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Iraqi scientists say ricin program ended in 1991

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  • Josh Pollack
    Wall Street Journal July 18, 2003 Iraqi Scientists Recount Effort To Make Weapon Out Of Ricin Program, One of the Threats Cited by the U.S., Was Dropped in
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 18, 2003
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      Wall Street Journal
      July 18, 2003

      Iraqi Scientists Recount Effort To Make Weapon Out Of Ricin

      Program, One of the Threats Cited by the U.S., Was Dropped in '91, Baghdad Pharmacists Say

      By David S. Cloud, Staff Reporter Of The Wall Street Journal

      BAGHDAD -- Weeks before the first Gulf War, a group of Iraqi scientists gathered in the desert to test a crude biological weapon. They put an artillery shell filled with a poison called ricin on the ground and placed caged guinea pigs, mice and rabbits nearby.

      Watching from a distance, they detonated the shell, spewing a dense vapor cloud. About a dozen animals not killed by the blast were taken away for observation. Over the next two months, three died from suspected ricin poisoning, according to two Iraqis involved in the experiment. Most of the animals, however, showed no ill effects. Soon, the head of the program now says, the attempt to make ricin into a weapon was scrapped.

      That late-1990 test in the desert became part of the Bush administration case for war. The ricin saga is particularly relevant now, as President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a dramatic joint appearance in Washington Thursday, vigorously defended their arguments that Iraqi weapons programs were a sufficient threat to justify this year's war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

      Mr. Bush stood behind the quality of prewar intelligence and said the mere threat that Mr. Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was too important to ignore.

      "The regime of Saddam Hussein was a grave and growing threat," Mr. Bush said. "Given Saddam's history of violence and aggression, it would have been reckless to place our trust in his sanity or his restraint." He expressed confidence that more evidence of weapons activities would be found eventually.

      A close look at the history of the ricin program shows how difficult it is to sort out the truth about Iraq's weapons programs, and why the controversy over them is likely to live on for some time. Defenders of the decision to go to war will note that the ricin case shows Iraq had an intense appetite for chemical and biological weapons and worked diligently and secretly to try to acquire this particular strain of them. But skeptics will say the case shows that the Iraqis weren't as successful in developing them as the U.S. assumed, and that American claims were exaggerated.

      Ricin, a poison derived from the castor-bean plant, certainly was cited as a genuine concern. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in a January speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, said that for the 1990 field test, "Iraq had produced and weaponized at least 10 liters of ricin. In concentrated form, that quantity of ricin is enough to kill more than one million people."

      The Central Intelligence Agency warned in a prewar report to the public that a castor-oil plant in Fallujah, Iraq, might currently be making ricin. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, asserted at a Pentagon briefing in February that Iraq had given terrorist groups "help in making explosives and poisons, such as ricin."

      Now, some Iraqi scientists who researched ricin are challenging the prewar claims about ricin. Turning it into a battlefield weapon took know-how Iraq never had, according to Shakir al-Akidy, who says he took the lead in trying to develop a ricin weapon. In an interview in Baghdad, he contends that the less-toxic ricin Iraq managed to produce was all either consumed in tests or destroyed.

      "Ricin is very difficult to isolate," he says. "What we made was very crude, not useful for military applications. We threw everything away and that was the end."

      Though it's impossible to be certain of Dr. al-Akidy's credibility, his claims were verified in most respects by another ricin-project scientist, Loay Abdul Rathman, now dean of a Baghdad pharmacy college. Some details of the Iraqi ricin program, including Dr. al-Akidy's involvement, were also corroborated by current and former United Nations weapons inspectors and by an unreleased 1998 U.N. report, which summarized Iraqi documents and interviews with others who worked in the ricin project.

      Iraq admitted in the mid-1990s that before the 1991 Gulf War, it had made chemical weapons capable of killing on a mass scale, plus various biological poisons including anthrax and botulinum toxin. In the case of ricin, if Drs. al-Akidy and Abdul Rathman are to be believed, Iraq never moved past early and unsuccessful research. But Iraq's refusal to answer many U.N. questions about such weapons made it impossible for U.N. inspectors to be confident the unconventional-weapons programs had ended. In the face of this silence, the Bush administration tended to assume the worst.

      "Iraq had demonstrated a capacity to produce ricin and the capacity to put ricin into weapons. And we know that during the 1990s, Iraq had an active [biological weapons] program -- at least that was our assessment," says Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita. He says "it's too early to tell" if that assessment was accurate.

      Dr. al-Akidy, a 56-year-old who earned a doctorate in pharmacology in Britain, now sits behind the counter of a looted Baghdad pharmacy he owns, a forlorn figure dispensing pills and lotions from nearly bare shelves. Fifteen years ago, he says, he was an ambitious junior scientist doing cancer-drug research at a government-run lab in Baghdad. He says a friend in Iraq's internal-security forces suggested he work on making a ricin weapon.

      The friend, Jassem Mohammed Hussein, couldn't be located. But five years ago, he told U.N. inspectors of collaborating with Dr. al-Akidy. Mr. Hussein claimed to be the internal-security representative on a health panel that was updating a brochure on poison treatment, including poisoning due to castor beans. The inspectors suspected other motives.

      Dr. al-Akidy says he had no great qualms about weapons work: "We were doing something for the country," he says. He also hoped the regime would reward him if he succeeded.

      Iraq's scientists, in the wake of the country's disastrous eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, were under pressure to help in rebuilding military strength. The Iraqi Defense Ministry had proposed an effort "to obtain biological weapons and ... delivery methods and storage sites," according to a 1988 document that a U.N. report says inspectors later found. A copy of the ministry's proposal went to the internal-security agency that employed Dr. al-Akidy's friend Jassem Hussein, according to documents the U.N. recovered.

      A crude poison can be made from castor beans simply by crushing them and skimming off the castor oil, leaving a mash that's 3% to 5% ricin. But to make a weapon, the ricin protein must be extracted in relatively pure form and refined into particles tiny enough for inhalation. Ideally, that would be 1/50th the width of a human hair.

      Given the technical hurdles, ricin has proved "a less desirable biological-warfare agent" than many others, says David Franz, a former U.S. Army expert in chemical and biological arms. Instead, ricin is often viewed as an agent for assassination. It was the lethal poison jammed into a Bulgarian defector on the tip of an umbrella in 1978, in a hit widely attributed to the Soviet KGB. Ricin causes red blood corpuscles to stick together and prevents cells from making proteins, but the precise cause of death from ricin poisoning is unknown.

      Dr. al-Akidy says he began his work by simply buying a bag of castor beans. A lab assistant would mash them into a paste that was then mixed with water, and put into a small centrifuge to squeeze out the oil. Dr. al-Akidy says it took more than a month to extract an ounce of clear liquid that appeared to contain some portion of toxic ricin.

      He then wrote to military authorities, explaining his work and suggesting they test the sample. The letter touted "the benefits of research in offensive warfare," according to a U.N. summary. Dr. al-Akidy says he stressed that Iraq could make ricin without any foreign help. Castor beans are abundant in Iraq.

      He also passed along foreign reports on ricin's potential as a weapon. "I found several reports saying it could be weaponized, so I translated them," he says. "That's what encouraged them."

      Dr. al-Akidy's liquid was sent to Salman Pak, Iraq's main biological-weapons research facility south of Baghdad. Scientists there "asked him if he could produce a larger quantity, and he explained the extraction methods to them," says the unreleased U.N. report, compiled nearly 10 years later. It adds that Salman Pak officials "proposed to prepare a sample in their own laboratories using the same procedure."

      Nine scientists worked on the project at Salman Pak for two years, according to Drs. al-Akidy and Abdul Rathman and the U.N. report. Dr. al-Akidy says he spent two days a week there, overseeing the research. Dr. Abdul Rathman, 50, says he was there fulfilling his military-service duty after earning a doctorate in chemistry in England.

      The program had problems from the start. The team tried crushing the beans using hammers, but that was time-consuming and messy. They bought two electric food processors. For each grinding, they put a handful of beans into the small machines, collecting the resulting mash. Sometimes the hard beans would cause the grinders to jam, forcing the scientists to return to crushing by hand.

      Once they had a paste, processing each batch into a liquid sample was even harder. The mash was dissolved in salty water and refined to produce a liquid sample. Small batches were produced throughout 1989 and early 1990, then further refined and tested on small animals. Dr. al-Akidy says Iraq never succeeded in extracting highly concentrated ricin.

      The team did have some success. Mice injected with the ricin liquid died. But the scientists say that unless the liquids was refrigerated, it became inert within 24 hours. And according to Iraqi accounts assembled by the U.N., when the mixture was freeze-dried, it proved ineffective in killing test animals in inhalation tests.

      The goal was a ricin powder that would keep indefinitely and had small enough particles to be inhaled. Dr. al-Akidy says his team lacked the sophisticated equipment needed to refine the particles, although Iraqi scientists working on anthrax and other agents appear to have had such equipment.

      According to Dr. Abdul Rathman, when a sample from Salman Pak was sent to the Muthanna State Establishment, another weapons facility north of Baghdad, officials there said it would be useless in warfare. The desert field test supported that judgment, when a detonated 155-millimeter shell failed to douse most nearby caged animals with a lethal dose.

      Dr. al-Akidy blames his inability to concentrate the toxin. Dr. Abdul Rathman says that when the test results were presented to the head of biological research at Salman Pak, Ahmed Murthada, he ripped up the document in anger, saying: "You haven't got the protein isolated. You were bluffing us."

      Dr. Murthada later told U.N. investigators he had ordered the ricin program shut down after the poor field test. Soon thereafter, all work on ricin stopped, according to Drs. al-Akidy and Abdul Rathman. Dr. Murthada, who is believed to be in U.S. custody in Iraq, couldn't be reached for comment.

      Dr. al-Akidy says he received no rewards for his two years of ricin research and took a teaching job. He adds that he wrote to Hussain Kamal, a Saddam Hussein son-in-law who headed Iraq's unconventional-weapons programs, complaining that the ricin project had received insufficient resources.

      U.N. inspectors learned about the ricin project in 1995, when Mr. Kamal briefly defected to Jordan and revealed many details of Iraq's bioweapons efforts. (He was later lured back to Iraq and executed.) Officials in Baghdad then acknowledged to the U.N. they had worked on ricin. They said they were looking into its potential as an anti-cancer drug, an avenue explored in Western countries.

      The U.N., however, had documents about the ricin program's real purpose. They included papers describing preparations for the 1990 desert trial. These were found in the rubble of the Muthanna weapons lab, destroyed in the 1991 Gulf War. In 1996, the inspectors summoned Dr. al-Akidy, who was teaching at Baghdad University's college of pharmacy. Confronted about the trial by U.N. inspector Richard Spertzel, Dr. al-Akidy acknowledged the nature of the research, both he and Mr. Spertzel say.

      A little over a year later, a U.N. team paid a surprise visit to Baghdad University intending to search Dr. al-Akidy's office. An inspector stationed in a stairwell of the building intercepted Dr. al-Akidy coming down carrying documents, says Terence Taylor, who led the inspection. He says Dr. al-Akidy claimed the documents were his wife's medical records, but a search showed he was taking away a report he and Jassem Hussein had written about their ricin work. The inspectors found more documents under piles of papers in the scientist's office.

      For Dr. al-Akidy, the discovery had severe consequences. In June 1997, he says, Iraqi security agents jailed him in a tiny cell at their Baghdad headquarters, known as Hakmayah. In several interrogations, he says, agents accused him of helping the U.N. team in hopes of a reward. He told the agents he had taken the documents to his office after Dr. Abdul Rathman asked for help writing a paper about their ricin research in hopes of getting a promotion, a story that Dr. Abdul Rathman confirms.

      Dr. al-Akidy says he was imprisoned for more than four months, fed just once a day. But agents then freed him, saying his explanation had checked out. "You made a mistake, but you are a good guy," he says they told him.

      Inspectors returned to Iraq last December, after the Bush administration pushed through a U.N. resolution giving Iraq one last chance to come clean on weapons of mass destruction. U.N. inspectors summoned Dr. al-Akidy for another interview. He says Iraqi officials advised him to take a government minder if he went. He decided not to cooperate with the U.N. "I didn't want to go back to Hakmayah," he says. Many other Iraqi scientists also refused to be interviewed.

      The report the U.N. compiled in 1998 concluded that "intent to develop ricin could well remain an objective for Iraq." Current and former U.N. weapons inspectors say they have never found any hard evidence that the ricin work continued. At the same time, neither they nor Bush administration officials accept that Iraq completely abandoned work on ricin after the 1990 desert experiment.

      In Iraq, U.S. weapons investigators last month searched the Fallujah castor-oil plant considered suspicious by the CIA and found bags of stored castor beans. They are trying to verify Iraq's claim that it destroyed castor-bean mash that was a byproduct of oil products the plant made. They've also been examining whether, before the war, Iraq helped Islamic militants at camps in northern Iraq in making ricin. British police in January found traces of ricin at a London apartment linked to the militant group. A spokesman at the CIA wouldn't say whether any new evidence that Iraq continued ricin work after 1990 has been uncovered.

      Dr. al-Akidy says that as Iraq's leading expert on ricin, he would have known of any active ricin production and any decision to share the research with terrorist groups. But he says there are some questions he can't answer. Among them is what happened to another senior scientist in the ricin program, Amer al Mahdidi. He says he thinks Dr. al Mahdidi went to Libya sometime in the 1990s.
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