The test tube of botulinum presented by Washington and London as evidence that Saddam Hussein had been developing and concealing weapons of mass destruction, was found in an Iraqi scientist’s home refrigerator, where it had been sitting for 10 years, it emerged yesterday.
David Kay, the expert appointed by the CIA to lead the hunt for weapons, told a congressional committee last week that the vial of botulinum had been “hidden” at the scientist’s home, and could be used to “covertly surge production of deadly weapons”. Since then, the discovery of the vial has been at the heart of the debate over prewar claims that Iraq had an arsenal of banned weapons.
It was cited in justifications of the invasion by President George Bush and by Britain’s foreign secretary, Jack Straw, who described botulinum toxin as “15,000 times more toxic than the nerve agent VX”. Mr Straw claimed after the report came out that it presented further “conclusive and incontrovertible” evidence that Saddam had been in breach of UN resolutions. He said the report confirmed how “dangerous and deceitful” the regime was and that the military action was “both justified and essential to remove the dangers”.
The US state department even argued that the discovery of the test tube meant that Mr Kay’s Iraq Survey Group (ISG), contrary to its own claim, had found a weapon of mass destruction. However, newly disclosed details about the circumstances in which the botulinum vial was found, have raised fresh questions about its significance.
While presenting his progress report to Congress, Mr Kay did not say when and where the botulinum had been hidden but he told a television interviewer on Sunday that the scientist involved said he was asked to hide the botulinum in his refrigerator at home in 1993. Iraq admitted pursuing a biological weapons programme to UN inspectors two years later. It is unclear whether the Iraqi scientist had received any orders from the regime after that date. It is also unclear whether the vial contained the bacteria botulinum, from which the toxin is drawn, or the toxin itself, as Mr Kay claimed in interviews over the weekend. Furthermore, the most lethal form of the germ is the A strain, while the form found by the ISG was the B strain.
Mr Kay admitted that “we have not yet found shiny, pointy things that I would call a weapon”, but he insisted there was plenty of evidence of Saddam’s intentions to reconstitute weapons programmes once free of international scrutiny. He said the scientist who had the botulinum toxin in his refrigerator had also been entrusted with many more strains of biological weapons, including anthrax, but had given them back “because he said they were too dangerous; he had small children in the house”.
More evidence of such programmes was included in a 200-page classified version of the 13-page report made public, but experts in the ISG, including former UN inspectors, have so far not been allowed to read the classified version, according to one of their former colleagues. The refusal to allow ISG experts to read a report on their own work adds weight to suspicions that the report has been manipulated. “They’re under huge pressure to come up with whatever,” the ex-colleague said. Mr Kay has said privately the report’s publication was held up for about two weeks while more work was done on it at CIA headquarters.
He says the ISG will need up to nine months to complete its search, and his 1,200-strong team is following up an abundance of leads, including the claim by the Iraqi scientist that he had been asked in 1993 to look after anthrax and other biological agents. Mr Kay also said the ISG had found some evidence to support the British government’s prewar claim that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa. That claim had been undermined by the discovery that a letter purporting to be an offer by the Niger government to sell uranium to Baghdad turned out to be a fake. But Mr Kay said: “We have found a document that is an unsolicited - as far as we can tell - proposal to sell uranium to them from another African country, not Niger. And we’re continuing- that’s an active area of a current investigation.”