been released, we can reasonably expect that they were questioned to test their credibility – for example, how was the hydrogen made, what chemicals were involved, where were these chemicals acquired and stored, etc.  We can also reasonably assume that whatever answers they provided were at least reasonably credible – if they hadn’t been, this fact would have been trumpeted by Bush administration officials attempting to prove that these labs served a more nefarious purpose.  As to the design of the labs, if ancillary features of the labs were utterly illogical for the purpose of hydrogen generation, but made perfect sense for a bioweapons lab, one would have expected this to be commented on – but it hasn’t been.

 

Given the fact that a number of Iraqis are stating that these labs are intended for hydrogen manufacture, it is reasonable to conclude that, either this is indeed true, or it is a phony, government-concocted cover story intended to conceal a more sinister, illicit purpose for these vehicles.  So matters hinge on whether the hydrogen story really holds water. 

 

 

No Cogent Counterarguments

 

So far, there seems to be little cogent evidence that it doesn’t – at least, none has been presented in media reports to date, nor in the CIA’s recent analysis posted on its website.  U.S. experts admit that the labs could be used for generating hydrogen gas, a residue consistent with this use has been found in the vats, apparently all of the Iraqis claiming to know something about these labs are sticking to the hydrogen production story, and we can presume that their testimony isn’t wholly lacking in credibility.

 

How then do U.S. officials discount this explanation?  According to news reports, the following objections have been raised:

 

“The report acknowledges the trailers could be used to make hydrogen but says it would be inefficient compared to widely available commercial hydrogen generation systems.”  But how “widely available” were such systems in sanctioned-crippled Iraq, where children didn’t even have access to lead pencils?  Import restrictions were often so draconian and irrational that Iraqi technologists adopted a resourceful “do-it-yourself” attitude.

 

“Iraq never told the United Nations that it made such units.  Why would you have a covert program for filling weather balloons?”  Perhaps it never occurred to the Iraqis that a weather balloon-filling program would be of any interest to inspectors looking for weapons of mass destruction. They certainly couldn’t have been expected to declare every industrial enterprise in Iraq – and if they had done so, they would have been accused of bamboozling the inspectors with irrelevancies.

 

“Experts also noted that hydrogen is a highly explosive gas and less suited than helium for use in weather balloons.”  This lack of safety hasn’t prevented the Bush administration from backing efforts to make hydrogen the future primary fuel in America’s automobiles.  Nor is it likely that “safety first” was the primary motto in Saddam’s Iraq.  Did the Iraqis have ready access to helium?

 

Former UN inspector Dennis Franz states that, if the labs were intended for legitimate purposes, “putting this kind of facility on wheels doesn’t make sense.  That, for me, is what takes this near a smoking gun.”  What about the possibility that making the facility mobile allowed it to be manufactured and repaired at one location, and then transported to the site where the hydrogen was to be produced?  Moreover, Franz appears unaware of the fact that the “commercial hydrogen generation systems” recommended to the Iraqis are said to be “transportable”.  

 

In short, the U.S. does not appear to have any truly cogent rebuttals to the hydrogen story – at least, none that have been made public.  Nonetheless, the CIA’s recent website posting dealing with these mobile labs, discusses the hydrogen issue curtly and dismissively under the headline: “Hydrogen Production Cover Story”.  Without explaining why they consider the Iraqis’ explanation fraudulent – beyond noting the availability of commercial units for hydrogen production - they state that “Hydrogen production would be a plausible cover story for the mobile production units.  The Iraqis have used sophisticated denial and deception methods that include the use of cover stories that are designed to work.”  It is should be evident that these analysts are engaged in propaganda rather than objective inquiry. 

 

The Bioweapons Theory – Mere Supposition Beset by Implausibilities

 

The Bush administration, citing experts which it itself recruited, maintains that the real purpose of these labs was to generate bioweapons such as anthrax and botulinum toxin.  We can presume that it is feasible to conduct some of the steps required for production of such agents in these labs – after all, a vat can be used to grow bacteria.  However, the fact that the administration makes reference to several labs hooked together in tandem tacitly acknowledges the fact that other steps not feasible with the units in question would be needed for such production.  But these other labs have just been postulated – they have not been found.

 

Another difficulty with this theory is that, after what we can presume was a very thorough examination, not a trace of bacterial contamination has been found in the labs.  Yet according to David Corn, he was informed by two former UN weapons inspectors, including David Albright of ISIS, that “even if these trailers had been thoroughly scrubbed, there should be trace residues that would indicate what was done in them.”  The implication is that, even if these labs had been intended for bioweapons production, they were never used for that purpose, even to make a test batch.

 

The fact that one of these vats does contain aluminum – not the first thing one would think to feed to growing bacilli – is dismissed by U.S. officials with the Rube-Goldbergish speculation that the aluminum “might have been planted by Iraqis to create the illusion that the units had made gas for weather balloons.”

 

According to William Broad, U.S. intelligence experts conceded that “the trailer’s hardware presented no direct evidence of weapons use…..A technical assessment alone ‘would not lead you intuitively and logically to biological warfare,’ an official said of the trailers.”

 

We can reasonably presume that U.S. investigators have failed to find any evidence at al- Kindi that would corroborate their claim that these labs were for bioweapons production – no labs with anthrax seed stocks, no containers where growth media were stored, no areas where biological waste had been dumped, and certainly no bioweapons.

 

What then is the basis for the U.S.’s confidence that these labs were designed for bioweapons production?  According to a recent document posted on the CIA’s website (www.cia.gov), “The design, equipment, and layout of the trailer found in late April is strikingly similar to descriptions provided by a source who was a chemical engineer that managed one of the mobile plants.”  Now, if indeed the recently discovered labs were virtual carbon copies of the design previously reported by this defector, that would be such a remarkable coincidence that it would indeed lend credence to the possibility that these were bioweapons labs. 

 

But a cursory comparison of the design of these labs with the sketches provided by this engineer and featured in Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN – both designs are now posted on the CIA’s website – indicates that, while the labs do contain some of the components specified in the sketches (including a reaction vessel, air compressor, and control panel), the layout of these labs is hardly “strikingly similar’ to that specified by the defector.  The labs contain a water chiller and a previously mentioned gas compression unit, not found in the sketches.  The labs also contain a water tank; in the defector’s sketches, a water tank was found only in one of the other two trailers that performed complementary functions.  The recently discovered labs have 3 pumps; those described by the defector had 18.  The trailers on which the labs rest are clearly different from those specified by the defector.  The fact that the discovered labs differ in a number of respects from those described by the defector does not of course rule out the possibility that the former were indeed intended for bioweapons production – the CIA presentation rationalizes these differences as “second- or third-generation improvements” – but they put the lie to the contention that the discovered labs and those described by the defector are “strikingly similar”.  Which means that we are left with nothing more than speculation to support the claim that the Mosul labs were intended for bioweapons production. 

 

Furthermore, the Iraqi defector in question can be considered dubious.  He claims to have managed an Iraqi mobile bioweapons production facility in the mid 1990s, effectively right under the noses of UN inspectors.  He also claims that anthrax production runs were done on the Moslem Sabbath to evade detection by the inspectors.  This claim is criticized by microbiologist Raymond Zilinskas, who notes that it takes at least 36-48 hours to make a slurry of wet anthrax, and that any further production steps required would just add to this time – so what is the likelihood that the whole process could be achieved during a Sabbath?  And, if UN inspectors had investigated these labs when production wasn’t in progress, wouldn’t they have been suspicious and capable of demonstrating the presence of microbial contamination?  Furthermore, there is no evidence that Iraq ever mastered the art of producing dry anthrax – and wet anthrax has a very short shelf-life.  What good would wet anthrax have been to Iraq in the mid 1990’s?  In short, the credibility of this defector, like that of other defectors recruited by the Iraqi National Congress to feed “intelligence” to Wolfowitz’ Office of Special Projects, is very much in doubt.  Indeed, these defectors are largely responsible for the “intelligence fiasco” (as one group of mortified intelligence professionals characterized it) that propelled us into the recent Iraq war.  Not a single one of the claims made by these defectors about unconventional weapons could be verified on the ground in Iraq.

 

The news media have emphasized an additional argument in favor of the bioweapons theory – all other legitimate uses of labs configured in this way have been ruled out by U.S. experts.  Indeed, the recent CIA document, in a section entitled “Legitimate Uses Unlikely”, states: “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.”  Yet in the very next section they acknowledge that the labs would be suitable for hydrogen production.  One gets the impression that the CIA document was written by several different people who didn’t bother to read each others’ work; perhaps they were coached by the brilliant literati who assembled the recent British dossier.  (In any case, the propaganda has served its purpose – the claim about “no other legitimate purposes” made it onto the evening news – the hydrogen story didn’t.)

 

The fact that these labs contain equipment for collecting and compressing gas is claimed to demonstrate that they were designed to circumvent UN inspections.  “Civilian experts on Iraq’s program and biological weapons said this gas-capture system appeared to be a hallmark of a clandestine facility, and strongly reinforced the idea that the mobile units were for the production of biological weapons.  If spores and signature gasses from the germ food escaped the unit, experts said, inspectors down wind with sensitive detectors might be able to detect the illegal manufacturing.” 

 

Yet Prof. Glen Rangwala casts an interesting light on this theory.  “Colin Powell had produced drawings of what he claimed the mobile labs would look like.  The sketches showed metal-sided vehicles, as would be required to contain pathogens in case any valves or fittings leaked, as they almost always do.  By contrast, the photographs of these trailers released by the Pentagon showed vehicles whose sides were sheets of canvas that was simply pinned down.  If such vehicles had been used for containing anthrax fermenters, a downwind footprint of anthrax contamination would have been detected fairly readily.”

 

One would have to be exceptionally stupid to go the trouble and expense of installing devices for collecting and compressing gasses, in an effort to hide the proscribed activity from UN inspectors, while at the same time enclosing the lab in loosely attached sheets of canvas!

 

Moreover, the design of the labs does not appear to be conducive to bacteria production.   Wiliam Broad states that “the mobile factories were poorly designed.  For instance, one official noted, Iraqi biologists running the plants would have had a hard time getting raw materials into the production gear and removing multiplied colonies of deadly germs.”  However, according to another U.S. expert, “their inefficiency…was probably rooted in a decision to design the plants with enough technical ambiguity so they could be disclaimed as germ factories if discovered.”  In other words, only a moron would design plants this way if he wanted to use them to make deadly microbes – but the Iraqis chose to do things this way to throw off the inspectors in case the labs were ever discovered. (As if the presence of microbial contamination wouldn’t pique the interest of the inspectors a bit?)  This absurd analysis should tell you a lot about the true believer mindset of the scientists invited by the Bush administration to analyze these labs.

 

A further difficulty with the bioweapons theory is the fact that the labs lack any steam sterilization gear.  Bioweapons experts indicate that this would be crucial for sterilizing a fermenter between production runs; otherwise, contaminating microorganisms could ruin the next batch.  The latest article by Judith Miller and William Broad (June 7, NY Times) indicates that independent senior bioweapons experts, allowed access to the mobile labs, now dissent from the CIA’s conclusions, largely owing to the absence of steam sterilization equipment.  Intelligence officials who back the administration’s position counter that “the Iraqis could have used a separate unit to supply steam to the trailers.”  Or they suggested that the Iraqis’ anthrax may have been bioengineered to be resistant to certain antibiotics which were then used to quell the growth of competing organisms.

 

The CIA’s description of the central reaction vessels as “fermentors” – a term which seemingly implies that their purpose was microbe production - has been called into question by one expert who examined the labs.  “It’s not built and designed as a standard fermenter.  Certainly, if you modify it enough you could use it.  But that’s true of any tin can.” 

 

Fred Kaplan of Slate interviewed biologists who had other qualms about the CIA’s conclusions.  One of these, examining photos of the mobile labs, noted that the pipes leading into the central reaction vessels seemed to be connected with joints of a type (threaded or bolt-flange joints) that would be inherently prone to leakage; such leakage could contaminate the production, while putting the bioworkers’ lives at risk.  Another biologist commented that, unless the reaction chamber were fitted with a thermal-control meter “that could keep the chamber within one or two degrees of body temperature”, it would be useless for industrial production of microbes.  No such control mechanism was mentioned in the CIA report – and it seems inherently implausible that those rain-rusted, cloth-sided trailers in the Iraqi desert could have been intended for high-precision work of any kind. 

 

But perhaps the greatest implausibility of the bioweapons theory is that, long after the fall of Saddam, apparently all of the Iraqi scientists and technicians involved with these labs are sticking to the story that the labs were intended to produce hydrogen.  Given the fact that the U.S. is offering rich rewards to any Iraqi who will “spill the beans” on Iraq’s presumed illicit weapons programs, is it credible that not one of these individuals would admit the truth, if in fact the hydrogen story was a hoax?  The lame rejoinder of U.S. officials is that the scientists are “reluctant to speak candidly…because they fear they could be implicated in possible war crimes or face retribution from member of the fallen regime who are at large.”  But most if not all of these scientists are small fry who would never be targeted in war crimes trials; they would be rewarded, not punished, for coming clean.  And fear of retribution hasn’t dissuaded thousands of Iraqis from telling the world about their tribulations under Saddam’s brutal regime.

 

In summary, while the labs in question could possibly be used to execute a few of the steps required to achieve bioweapons production, there is no hard evidence that they were designed for this purpose, and indeed the inability to demonstrate even a trace of microbial contamination in them strongly suggests that they never even made a test batch of harmful microbes.  They differ in a number of respects from the sketches of putative mobile bioweapons labs offered by an Iraqi defector who claimed to have operated such labs, and the additional mobile labs that would be required to constitute a complete production facility have never been found.  Their layout is not conducive to efficient production of microbes, and the fact that they are enclosed in canvas – and thus would be expected to emit “a downwind footprint of anthrax contamination” – renders unintelligible the purpose of their gas compression units.  The absence of steam sterilization equipment is inconsistent with a bioweapons application – unless such equipment was available in an independent unit.  Doubts have been expressed about the structural integrity of the joints leading to the central reactors, and about the presence of precise temperature control mechanisms required for efficient microbe production.  Finally, all Iraqis questioned who claim to have knowledge of these labs, claim that they were intended to produce hydrogen gas for military weather balloons.  U.S. experts admit that the labs could be used for this purpose, have identified compounds in the central reaction vessels which can indeed react to generate hydrogen, and have presented no cogent evidence that these Iraqis are lying.  If indeed these labs were intended for bioweapons production, it is hard to understand why not a single Iraqi has stepped forth to admit this, in expectation of claiming an ample bounty.   

 

Consider the Source

 

Yet the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency have concluded that these labs “were mobile units to produce germs for weapons”, and “are the strongest evidence yet that Saddam Hussein had a biological weapons program.”  Bear in mind that the Bush administration is currently choosing the government officials and “independent” experts invited to examine these vehicles; it is also controlling the release of their conclusions to the press.  The UN inspectors, whose credibility and expertise would make them ideal for evaluating this situation, are being stiff-armed.  The Bush administration has shown remarkable expertise in recruiting “experts” and “intelligence” sources who are willing to provide conclusions that gibe wonderfully well with the administration’s political objectives; indeed, administration “experts” have arguably crafted one of the most elaborate Big Lies of all time in convincing the American public that Iraq was virtually awash in banned deadly weapons prior to the recent war.  Proving that Iraq did indeed have an active bioweapons program remains a high priority for them, and getting as much propaganda mileage as feasible out of these putative “bioweapons labs” is crucial, given that nothing else of interest has turned up in Iraq.

 

But the Bush administration has allowed certain independent experts to examine the trailers who are now proving to be too independent, and who dissent from the CIA’s conclusions.  One of them notes: “Everyone has wanted to find the ‘smoking gun’ so much that they may have wanted to reach this conclusion.  I am very upset with the process.”  Another expert, who has access to evidence gathered from the trailers, states that the government’s official report was “a rushed job and looks political”.     

 

Until and unless truly independent bioweapons experts – preferably the UN inspectors – can provide a cogent argument that the labs in question were intended for bioweapons production, judicious observers will view such claims with well merited skepticism.  The simplest and so-far most plausible explanation is that the Iraqis are telling the truth – that these labs were indeed intended for hydrogen production.  The counterclaim that these were bioweapons facilities is implausible on a number of grounds, and should not be taken seriously until and unless much more compelling evidence, vouched for by experts not in thrall to the Bush administration, is in hand.

 

As a depressing postscript, it may be noted that few if any media stories have appeared to date highlighting the fact that the Iraqis maintain these labs were intended for hydrogen generation.  To learn this, one must read deep into stories whose primary intent is to trumpet the U.S. conclusion that these were bioweapons labs. Only within the last few days have a few stories aired the views of scientists who dissent from the administration’s conclusions.  And we can be sure that the hydrogen lead hasn’t even been mentioned in TV news coverage.  Once again, the American media are acting as a servile conduit for the Bush administration’s propaganda.  Even if subsequent reports completely annihilate the bioweapons lab theory, you can be sure that a sizeable portion of the American public will be left with the impression that these trailers constitute definitive proof that pre-invasion Iraq had an ongoing bioweapons program. 

 

 

Note: Articles cited in this analysis include: “U.S. Analysts Link Iraq Labs to Germ Arms”, Judith Miller and William J. Broad, New York Times, May 21; “Trucks Could be Linked to Iraq Bioweapons”, John J. Lumpkin, AP, May 28; “U.S. Offers Details on Iraqi Rigs”, Greg Miller, LA Times, May 29; “U.S., in Assessment, Terms Trailers Germ Laboratories”, William J. Broad, New York Times, May 29; “Iraqi Mobile Biological Warfare Agent Production Plants”, CIA website (www.cia.gov), May 28, “The Progress of the Pretext”, Prof. Glen Rangwala, May 15; “Bush’s Postwar Iraq Causing Cracks?”, David Corn, The Nation, May 28; “Shadow of a Doubt”, Fred Kaplan, Slate, June 3; “Some Analysts of Trailers Reject Germ Use”, Judith Miller and William J. Broad, New York Times, June 7.  Thanks are due to Herb Boynton for teaching me how to make hydrogen gas.

 

Further note:  A story emphasizing that the mobile labs may have been hydrogen gas generators has just appeared in the British journal The Observer: “Blow to Blair over ‘mobile labs’ – Saddam’s trucks were for balloons, not germs,” Peter Beaumont and Antony Barnett, June 8.    

 

  Page updated June 13, 2003 by Charlie Jenks