Blow to Blair over 'mobile labs'
Saddam's trucks were for balloons, not germs
Peter Beaumont and Antony Barnett
Sunday June 8, 2003
Tony Blair faces a fresh crisis over Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, as evidence emerges that two vehicles that he has repeatedly claimed to be Iraqi mobile biological warfare production units are nothing of the sort.
The intelligence agency MI6, British defence officers and technical experts from the Porton Down microbiological research establishment have been ordered to conduct an urgent review of the mobile facilities, following US analysis which casts serious doubt on whether they really are germ labs.
The British review comes amid widespread doubts expressed by scientists on both sides of the Atlantic that the trucks could have been used to make biological weapons.
Instead The Observer has established that it is increasingly likely that the units were designed to be used for hydrogen production to fill artillery balloons, part of a system originally sold to Saddam by Britain in 1987.
The British review follows access by UK officials to the vehicles which were discovered by US troops in April and May.
'We are being very careful now not to jump to any conclusions about these vehicles,' said one source familiar with the investigation. 'On the basis of intelligence we do believe that mobile labs do exist. What is not certain is that these vehicles are actually them so we are being careful not to jump the gun.'
The claim, however, that the two vehicles are mobile germ labs has been repeated frequently by both Blair and President George Bush in recent days in support of claims that they prove the existence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
During his whistle stop tour of the Gulf, Europe and Russia, Blair repeatedly briefed journalists that the trailers were germ production labs which proved that Iraq had WMD.
But chemical weapons experts, engineers, chemists and military systems experts contacted by The Observer over the past week, say the layout and equipment found on the trailers is entirely inconsistent with the vehicles being mobile labs. Both US Secretary of State Colin Powell, when he addressed the UN Security Council prior to the war, and the British Government alleged that Saddam had such labs.
A separate investigation published by the New York Times yesterday discloses that the trailers have now been investigated by three different teams of Western experts, with the third and most senior group of analysts apparently divided sharply over their function.
'I have no great confidence that it's a fermenter,' a senior analyst said of a tank supposed to be capable of multiplying seed germs into lethal swarms. The government's public report, he said, 'was a rushed job and looks political'. The analyst had not seen the trailers, but reviewed evidence from them.
Another intelligence expert who has seen the trailers told the US paper: 'Everyone has wanted to find the "smoking gun" so much that they may have wanted to have reached this conclusion. I am very upset with the process.'
Questions over the claimed purpose of trailer for making biological weapons include:
7 The lack of any trace of pathogens found in the fermentation tanks. According to experts, when weapons inspectors checked tanks in the mid-Nineties that had been scoured to disguise their real use, traces of pathogens were still detectable.
7 The use of canvas sides on vehicles where technicians would be working with dangerous germ cultures.
7 A shortage of pumps required to create vacuum conditions required for working with germ cultures and other processes usually associated with making biological weapons.
7 The lack of an autoclave for steam sterilisation, normally a prerequisite for any kind of biological production. Its lack of availability between production runs would threaten to let in germ contaminants, resulting in failed weapons.
7 The lack of any easy way for technicians to remove germ fluids from the processing tank.
One of those expressing severe doubts about the alleged mobile germ labs is Professor Harry Smith, who chairs the Royal Society's working party on biological weapons.
He told The Observer 'I am concerned about the canvas sides. Ideally, you would want airtight facilities for making something like anthrax. Not only that, it is a very resistant organism and even if the Iraqis cleaned the equipment, I would still expect to find some trace of it.'
His view is shared by the working group of the Federation of American Scientists and by the CIA, which states: 'Senior Iraqi officials of the al-Kindi Research, Testing, Development, and Engineering facility in Mosul were shown pictures of the mobile production trailers, and they claimed that the trailers were used to chemically produce hydrogen for artillery weather balloons.'
Artillery balloons are essentially balloons that are sent up into the atmosphere and relay information on wind direction and speed allowing more accurate artillery fire. Crucially, these systems need to be mobile.
The Observer has discovered that not only did the Iraq military have such a system at one time, but that it was actually sold to them by the British. In 1987 Marconi, now known as AMS, sold the Iraqi army an Artillery Meteorological System or Amets for short.
Additional reporting by Solomon Hughes