Top American scientists assigned to the weapons hunt in Iraq found no evidence Saddam Hussein’s regime was making or stockpiling smallpox, The Associated Press has learned from senior military officers involved in the search.
Smallpox fears were part of the case the Bush administration used to build support for invading Iraq – and they were raised again as recently as last weekend by Vice President Dick Cheney.
A three-month search by “Team Pox” turned up only signs to the contrary: disabled equipment that had been rendered harmless by U.N. inspectors, Iraqi scientists deemed credible who gave no indication they had worked with smallpox and a laboratory thought to be back in use that was covered in cobwebs.
Fears that smallpox could be used as a weapon led the Bush administration to launch a vaccination campaign for some 500,000 U.S. military personnel after the Sept. 11 attacks, and to order enough vaccine to inoculate the entire U.S. population if necessary. President Bush also was vaccinated against the disease, which kills about a third of its victims.
The negative smallpox findings reported to U.S. intelligence agencies come nearly six months after the administration went to war to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that Saddam long denied having and the military hasn’t been able to find.
Smallpox was declared eradicated worldwide in 1980. All samples of the virus were to have been destroyed except those held by special labs in Atlanta and Russia, but some experts fear Russian samples could have gotten into the hands of hostile nations.
Two of the six members of Team Pox – whose existence and work hasn’t been previously disclosed – have left Iraq while the rest remain involved in other aspects of the weapons hunt, said the officers who described the smallpox pursuit for the first time.
Though Team Pox is no longer operational, having carried out their work between May and July, their findings don’t dismiss the possibility that smallpox could still be discovered, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
However, there remains little to pursue in this area now.
“We found no physical or new anecdotal evidence to suggest Iraq was producing smallpox or had stocks of it in its possession,” one of the military officers said.
When Team Pox searched key locations in Iraq, such as the defunct Darwah foot-and-mouth disease center, they found the facility in the same condition U.N. inspectors left it in seven years ago.
In 1996, inspectors destroyed one fermenter, a storage tank and an inactivation tank at Darwah and poured concrete into the air conditioners while other equipment, including filter pressers and centrifuges were tagged for monitoring purposes.
The smallpox team found cobwebs covering much of the inside, although a CIA National Intelligence Estimate said the Iraqis were refurbishing the facility.
U.S. satellite images had spotted trucks pulling up in the past year – an indication of renewed activity, the team was told. But investigations on the ground revealed the trucks belonged to black marketeers stealing scrap metal and other parts around the site.
In the run-up to the war, the CIA said chances were even that smallpox was part of an Iraqi biological weapons program, according to the National Intelligence Estimate.
Bush administration officials often cited smallpox when describing Saddam’s intentions – and continue to do so despite the lack of evidence.
On Sunday, Cheney said two trailers discovered in Iraq could have been used to make smallpox. The vice president referred to the trailers as “mobile biological facilities” – a characterization that has been disputed by intelligence analysts within two U.S. government agencies that believe the trailers were used to fill weather balloons.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, making the U.S. case for war last February at the United Nations, said Saddam “has the wherewithal to develop smallpox.”
Despite those suspicions, Pentagon planners didn’t organize a specific search for smallpox when they put together a post-Saddam weapons hunt comprising hundreds of military personnel with expertise in missiles as well as chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
“There was some discussion about creating specialized teams but we didn’t have enough people,” said Lt. Col. Michael Slifka, who planned the weapons hunt for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
The original search teams, which disbanded when a Pentagon-led effort known as the Iraq Survey Group took over in August, comprised military officers trained in detecting chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Those teams didn’t have an investigative capability and didn’t include experts in specific areas such as smallpox.
Surprised by the configuration, a handful of American biologists and virologists sent to Kuwait and then Baghdad with little instruction except to help, set up Team Pox on their own.
The team – which included two specialists who worked previously as U.N. inspectors in the 1990s – wrapped up their work midsummer mostly out of frustration with the Iraq Survey Group.
Those involved described missed opportunities caused by bureaucratic obstacles hampering the search effort.
In several instances, the team couldn’t follow up tips because of transportation problems. The violence plaguing Iraq means such teams can operate only under military guidelines and travel only with military escort. So their mobility is dictated by the military’s schedule and availability to move from them from one location to another.
Some Iraqi scientists interviewed clearly had the know-how and expertise to produce smallpox, honed through years of work with similar viruses.
None of the Iraqi scientists said they had done work on smallpox or other viruses that could be used in biological weapons programs.
U.N. inspectors suspected Iraq could have been working on smallpox or already had it. There was an outbreak of smallpox in the country in 1972, and Iraq admitted it had been producing the vaccine into the 1980s.
“From the onset the evidence was strictly circumstantial,” said Jonathan Tucker, a former U.N. inspector and the author of a recent book on smallpox. “There was a lot of smoke but not much fire there.”
Tests on Iraqi soldiers captured during the 1991 Gulf War found that some had been vaccinated for smallpox.
And Iraq admitted to U.N. inspectors in the 1990s that its biological weapons scientists worked with camelpox, a close relative of the smallpox virus. Working with camelpox would give Iraq a way to perfect techniques for making smallpox without endangering the researchers.