By Barton Gellman, Washington Post Staff Writer, Sunday, May 11, 2003
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
Task Force 75's experience, and its impending dissolution after seven weeks
in action, square poorly with assertions in Washington that the search has
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
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,
"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
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 home.
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 surreal.
"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 here."
Later in the conversation, he flung the unfinished cigar into the lake with
somewhat more force than required.
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
"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 level.
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
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
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
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 ton.
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 wind."
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."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company