Odyssey of Frustration

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2003

BAGHDAD -- For once the team found a building intact.

The low stucco structure, one of several walled off from the street, was the 17th target of the war for Army Lt. Col. Charles Allison and the special weapons hunters under his command. Heavy crossbars sealed the doors. That, at least, was encouraging. There would not have been much left to lock if looters got here first.

U.S. intelligence called this place "Possible SSO Facility Al Hayat," after the Special Security Organization of President Saddam Hussein. It ranked No. 26 on a U.S. Central Command priority search list. Allison's team pulled up in six Humvees, not long before noon on May 1, to scout for biological and chemical arms.

"Go get the breach kit," ordered Army Maj. Kenneth Deal, second in command. A soldier returned with bolt cutters, a crowbar and a sledgehammer. Deal carried a digital camera. Army Sgt. 1st Class Will T. Smith Jr. and Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Anderson wielded chemical sensors that looked like oversized power drills.

Smashing padlocks and deadbolts, the men checked for booby traps as they felt their way by flashlight from room to room. They reached a murky stone passage, smelling of mold. Cement covered its windows. Steel doors, a dull orange, lined the hall.

Interrogation cells? Munitions vaults?

One last bolt snapped. The door creaked open and Deal stepped through. There, in the innermost chamber, he found a cache of vacuum cleaners.

So it goes for Site Survey Team 3, which today begins its ninth week in the hunt for illegal weapons. One of four such units assembled before the war, it has screened intelligence leads from Basra to Baghdad with discouraging, even darkly comic, results.

Allison's 25 men and women have dug up a playground, raided a distillery, seized a research paper from a failing graduate student and laid bare a swimming pool where an underground chemical weapons stash was supposed to be.

Built around a cadre of experts from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the unit is trained and equipped to identify nerve agents and choking agents, live pathogens and fermenters to grow them, nuclear enrichment technology and missiles that exceed Iraq's permitted range. But Washington has been unable thus far to send Team 3 anywhere it could apply those capabilities.

Team 3's odyssey through Iraq is a tale of frustration and disillusionment. Allison and his unit arrived with the firm belief -- and dread -- that Iraq possessed the weapons of chemical war. They expected U.S. intelligence to guide them, and they were secure in their own technology and skills. When probe after probe sank dry holes, and the team's mission appeared to have failed, a sardonic tone began to creep into discussions of their work.

"No weapons of mass destruction here, sir," Deal deadpanned to his boss at a bombed-out presidential palace annex, the day after the vacuum cleaner affair. Both men were standing with handfuls of scavenged faucets, strip lights and circuit breakers. Finding no weapons to inspect, they had turned their attention to getting repair parts for their war-damaged headquarters nearby.

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