Ten years after 9/11, one captivating thought keeps crossing my mind: When the Assad tyranny in Syria finally collapses, will George W. Bush be vindicated? Will evidence be found that Saddam Hussein did actually possess mobile bio-weapons labs, and had them driven across the border ahead of allied forces advancing on Baghdad.
From my own research in the late 1990s, I strongly suspect this to be the case. Senior European civil servants, military and intelligence officers and especially scientists familiar with Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction programs predicted that this was going to happen. They told me almost unanimously that sufficient amounts of biological agents to kill millions of civilians, could be manufactured inside trucks, which international weapons inspectors or invading forces would never find because they were extremely movable.
I conducted my research at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, at the United Nations in Geneva, the Italian Foreign Ministry, and the Iraqi National Congress in London well before Mr. Bush’s election in 2000.
Critics of the Bush administration, including conservatives, have accused it of having contrived proof of “transportable facilities for producing … BW (biological warfare) agents” as a pretext for invading Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell presented this argument before the United Nations Security Council.
The Bush administration’s critics charge that this information originated with an “asset” (informer) of the BND, Germany’s external in intelligence service and was not confirmed by a secondary source. The informer, codenamed “Curveball” by the Central Information Agency, was an Iraqi chemical engineer by the name of Rafeed Ahmed Alwan who had defected to Germany in 1999.
Alwan, who has since changed his name, told the conservative German newspaper, Die Welt, that he had no idea he was cooperating with a spy agency and that he regretted having triggered a war. According to a recent report by Die Welt, the BND warned he Central Intelligence Agency that it considered “Curveball” as emotionally unstable and therefore not reliable. The newspaper related that Colin Powell’s use of the details provided by “Curveball” seriously marred the relationship between the two allied spy agencies.
My intensive research began more than one year before “Curveball’s” defection to Germany. What alarmed me was an article by Columbia University Professor Richard K. Betts in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs titled, “The New Threat of Mass Destruction.” In this article, Betts, Director of National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, dealt with “weapons of the weak – states or groups that militarily are at best second class.”
He wrote, “Biological weapon should be the most serious concern, with nuclear weapons second and chemicals a distant third.” These weapons, he went on, presented “probably… the greatest danger.”
“A 1993 study by the office of Technology Assessment concluded that a single airplane delivering 100 kilograms of anthrax spores – a dormant phase of a bacillus that multiplies rapidly in the body, producing toxins and rapid hemorrhaging – by aerosol on a clear, calm night over the Washington, D.C., area could kill between one million and three million people, 300 times as many fatalities as if the plane had delivered Sarin gas in amounts ten times larger.”
This corresponded to a later calculation by British biologist Malcolm Dando, a professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford in England, that devastating a square kilometer by a nuclear weapon would cost an aggressor $800. To wipe out the same area chemically would be 200 dollars cheaper. But for one single Dollar the same results could be achieved with a bio bomb, which would be even more effective than a nuke. A one-megaton hydrogen bomb would kill “only” a maximum of 1.9 million people; with 100 kilograms of anthrax up to three million could be annihilated.
These data are so alarming that when I interviewed Vladimir Petrovsky, then the Geneva-based United Nations director-general, in 1998 for Die Welt, he sounded scandalized by the indifference of the Western media to these perils. “I don’t understand the Western media,” he thundered, “they are asleep in the face of the greatest danger to humanity since the end of the Cold War.”
There have been some eyewitness reports by defectors claiming that Saddam Hussein’s bio bombs have indeed been stored in Syria alongside that nation’s own weapons of mass destruction. Is there any conclusive evidence for this? There won’t be until Syria falls. But given the massive perils to all humanity, it seemed to me extraordinarily irresponsible to trivialize this problem into an issue for petty partisan bickering.
Erhard Geissler, a molecular biologist formerly involved in the East German WMD research, wrote that even Hitler forbade the use of bio-weapons, presumably because of his bacteriophobic hypochondria. And he related that in World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II outlawed their use against human beings, though not against military transport animals, such as horses and mules.
When in 1916 a military physician suggested using airships to drop plague spores on England, the War Ministry in Berlin replied: “…if we took this step we would no longer be worthy to survive as a nation.” Compared with the nobility of this statement by generals in the middle of a fratricidal war, the squabbling over whether Saddam’s frightening biological weapons programs had to be stopped militarily seems amazingly petty.
Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 55 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.