Iraq: Task Force Unable To Find Any Weapons


Richard Moore

Date: Thu, 15 May 2003 12:13:36 -0700
To: (Recipient list suppressed)
From: Bill Thomson <•••@••.•••>
Subject: MIDEAST ACTION:  Thursday, 5/15/03-2 (PM--USA:EST)
Frustrated, U.S. Arms Team to Leave Iraq
Task Force Unable To Find Any Weapons
By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2003; Page A01

BAGHDAD -- The group directing all known U.S. search
efforts for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is
winding down operations without finding proof that
President Saddam Hussein kept clandestine stocks of
outlawed arms, according to participants.

The 75th Exploitation Task Force, as the group is
formally known, has been described from the start as
the principal component of the U.S. plan to discover
and display forbidden Iraqi weapons. The group's
departure, expected next month, marks a milestone in
frustration for a major declared objective of the war.

Leaders of Task Force 75's diverse staff -- biologists,
chemists, arms treaty enforcers, nuclear operators,
computer and document experts, and special forces
troops -- arrived with high hopes of early success.
They said they expected to find what Secretary of State
Colin L. Powell described at the U.N. Security Council
on Feb. 5 -- hundreds of tons of biological and
chemical agents, missiles and rockets to deliver the
agents, and evidence of an ongoing program to build a
nuclear bomb.

Scores of fruitless missions broke that confidence,
many task force members said in interviews.

Army Col. Richard McPhee, who will close down the task
force next month, said he took seriously U.S.
intelligence warnings on the eve of war that Hussein
had given "release authority" to subordinates in
command of chemical weapons. "We didn't have all these
people in [protective] suits" for nothing, he said. But
if Iraq thought of using such weapons, "there had to
have been something to use. And we haven't found it. .
. . Books will be written on that in the intelligence
community for a long time."

Army Col. Robert Smith, who leads the site assessment
teams from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, said
task force leaders no longer "think we're going to find
chemical rounds sitting next to a gun." He added,
"That's what we came here for, but we're past that."

Motivated and accomplished in their fields, task force
members found themselves lacking vital tools. They
consistently found targets identified by Washington to
be inaccurate, looted and burned, or both. Leaders and
members of five of the task force's eight teams, and
some senior officers guiding them, said the weapons
hunters were going through the motions now to "check
the blocks" on a prewar list.

U.S. Central Command began the war with a list of 19
top weapons sites. Only two remain to be searched.
Another list enumerated 68 top "non-WMD sites," without
known links to special weapons but judged to have the
potential to offer clues. Of those, the tally at
midweek showed 45 surveyed without success.

Task Force 75's experience, and its impending
dissolution after seven weeks in action, square poorly
with assertions in Washington that the search has
barely begun.

In his declaration of victory aboard the USS Abraham
Lincoln on May 1, President Bush said, "We've begun the
search for hidden chemical and biological weapons, and
already know of hundreds of sites that will be
investigated." Stephen A. Cambone, undersecretary of
defense for intelligence, told reporters at the
Pentagon on Wednesday that U.S. forces had surveyed
only 70 of the roughly 600 potential weapons facilities
on the "integrated master site list" prepared by U.S.
intelligence agencies before the war.

But here on the front lines of the search, the focus is
on a smaller number of high-priority sites, and the
results are uniformly disappointing, participants said.

"Why are we doing any planned targets?" Army Chief
Warrant Officer Richard L. Gonzales, leader of Mobile
Exploitation Team Alpha, said in disgust to a colleague
during last Sunday's nightly report of weapons sites
and survey results. "Answer me that. We know they're
empty." Survey teams have combed laboratories and
munitions plants, bunkers and distilleries, bakeries
and vaccine factories, file cabinets and holes in the
ground where tipsters advised them to dig. Most of the
assignments came with classified "target folders"
describing U.S. intelligence leads. Others, known as
the "ad hocs," came to the task force's attention by
way of plausible human sources on the ground. The hunt
will continue under a new Iraq Survey Group, which the
Bush administration has said is a larger team. But the
organizers are drawing down their weapons staffs for
lack of work, and adding expertise for other missions.

Interviews and documents describing the transition from
Task Force 75 to the new group show that site survey
teams, the advance scouts of the arms search, will
reduce from six to two their complement of experts in
missile technology and biological, chemical and nuclear
weapons. A little-known nuclear special operations
group from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, called
the Direct Support Team, has already sent home a third
of its original complement, and plans to cut the
remaining team by half.

"We thought we would be much more gainfully employed,
or intensively employed, than we were," said Navy Cmdr.
David Beckett, who directs special nuclear programs for
the team.

State-of-the-art biological and chemical labs, shrunk
to fit standard cargo containers, came equipped with
enough supplies to run thousands of tests using DNA
fingerprinting and mass spectrometry. They have been
called upon no more than a few dozen times, none with a
confirmed hit. The labs' director, who asked not to be
identified, said some of his scientists were also going

Even the sharpest skeptics do not rule out that the
hunt may eventually find evidence of banned weapons.
The most significant unknown is what U.S. interrogators
are learning from senior Iraqi scientists, military
industrial managers and Iraqi government leaders now in
custody. If the nonconventional arms exist, some of
them ought to know. Publicly, the Bush administration
has declined to discuss what the captured Iraqis are
saying. In private, U.S. officials provide conflicting
reports, with some hinting at important disclosures.
Cambone also said U.S. forces have seized "troves of
documents" and are "surveying them, triaging them" for
clues. At former presidential palaces in the Baghdad
area, where Task Force 75 will soon hand control to the
Iraq Survey Group, leaders and team members refer to
the covert operators as "secret squirrels." If they are
making important progress, it has not led to
"actionable" targets, according to McPhee and other
task force members.

McPhee, an artillery brigade commander from Oklahoma
who was assigned to the task force five months ago,
reflected on the weapons hunt as the sun set outside
his improvised sleeping quarters, a cot and mosquito
net set down in the wreckage of a marble palace annex.
He smoked a cigar, but without the peace of mind he
said the evening ritual usually brings.

"My unit has not found chemical weapons," he said.
"That's a fact. And I'm 47 years old, having a birthday
in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces on a lake in the
middle of Baghdad. It's surreal. The whole thing is

"Am I convinced that what we did in this fight was
viable? I tell you from the bottom of my heart: We
stopped Saddam Hussein in his WMD programs," he said,
using the abbreviation for weapons of mass destruction.
"Do I know where they are? I wish I did . . . but we
will find them. Or not. I don't know. I'm being honest

Later in the conversation, he flung the unfinished
cigar into the lake with somewhat more force than

Team members explain their disappointing results, in
part, as a consequence of a slow advance. Cautious
ground commanders sometimes held weapons hunters away
from the front, they said, and the task force had no
helicopters of its own.

"My personal feeling is we waited too long and stayed
too far back," said Christopher Kowal, an expert in
computer forensics who worked for Mobile Exploitation
Team Charlie until last week.

'The Bear Wasn't There'

But two other factors -- erroneous intelligence and
poor site security -- dealt the severest blows to the
hunt, according to leaders and team members at every

Some information known in Washington, such as
inventories of nuclear sites under supervision of the
International Atomic Energy Agency, did not reach the
teams assigned to visit them. But what the U.S.
government did not know mattered more than what it did
know. Intelligence agencies had a far less accurate
picture of Iraq's weapons program than participants
believed at the outset of their search, they recalled.

"We came to bear country, we came loaded for bear and
we found out the bear wasn't here," said a Defense
Intelligence Agency officer here who asked not to be
identified by name. "The indications and warnings were
there. The assessments were solid."

"Okay, that paradigm didn't exist," he added. "The
question before was, where are Saddam Hussein's
chemical and biological weapons? What is the question
now? That is what we are trying to sort out."

One thing analysts must reconsider, he said, is: "What
was the nature of the threat?"

By far the greatest impediment to the weapons hunt,
participants said, was widespread looting of Iraq's
government and industrial facilities. At nearly every
top-tier "sensitive site" the searchers reached,
intruders had sacked and burned the evidence that
weapons hunters had counted on sifting. As recently as
last Tuesday, nearly a month after Hussein's fall from
power, soldiers under the Army's V Corps command had
secured only 44 of the 85 top potential weapons sites
in the Baghdad area and 153 of the 372 considered most
important to rebuilding Iraq's government and economy.

McPhee saw early in the war that the looters were
stripping his targets before he could check them. He
cut the planning cycle for new missions -- the time
between first notice and launch -- from 96 to 24 hours.
"What we found," he said, was that "as the maneuver
units hit a target they had to move on, even 24 hours
was too slow. By the time we got there, a lot of things
were gone."

Short and powerfully built, McPhee has spent his adult
life as a combat officer. He calls his soldiers
"bubbas" and worries about their mail. "It ain't good"
that suspect sites are unprotected, he said, but he
refused to criticize fighting units who left evidence
unguarded. "You've got two corps commanders being told,
'Get to Baghdad,' and, oh, by the way, 'When you run
across sensitive sites, you have to secure them,' " he
said. "Do you secure all those sites, or do you get to
Baghdad? You've got limited force structure and you've
got 20 missions."

A low point came when looters destroyed what was meant
to be McPhee's headquarters in the Iraqi capital. The
101st Airborne Division had used the complex, a
munitions factory called the Al Qadisiyah State
Establishment, before rolling north to Mosul. When a
reporter came calling, looking for Task Force 75,
looters were busily stripping it clean. They later set
it ablaze.

An Altered Mission

The search teams arrived in Iraq "looking for the
smoking gun," Smith said, and now the mission is more
diffuse -- general intelligence-gathering on subjects
ranging from crimes against humanity and prisoners of
war to Hussein's links with terrorists. At the peak of
the effort, all four mobile exploitation teams were
devoted nearly full time to weapons of mass
destruction. By late last month, two of the four had
turned to other questions. This week, MET Alpha,
Gonzales's team, also left the hunt, at least
temporarily. It parted with its chemical and biological
experts, added linguists and document exploiters and
recast itself as an intelligence team. It will search
for weapons if leads turn up, but lately it has focused
on Iraqi covert operations abroad and the theft of
Jewish antiquities. The stymied hunt baffles search
team leaders. To a person, those interviewed during a
weeklong visit to the task force said they believed in
the mission and the Bush administration accusations
that prompted it.

Yet "smoking gun" is now a term of dark irony here.
Maj. Kenneth Deal, executive officer of one site survey
team, called out the words in mock triumph when he
found a page of Arabic text at a former Baath Party
recreation center last week. It was torn from a
translated edition of A.J.P. Taylor's history, "The
Struggle for Mastery in Europe." At a "battle update
brief" last week, amid confusion over the whereabouts
of a British laboratory in transit from Talil Air Base,
McPhee deadpanned to his staff: "I haven't a clue where
the WMD is, but we can find this lab."

Among the sites already visited from Central Command's
top 19 are an underground facility at North Tikrit
Hospital, an unconventional training camp at Salman
Pak, Samarra East Airport, the headquarters of the
Military Industrialization Commission, the Baghdad
Research Complex, a storage site for surface-to-surface
missiles in Taji, the Amiriyah Serum and Vaccine
Institute, a munitions assembly plant in Iskandariyah
and an underground bunker at the Abu Ghurayb Palace.
The bunker, toured several days later by a reporter,
withstood the palace's destruction by at least two
satellite-guided bombs. The bombs left six-foot holes
in the reinforced concrete palace roof, driving the
steel reinforcing rods downward in a pattern that
resembled tentacles. The subsequent detonation turned
great marble rooms into rubble.

But the bunker, tunneled deep below a ground-floor
kitchen, remained unscathed. The tunnel dropped
straight down and then leveled to horizontal, forming
corridors that extend most of the breadth of the
palace. Richly decorated living quarters were arranged
along a series of L-shaped bends, each protected by
three angled blast doors. The doors weighed perhaps a

In a climate-control room, chemical weapons filters and
carbon dioxide scrubbers protected the air and an
overpressure blast valve stood ready to vent the lethal
shock waves of an explosion. And a decontamination
shower stood under an alarm panel designed to flash the
message "Gas-Gaz."

"Is it evidence of weapons of mass destruction?" asked
Deal. "No. It's probably evidence of paranoia."

"I don't think we'll find anything," said Army Capt.
Tom Baird, one of two deputy operations officers under
McPhee. "What I see is a lot of stuff destroyed." The
Defense Intelligence Agency officer, describing a "sort
of a lull period" in the search, said that whatever may
have been at the target sites is now "dispersed to the

All last week, McPhee drilled his staff on speeding the
transition. The Iraq Survey Group should have all the
help it needs, he said, to take control of the hunt. He
is determined, subordinates said, to set the stage for
success after he departs. And he does not want to leave
his soldiers behind if their successors can be trained
in time. "I see them as Aladdin's carpet," McPhee told
his staff. "Ticket home."

(c) 2003 The Washington Post Company



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