U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 12, 2002

The Bush administration has received a credible report that Islamic extremists affiliated with al Qaeda took possession of a chemical weapon in Iraq last month or late in October, according to two officials with firsthand knowledge of the report and its source. They said government analysts suspect that the transaction involved the nerve agent VX and that a courier managed to smuggle it overland through Turkey.

If the report proves true, the transaction marks two significant milestones. It would be the first known acquisition of a nonconventional weapon other than cyanide by al Qaeda or a member of its network. It also would be the most concrete evidence to support the charge, aired for months by President Bush and his advisers, that al Qaeda terrorists receive material assistance in Iraq. If advanced publicly by the White House, the report could be used to rebut Iraq's assertion in a 12,000-page declaration Saturday that it had destroyed its entire stock of chemical weapons.

On the central question whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein knew about or authorized such a transaction, U.S. analysts are said to have no evidence. Because Hussein's handpicked Special Security Organization, run by his son Qusay, has long exerted tight control over concealed weapons programs, officials said they presume it would be difficult to transfer a chemical agent without the president's knowledge.

Knowledgeable officials, speaking without White House permission, said information about the transfer came from a sensitive and credible source whom they declined to discuss. Among the hundreds of leads in the Threat Matrix, a daily compilation by the CIA, this one has drawn the kind of attention reserved for a much smaller number.

"The way we gleaned the information makes us feel confident it is accurate," said one official whose responsibilities are directly involved with the report. "I throw about 99 percent of the spot reports away when I look at them. I didn't throw this one away."

Like most intelligence, the reported chemical weapon transfer is not backed by definitive evidence. The intended target is unknown, with U.S. speculation focusing on Europe and the United States.

At a time when President Bush is eager to make a public case linking Iraq to the United States's principal terrorist enemy, authorized national security spokesmen declined to discuss the substance of their information about the transfer of lethal chemicals. Those who disclosed it have no policymaking responsibilities on Iraq and expressed no strong views on whether the United States should go to war there.

Even authorized spokesmen, with one exception, addressed the report on the condition of anonymity. They said the principal source on the chemical transfer was uncorroborated, and that indications it involved a nerve agent were open to interpretation.

"We are concerned because of al Qaeda's interest in obtaining and using weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, and we continue to seek evidence and intelligence information with regards to their planning activity," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge. Johndroe was the only official authorized by the White House to discuss the matter on the record.

"Have they obtained chemical weapons?" Johndroe said. "I do not have any hard, concrete evidence that they have." Pressed on whether the information referred to a nerve agent, Johndroe said "there is no specific intelligence that limits al Qaeda's interest to one particular chemical or biological weapon over the other."

One official who spoke without permission said a sign of the government's concern is its "ramping up opportunities to collect more, to figure out what would be the routes, where would they be taking the material, how would they deploy it, how are they transporting it, what are the personnel?" The official added: "We're not just sitting back and waiting for something to happen."

A Defense Department official, who said he had seen only the one-line summary version of the chemical weapon report, speculated that it might be connected to a message distributed last week to U.S. armed forces overseas. An official elsewhere said the message resulted only from an analyst's hypothetical concern.

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