September 06, 2004

A Bedtime Story

I've listened and read a lot of points being made about the Iraq WMD issue. One thing that I've realized is that no matter what side they happen to be on, a lot of people don't understand the intricacies of WMDs. Did we find them? Did we not? We certainly haven't found stockpiles, which some people take as in indication that somehow, we were "wrong" about the issue. They forget that the same report that says "we didn't find any stockpiles" also says "but we're pretty sure where they went because we have intelligence of a significant amount of transport right before the shit hit the fan." They also forget that some of these substances don't take well to stockpiling, at least for long periods of time. And of course there's my own personal thought: that the question of whether or not we find stockpiles of WMDs pales before the significance of finding the scientists and methods in place for creating these substances. Those people...they are the WMDs. People want to find a mass of biological and chemical weapons. They say that would be "a smoking gun." It's not--that's just the bullet. The smoking gun is the manufacturing system, a weapon able to fire again and again and again.

And not finding these stockpiles doesn't always reassure me. The following information is from Richard Preston's The Demon in the Freezer (edited and summarized for the sake of brevity):
A secret British-American weapons-inspection team toured four of the main Biopreparat scientific facilities in January 1991....They ran into the same problems that the United Nations inspectors would later run into in Iraq. The Soviet biologists did not want to discuss their work and did not want anyone seeing their laboratories in operation. The inspectors were met with denials, evasions, time-wasting bureaucracy, stupefying, alcohol-laden meals that stretched on for hours, snarled transportation arrangements, and endless speeches about friendship and international cooperation. [emphasis mine]

The end result of the visit was that while visiting Vector, a site for the study of viruses, they were told by one of the scientists that work with the smallpox virus was going on there. This, of course, was highly illegal as the only two places in the world that were supposed to even have smallpox were the CDC and the Moscow Institute. The team pressed the issue and was ordered to leave. Later, they were told the scientist was "mistaken." By the way...there were no "stockpiles" found, yet Christopher Davis, the head of the team said "The fact is, they had been testing smallpox in their explosion test chamber the week before we arrived."

Later on, a Soviet defector described "a huge program broken into secret compartments. Very few people inside the program knew it's scope. Because it was compartmentalized and secret, it had the potential to fall apart into smaller pieces, and the world might never know where all the pieces had gone." [emphasis mine]

Jump to three years later.

The Soviets, still busy at work in the Vector site, build "a three-hundred gallon tank that looks something like a water heater." Later, in 1999 visiting inspectors would be told it was for "sewage-treatment." In reality, it was a bioreactor, a breeding ground for viruses grown in a big soup of monkey cells, which could then be extracted along with the liquid in the tank.
A single run of the reactor would have produced approximately one hundred trillion lethal doses of variola major--enough smallpox to give each person on the planet around two thousand infective doses of smallpox. [emphasis mine]

To put that in perspective, the World Health Organization has less than one dose of smallpox vaccine for every 12,000 people on Earth. Not that it matters anyway. The smallpox virus in Vector was likely "heated up," meaning that it was purposefully bred to be resistant to vaccines. The WHO's vaccine would likely be useless.

Do we need to find "stockpiles" of these substances? According to Preston, one MIRV missile is capable of delivering forty-five pounds of smallpox. That's it--forty-five pounds. Seem like a lot? It's not. Preston relates the story of a smallpox infected patient that (before anyone knows what illness he has) disobeys hospital rules and opens a window to smoke. The draft created from that open window acts like a chimney, and funnels the air from the patient's room through the hospital. The breath from that one patient creates nineteen new cases of smallpox over three floors. In a hospital.

Of course, smallpox is one of the most virulent substances to have ever existed. But many of the other biological weapons can be just as devastating. That forty-five pounds of smallpox would have likely wiped out a city before it could react, and without a feasible vaccine, would have ripped through the country and then, depending on how secure the borders were, spread like wildfire into neighboring countries. That's why some of the tightest security in the world protects mere vials of the stuff. A little goes a long way.

So next time you get involved in a conversation about WMDs in Iraq or elsewhere, remind yourself of two things: 1) One doesn't need much to create a great deal of damage, and 2) Even if you have to destroy it to hide it, as long as you keep a little bit you can always make more.

NOTE: All of this is in regards to biological weapons. Chemical weapons are a bit different in that the production is somewhat different, a larger amount would likely be required, and they are generally contained within the delivery area. To the best of my knowledge, no one has suggested that Iraq had smallpox among their arsenal. My examination is merely presented as a "worst-case" scenario. Although I will point out that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, I'm not sure that the idea of buying Soviet smallpox on the black market is any less ridiculous than the idea of buying old nukes. Pleasant dreams.


  1. Great post (and a scary). A lot of times it's hard to explain to people my position on Iraq and why i don't think Bush "lied." The former Soviet Union' handling of nuclear/biological weapons gives me nightmares. Thanks for inducing more of them!
    On another note, staying up late, again?

  2. Thanks for adding to the sleepless nights. Also, do you watch Chapelle's Show on Comedy Central? I was watching last night and he did a skit called Negrodamus(the black Nostrodamus), where he was taking questions from the audience and answering them. Here is one of the Q and A:

    Girl in audience: "How does Bush know Iraq has WMD?"
    Negrodamus: "He has the reciept."

  3. Sorry about the sleepless nights; that certainly wasn't my intention. Just because I don't sleep doesn't mean you all shouldn't be able to. It's tough, I think, to make a reasonable argument that Bush "lied." Note I said "reasonable." In fact, if one decides that Bush lied about WMD, one must also admit that nearly everyone in congress, including John Kerry, did. And also that nearly every world leader and intelligence community lied, too. And don't forget former leaders--Clinton and Madeline Albright, among others, are on record acknowledging the threat of Iraqs WMDs.

    Again, I think this issue is one which a number of people don't quite understand. The issue was never "does he or doesn't he" regarding Hussein's WMD. He had them. They were documented. However, under terms going back to Desert Storm, he was required to account for them--whether they were stored, destroyed, sold...whatever. (under resolution 687, I believe.) So to say that Iraq had no WMDs is just as much a breach as if he had been making new ones. Resolution 1441 made it clear that he would account for them or suffer the consequences. In essence, it's nothing more than what Clinton argued right before Desert Fox. Only Clinton lobbed a few missles and stopped. The point is, Resolution 1441 was violated (and, of course, that wasn't the first one) and everyone involved knew what those consequences were going to be. To protest after the fact that one didn't know it was going to lead to military action is disingenuous. What else could it mean? There were already sanctions in place. Did they think "consequences" meant "write another resolution"? I can't help but laugh at that and think of Robin Williams talking about the fact that British "bobbies" don't carry firearms.

    "Stop...or I'll say 'Stop' again!"

    Personally, I never thought the WMDs were the selling point anyway. I wanted Saddam out because he was a murderous lowlife fuck who filled mass graves with his own people. What a statement it is that our government felt that they couldn't "sell" it based on the suffering of the Iraqi people. And I'm ashamed to say that I'm not sure they were wrong on that point. For all that mindless babble from the Left after the invasion, all the "Oh those poor Iraqi people"s, I don't remember hearing jack shit from them when they were dying dozens a day (at least) under Saddam with no end in sight.

    And Chapelle isn't wrong (although the way the joke is written seems to be implying that George W had something to do with the sale) about selling weaponry to Iraq. But in my mind, that's all the more reason that WE should take responsibility and do something about it. I'm not sure where the "logic" comes from that gives Hussein some kind of absolution because of where he shops. If I loan you my gun so you can protect yourself from Iran, and I find out instead that you've been shooting your family and friends, should I do something about it, or should I figure that I have no right to stop you since I gave you the gun in the first place? The latter sounds a little ridiculous, don't you think?

  4. Hey there,
    The Chapelle "receipt" certainly has some credence - as does your gun loan argument. But who's to say the gun didn't fire all of its bullets?

    The gun analogy is also limited by its inability to acknowledge the thousands of Iraqi civilians who have died (through U.S. actions, and admitedly, of COURSE, from suicide bombings, insurgents, etc.)My friend borrowed my gun to protect himself. He started to use it on his family, so I took it back. Then, I used it on him - AND his family? That's not so convincing.

    Leaving that aside, I think human rights violations could have sold the war in Iraq. I think we wouldn't see the stark division in the electorate we see now had that been the original case. Bush really would have been a uniter (as opposed to a divider) in that particular hypothetical.

    But that's not the case. Human rights were only brought up as a cheap, second or third best justification. Though the general public might have found that a worthy enough reason to invade Iraq - I might have - that wasn't the given reason. That aside, didn't our military have higher priorities? Say, finding Bin Laden? I'm sure it would have been a slam dunk (rather than a 50/50 draw) for Bush this time around had he been able to produce on that promise.

    Enjoying your blog despite the occasional disagreement,

  5. This is a few weeks old, but I still think the Economist had one of the best essays I’ve seen on why the issue is not that Bush or Blair lied, but that they overstated what they knew (and the issues this creates for them, moving forward). The editorialists conclude the war was still justified, based on other reasons.

    However, many people seem to be almost in a state of denial about the events of 2001. It’s like they can’t (or haven’t) really acknowledged the magnitude of what happened that day, and the hate behind it. As the Economist points out, what responsible world leader, in the wake of those events, should’ve been willing to take the chance that Saddam would behave himself after having had and used WMD (against his own people), and continuing to thwart the efforts of the U.N.? Most who conclude “Bush lied” don’t seem to be thinking in those terms.

    Nor, as you rightly point out, do they seem to take seriously the human rights abuses perpetrated under his regime. I find myself increasingly confused by “the left” these days. Time and again, values that I want to associate with them, that I feel should be labeled as “liberal” values I find that I am concerned about, but they are not. Yet I am the Republican, and they the Democrats. Strange.

    On a happier note: I’m pleased to report that tonight I hung out with several people who will probably vote for Kerry or Nader, yet seemed fairly untroubled at hints of my Republicanism. No one walked away from talking to me! No one tried to persuade me to change my vote! Now that’s how politics should be, now and then ... or am I confusing it with religion again?

  6. Just a couple of follow-ups, as I have some work to do, and I have an update pending on this original post.


    Thank you for reading and staying long enough to comment. For the most part (i.e. when I'm not feeling like a shit) we like well thought-out arguments here. I just wanted to be clear that my analogy was not meant as justification for the invasion, but rather to show that including the previous dealings in reasoning out the (then) current situation was, in my mind, suspect. It really didn't matter whose "gun" was being used, but rather what it was being used for. Some people make the argument that since we contributed to the arsenal, we had no business taking issue with what was done with it. I used the analogy I did to show that not only did I feel that argument was wrong, but that one could make a case for the complete opposite conclusion.

    I might take issue with your extension of the analogy, though. A small matter, but I'm not sure we "took away" the gun. But the main problem I have with your version is that we didn't purposefully go after his "friends and family" the way he did, which is what you seem to be saying. In fact, whenever possible we tried to minimize civilian damage, using laser-guidance technology, for instance. Yes, there were civillian casualties, as there are in any armed conflict. But they certainly weren't intentional, unlike others who seem to specifically target civillians in office buildings, airplanes, nightclubs, and schools.

    The question, I guess, then becomes: what number is accpetable is the quest for removing a greater threat? And that's a problem because that line lies in a different place for all of us. Dresden, Hiroshima, napalm in Vietnam--you can ask the same questions about all of them. But if you refuse to draw the line at all and make an argument of moral equivalence--that the U.S. is as bad as Saddam because we both killed Iraqi civillians? Well, at that point, I'm not sure we even have enough common ground to begin the debate. Now, I'm not sure that's what you're saying, and if not, I apologize. (I also don't have your post right in front of me as I write.) That's just what I was reading into your version of the analogy.

  7. Okay, I just wrote a somewhat lengthy comment that seems to have vanished. D.S. want no more write...sleepy...long day...drink movie.

    So I'll just say: Katie--thanks for stopping by for a read, and thanks for the comment! As long as they're well-reasoned, and not nasty, opposing viewpoints are always welcome here.

    Christi--Congrats on the non-ostracization (a word which I may have just made up)! Glad to see there's still a few tolerant souls out there somewhere. (And I soooo agree with you on the "liberal" values issue.)