Scientists hunted futilely in Iraq for signs of smallpox.
Top U.S. scientists assigned to the weapons hunt in Iraq found no evidence that 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.
But 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; a lab 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 about 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.
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 Hussein long denied having and that 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 haven'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 its work in May through July, its 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 had said the Iraqis were refurbishing the facility.
U.S. satellite images had showed 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 Hussein'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 who believe the trailers were used to fill weather balloons.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, making the U.S. case for war in February at the United Nations, said Hussein "has the wherewithal to develop smallpox."
U.N. inspectors suspected Iraq could have been working on smallpox or already had it. There was an outbreak of smallpox in Iraq 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."
[Source: The Baltimore Sun, 19sep03]
This document has been published on 21oct03 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights, in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.