The absence of a real, life-size chemical or biological weapon – or evidence of a banned nuclear program in Saddam’s Iraq – that dogs President George W. Bush’s footsteps wherever he goes, was partly offset this week by a statement from an authoritative figure, head of a top American spy agency. Lieutenant-general James Clapper Jr., the outgoing director of the US National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), said publicly what DEBKA-Net-Weekly first reported prior to the US war in Iraq.
According to Clapper, satellite images recording a heavy flow of traffic from Iraq into Syria just before the American invasion in March had led him to believe “unquestionably” that illicit weapons material was moved outside Iraq.
“I think people below the Saddam Hussein and his sons’ level saw what was coming and decided the best thing to do was to destroy and disperse,” he said.
While hard pressed by the WMD debate, President Bush nevertheless decided this week to shift intelligence resources from David Kay’s WMD hunters, the 1,200-strong Iraq Survey Group, to boost counterinsurgency operation inside Iraq following the spate of bomb blasts that struck Baghdad. The Group still has nine months left to turn up proofs of Saddam’s forbidden programs for developing unconventional weapons that are substantial enough to silence Bush administration’s detractors and challengers.
The heavy traffic detected by General Clapper’s satellites was reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly on three different dates.
DNW 97, February 14, 2003, a little over a month before the war began, disclosed: “In the last two weeks, our military sources discovered that Iraq staged a major removal of its forbidden weapons systems, sending them overland by truck to Lebanon via Syria.”
DNW 106, April 25, 2003, 10 days after the capture of Baghdad, reported: “Though on the run, he (Saddam) retains control of sufficient stocks of unconventional weapons, intelligence, assets and money to wage war on the United States from bases and hideouts outside Iraq, where some of his WMD systems are also tucked away.”
Those systems, of course, had been hidden in Syria.
DNW 107, May 2, the day after President George W. Bush declared major combat in Iraq at an end, pointed to Syria as “having secretly disposed of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction” by hiding them in three places – two in the Lebanese Beqaa and one in Syria. The first site is located in a valley stretching between the Jabal Akroum Mountains and the Lebanese town of al Qabayyat and the Syrian border; the second at a point lying between the Lebanese towns of al Labway and Hirmil between the Orontes River and the Lebanese-Syrian border.
The third site is Syria’s underground military industrial facilities near Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources have reconfirmed our first report that Iraq’s non-conventional weapons were moved to those three hiding places between January 10 and March 10, 2003, 10 days before the war began. They also reveal now that the Iraqi engineers, scientists and officers who managed Saddam’s WMD program remain in Aleppo and enjoy direct access to the stored weapons material.
We can now report exclusively that, in addition to NIMA surveillance, Israeli intelligence satellites, spy planes and assets on the ground also tracked the Iraqi-Syrian WMD convoys.
In the light of Clapper’s comments, sources in Washington said this week that the Kay team has been scrutinizing information on the WMD transfer to Syria as well as the possibility that some of the weapons systems were moved to Iran. This scenario DEBKA-Net-Weekly outlined several weeks before the war in its report of a secret visit Saddam’s son Uday paid to Teheran to procure large quantities of arms. He was turned down by Tehran which was then adjusting its military steps in the coming war with Washington.
On October 5, after delivering his interim report to a closed-doors congressional sitting, Kay complained that the national debate on whether or not Saddam was running illicit programs focused on what had not been found, such as a small vial of anthrax amid 600,000 tons of weapons in thousands of depots, private homes, farms and courtyards. An abandoned refrigerator or a junkyard could be the hiding place for a single contaminated shell assembled according to the instructions he found. The discovery by his team of 24 clandestine laboratories and four illegal missile programs would have made headlines had the UN inspections found them before the war. Now they were scarcely reported.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s weapons and intelligence experts have carefully studied the preliminary report Kay presented to Congress. He is clearly convinced that “banned activities” did take place in Saddam’s Iraq. He devotes long segments to detailing the instructions compiled by Iraqi intelligence for the rapid reassembly of chemical and biological weapons from material dispersed in various storage sites, together with detailed reports on how to strip the systems down to their component parts.
Some biological matter and chemicals for weapons system were separated out, their elements distributed and stored in different hiding places. Iraqi documents found by the Kay team contain guidelines for shipping and caching all the constituents in close proximity for fast assembly – no more than 15 minutes for loading forbidden substances on a bomb or artillery shell. Kay and his team have no doubt that these documents were no mere exercises in theory but practical directives.
The materials smuggled into northern Syria could present the same needle-in-a haystack problem as Iraq. They too would have been broken up and stored in separate locations according to the same Iraqi intelligence guidelines. However, teams of Iraqi scientists, engineers and military men holed up in Syria know the location of each weapons system, how it was taken apart, the time it would take to assemble all the pieces into a lethal weapon and, most importantly – how to do it. According to our intelligence sources, Saddam’s loyal associates who are still at large, Syrian military intelligence chiefs in Damascus and the heads of Syria’s military industries know exactly where the concealed hiding places are located and have in their possession lists of the weapons and banned materials stowed there.
In Washington, vice president Richard Cheney has co-opted new talent to his staff with ideas on the Syrian dilemma. David Wurmser, a neoconservative strategist who has urged the United States and Israel to work together to “roll back” the Syrian government, is Cheney’s new adviser on the Middle East.
Our sources in the American capital read the appointment as indicating that amid the drop in public confidence in the president’s handling of the post-war Iraq crisis, the neocons remain as influential has ever in the circles around the Bush administration. The Wurmser appointment looks like a straw in the wind at a time of rising Washington-Damascus rancor. The Syrians are angry over the US application of its veto to a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s October 5 air strike against a terrorist training base near Damascus and the bill approved by the House of Representatives for the imposition of sanctions against Syria, which continues to be listed by the state department as a sponsor of terror.
Wurmser, who is married to an Israeli, is head of Middle East studies at the Hudson Institute. In a paper he wrote in 1996, he urged Israel to instigate strikes on Syrian soil by its “proxy forces” in Lebanon. “Israel can shape its strategic environment,” he argued, “in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, even rolling back Syria.” The paper offered the view that Israel, Jordan, a Hashemite Iraq and Turkey would form a “natural axis” that would “squeeze and detach Syria from the Saudi peninsula”.