Some of my favorite conservative commentators appear dismayed that the White House and press paid little attention to news that “Coalition forces have recovered approximately 500 weapons munitions [in Iraq] which contain degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent.”
That item came from a one-page memo by John D. Negroponte, director of national intelligence, sent to placate Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also got involved. Along with many Republican enthusiasts, they believe the president should stand up and shout: “See, I told you so. Saddam really did have weapons of mass destruction!”
L. Brent Bozell III, the persuasive president of the Media Research Center, complained that major newspapers buried this story. Yet the media could not possibly have done that if the administration had trumpeted the news. Mr. Bozell suspects that “Team Bush” has been silenced “out of intimidation by the media.” Not likely.
First, finding those 500 artillery shells was not much of a surprise. My column last November, “No Intelligence,” critiqued the 2002 CIA report about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. Among few concrete facts within that otherwise slippery report, I remarked, was that “Iraq has not accounted for … about 550 artillery shells filled with mustard agent.”
That information came from the vilified U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). I did not doubt such artillery shells might be left over from the 1991 Iraq war. But, I asked, how anyone could “actually imagine that terrorists could simply… fire artillery shells from cannons on U.S. streets?”
Heavy artillery shells are battlefield weapons — not something easily hidden in terrorist suitcases. A 155-millimeter shell is more than 6 inches in diameter and requires a cannon 10 feet to 12 feet long. A mere tank will not suffice to launch such shells. A 155-millimeter German howitzer weighs 55 tons.
The Negroponte memo concerns “Iraq’s filled and unfilled pre-Gulf war chemical munitions.” This refers to “sarin- and mustard-filled projectiles,” meaning 155-millimeter artillery shells. “While agents degrade over time,” the memo continues, “chemical warfare agents remain hazardous and potentially lethal.”
Most chemicals are hazardous waste. But “potentially lethal” could mean anything, including swallowing a pound of the stuff. The nerve gas sarin can certainly be lethal if it is fresh and nearby. Sarin was used in a 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 and in a 1994 attack that killed seven in Matsumoto, Japan.
Nineteen deaths are as close to “mass destruction” as the world has seen from terrorist use (as opposed to battlefield use) of chemical or biological agents. Yet sarin degrades very quickly. UNMOVIC concluded years ago it would be “unlikely that (Iraq’s sarin-filled munitions) would still be viable today.”
What about the heavy artillery shells filled with old “mustard gas” (sulfur mustard)? That is hazardous waste material, to be sure — anyone who opened those shells without the proper gloves would still be badly blistered. But it is a highly unlikely weapon of mass destruction, particularly in this form at this late date.
In 2000, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported: “The United States Congress has directed that the U.S. Army destroy certain kinds of chemical weapons stockpiled at eight U.S. Army installations in the continental United States over the next several years. Experts believe the chance of an accident involving these obsolete chemical munitions is remote.” The U.S. quietly got rid of its obsolete sulfur mustard by February 2005 without any risk of mass destruction.
Sulfur mustard is commonly called “mustard gas,” but it is neither mustard nor a gas. It is liquid at temperatures above 58 degrees Fahrenheit and called “mustard” because of its odor and color. It causes blisters and is potentially harmful to the lungs and eyes (which is why infantry carry gas masks).
According to the Centers for Disease Control: “Exposure to sulfur mustard is usually not fatal. When sulfur mustard was used during World War I, it killed fewer than 5 percent of the people who were exposed and got medical care.” Most estimates of lethality range from 1 percent to 3 percent.
Sulfur mustard inside Iraq’s old heavy artillery shells was a battlefield weapon. Its strategic value might have been to slow opposing troops by forcing them to wear protective suits and gas masks in Iraq’s extremely hot climate.
Artillery shells of any sort are not terrorist weapons, but shells filled with conventional explosives are far deadlier than those with sulfur mustard. Any degraded sulfur mustard left inside such shells would be very difficult to remove without destroying the chemical agent (and the person doing the removal).
The reason sulfur mustard was banned by the Geneva Convention in 1925 was not because it was lethal (it is far less lethal than legal explosives), but because blistering caused extreme pain and sometimes blindness.
The concept of antique mustard gas as some awesome new “weapon of mass destruction” appears traceable to an oft-repeated story about Kurdish deaths due to other causes (including sarin). The Council on Foreign Relations Web site says: “Saddam Hussein used mustard gas on the Kurds. … The worst attack occurred in March 1988 in the Kurdish village of Halabja; a combination of chemical agents including mustard gas and sarin killed 5,000 people.” Yet the October 2002 CIA report claimed only “hundreds” of casualties at Halabja and said the intended targets were Iranians.
The Negroponte memo purports to be worried that “pre-Gulf war Iraqi chemical weapons could be sold on the black market. Use of these weapons by terrorists or insurgent groups would have implications for Coalition forces in Iraq. The possibility of use outside Iraq cannot be ruled out.”
This is the same sort of devious “what if” conjecture that filled the 2002 CIA report. We cannot rule out the possibility aliens in flying saucers are about to take over the Earth. And we cannot rule out the possibility unicorns really do exist.
In reality, any “use of these weapons (artillery shells) by terrorists or insurgent groups” would require their possession of 55-ton self-propelled howitzers. Can you imagine finding one of those heavily armed vehicles cruising around unnoticed in Baghdad, much less in New York City? Even if terrorist could fire heavy artillery shells in either city, why would they want them filled with something that causes blisters much more often than death?
The president was judicious to downplay this nonstory about finding a few hundred heavy artillery shells filled with pre-1991 sulfur mustard. To have done otherwise could have proved very embarrassing. His conservative critics would likewise be wise to drop it.