5 October 2003

No uranium, no munitions, no missiles, no programmes

Those who staked their career on the existence in Iraq of at least chemical and biological weapons programmes have latched on to three claims in the progress report.

First, there is the allegation that a biologist had a 'collection of reference strains' at his home, including 'a vial of live C botulinum Okra B from which a biological agent can be produced'. Mr Straw claimed the morning after the report's release that this agent was '15,000 times more toxic than the nerve agent VX'. That is wrong: botulinum type A is one of the most poisonous substances known, and was developed in weaponised form by Iraq before 1991. However, type B - the form found at the biologist's home - is less lethal.

Even then, it would require an extensive process of fermentation, the growing of the bug, the extraction of the toxin and the weaponisation of the toxin before it could cause harm. That process would take weeks, if not longer, but the ISG reported no sign of any of these activities.

Botulinum type B could also be used for making an antidote to common botulinum poisoning. That is one of the reasons why many military laboratories around the world keep reference strains of C botulinum Okra B. The UK keeps such substances, for example, and calls them 'seed banks'.

Second, a large part of the ISG report is taken up with assertions that Iraq had been acquiring designs and under- taking research programmes for missiles with a range that exceeded the UN limit of 150km. The evidence here is more detailed than in the rest of the report. However, it does not demonstrate that Iraq was violating the terms of any Security Council resolution. The prohibition on Iraq acquiring technology relating to chemical, biological or nuclear weapons was absolute: no agents, no sub-systems and no research or support facilities.

By contrast, Iraq was simply prohibited from actually having longer-range missiles, together with 'major parts, and repair and production facilities'. The ISG does not claim proof that Iraq had any such missiles or facilities, just the knowledge to produce them in future. Indeed, it would have been entirely lawful for Iraq to develop such systems if the restrictions implemented in 1991 were lifted, while it would never have been legitimate for it to re-develop WMD.

Third, one sentence within the report has been much quoted: Iraq had 'a clandestine network of laboratories and safe houses within the Iraqi intelligence service that contained equipment subject to UN monitoring and suitable for continuing CBW research'. Note what that sentence does not say: these facilities were suitable for chemical and biological weapons research (as almost any modern lab would be), not that they had engaged in such research. The reference to UN monitoring is also spurious: under the terms of UN resolutions, all of Iraq's chemical and biological facilities are subject to monitoring. So all this tells us is that Iraq had modern laboratories.

The world of 'plausible confirmability' is a wonderful place. Botulinum B can mysteriously transmogrify into botulinum A, not by the complex process of fermentation, extraction, and weaponisation, but by by a mere slip of the tongue. By the time said slip is chased down another will-o�-the-wisp of mass destruction can be on the wing.

Botulinum A, incidentally, is found in enormous quantities in certain hotbeds of terrorism such as Hollywood. Expect a US invasion of southern California any day now.

By the time a few days have passed, the supporters of 'those who staked their careers' will be cheerfully denying the claim was ever made and supporting whatever the claim of the day is that day.

We have these 3 points, apparently:

  • botulinum type B toxin
  • the missiles
  • the network of safe houses
. Let's hold onto them and do a little chasing down. More later.

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