So those Iraqi mobile bioweapons labs, or weather-balloon hydrogen plants, or EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicles, or whatever they were, are back in the news. The Washington Post suggested that when President Bush declared that they were biological weapons factories, he was ignoring an expert report arguing that they were not, in fact, WMD-related. Several blogs (e.g., here, here, here, and here) jumped on the Post to point out that buried within the Post's article is a note that a joint CIA/DIA report identifying the trailers as biological weapons factories arrived the next day.
The Post article describes the report as "unequivocal in its conclusions" that the trailers were not bioweapons labs, and mentions the report being written by "a secret fact-finding mission to Iraq -- not made public until now." Later on, the Post describes two teams of military experts looking over the trailers as well.
Curiously, on June 7, 2003, the New York Times had already described three teams looking over the trailers in Iraq. Two of the teams were in agreement that the trailers were WMD labs, but the third, more senior team was not at all "unequivocal," but "divided sharply over the functions of the trailers." Given that the dissenting experts with "direct access to the evidence" whom the Times quotes were both British and American experts, and the Post also describes the secret team as being made up of "nine civilian U.S. and British experts," the Post's scoop on the "secret" third team is looking less, well, scoopy, and more like a rehash of information mostly in the public domain for nearly three years. (See also George Gooding at Seixon.com, who got the scoop on the Post's non-scoop.)
In any case, over the course of 2003 consensus moved toward the conclusion that the trailers were hydrogen plants, and not bioweapons labs, and the 2004 Duelfer report ultimately embraced the finding of the "secret" technical team.
SCOOP OR NOT, I'M GLAD the story came up again. The whole incident left a nagging question that has bothered me for years now: if these vehicles were just innocuous balloon-juice factories, why were the Iraqis so scared of them?
Flash back to February 5, 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the U.N. General Assembly about Iraq's WMD program. He played audio of an intercepted phone call between an Iraqi Brigadier General and a Colonel, dated November 26, 2002, and showed slides of their transcribed conversation:
COL: About this committee that is coming...
GEN: Yeah, yeah...
COL: ...with Mohamed El Baradei [Director, International Atomic Energy Agency]
GEN: Yeah, yeah.
COL: We have this modified vehicle.
COL: What do we say if one of them sees it?
GEN: You didn't get a modified...You don't have a modified...
COL: By God, I have one.
GEN: Which? From the workshop...?
COL: From the al-Kindi Company
COL: From al-Kindi.
GEN: Yeah, yeah. I'll come to you in the morning. I have some comments. I'm worried you all have something left.
COL: We evacuated everything. We don't have anything left.
GEN: I will come to you tomorrow.
That sure got the General's attention, didn't it? There was something about the mention of a "modified vehicle" from the "al-Kindi Company" that made him want to visit this colonel's site, wherever it was, "in the morning." That would be November 27, the first day that IAEA and UNSCOM inspections resumed. And on the very first day of the inspections, this general was rushing out to tend to this particular vehicle.
Probably because of those darned hydrogen generators. Yeah? Yeah.
The reference to "Al-Kindi" is very important, by the way. There are two Al-Kindis that relate to this story. One of them is the Al-Kindi Research Complex, "one of the largest and most secret arms project[s] in Iraq," located in Mosul. It looks like they mainly did missile research there, but also did nuclear and chemical weapons research at some point. This location is important because one of the two vehicles was found on their lot in April 2003. It's also important because the 2003 CIA report on the biolabs mentions that "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." That's a logical answer for a technician in a rocketry plant that had missile test facilities, a wind tunnel, and a launch range.
The other Al-Kindi Company is located in Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad. Its full name is the Al-Kindi Company for the Production of Veterinary Vaccines. According to UNMOVIC, it is a declared and monitored site which produces a "variety of viral and bacterial veterinary vaccines, using basic glassware and techniques."
Whether or not they were asked about the trailers is not in the unclassified CIA report.
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