Covert Unit Hunted for Iraqi Arms

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2003

A covert Army Special Forces unit, operating in Iraq since before the war began in March, has played a dominant but ultimately unsuccessful role in the Bush administration's stymied hunt for weapons of mass destruction, according to military and intelligence sources in Baghdad and Washington.

Task Force 20, whose existence and mission are classified, is drawn from the elite Army special mission units known popularly as Delta Force. It sent a stream of initially promising reports to a limited circle of planners and policymakers in Washington pointing to the possibility of weapons finds. The reports helped feed the optimism expressed by President Bush and his senior national security advisers that proscribed weapons would be found.

Thus far, military and intelligence sources said, the expectations are unfulfilled.

Even skeptics of Task Force 20's progress in the weapons hunt speak admiringly of the team's exploits on its other assignments, in which its role was concealed. The team captured Palestinian guerrilla leader Mohammed Abbas in Baghdad in mid-April and the Iraqi scientists nicknamed Mrs. Anthrax and Dr. Germ; it fought a bloody battle behind Iraqi lines to prevent a catastrophic release of floodwaters from the Haditha Dam; and it retrieved Pfc. Jessica Lynch, an Army prisoner of war, from a hospital in Nasiriyah.

Task Force 20's principal assignment is to "seize, destroy, render safe, capture, or recover weapons of mass destruction," according to a Special Operations mission statement. To that end it staged raids ahead of the U.S. and British ground advance to seize suspected caches of nonconventional arms, gathered hundreds of weapons samples and captured as many as half of the "high value" weapons scientists and Baath Party leaders now in U.S. custody. Its role in the search for illicit arms, military and intelligence sources said, turned out to be far more important than that of the search teams operating in the open.

Yet Task Force 20 has come no closer than its widely publicized counterpart, the 75th Exploitation Task Force, to the Bush administration's declared objective. Sources with firsthand knowledge of its mission and personnel, and others with access to its reports, said the team has found no working nonconventional munitions, long-range missiles or missile parts, bulk stores of chemical or biological warfare agents or enrichment technology for the core of a nuclear weapon. The administration cited all those components specifically as part of Iraq's concealed arsenal. The arms were forbidden to Iraq under U.N. Security Council mandate, and Bush used them as his primary argument for war.

The Defense Department has not made public Task Force 20's preliminary findings, which include a cache of land mines that U.S. analysts believed to be designed for dispersal of liquid contents. The mines were an unexpected discovery made more than 24 hours before the war began on March 20. A "direct action" team from Task Force 20 swept into a military base in Iraq's western desert, near Qaim, to preempt the firing of chemical-armed Scud missiles that U.S. intelligence suspected of being at the site. The team killed the Iraqi garrison guards but found no missiles. It found the mines in a bunker nearby.

Subsequent testing, at the Navy's Biological Defense Research Directorate in Silver Spring and at an undisclosed overseas laboratory, persuaded some U.S. government analysts that the mines once held botulinum toxin, according to two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. But mines are not considered offensive weapons, and these had deteriorated so much that identification of their contents might be disputed, the sources said. United Nations inspectors reported in 1999 that Iraq had considered biological land mines but had no mines "suitable for filling with liquid BW agents."

"There's extreme caution of judgment," said one military official conversant with the discovery. "They don't have at this juncture great confidence that anything they have found constitutes a smoking gun."

Until very recently, the principal focus of the U.S. Central Command, which directs the search for illegal weapons, was a methodical survey of the 87 top-priority facilities identified in the "integrated master site list" maintained at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

More than 900 specialists and tens of millions of dollars of detection and laboratory equipment were devoted to the survey, and its leaders said publicly that they expected to find large caches of chemical and perhaps other weapons at the sites. That effort, a high-ranking national security official said Wednesday, was "a waste of time."

The Defense Department's new public emphasis is on "people, not buildings," as one officer put it. Some officials said previously that Iraqis would have to lead the United States to the concealed weapons. But it is now clear, from an examination of Task Force 20's work, that the Defense Department and intelligence agencies have already put that strategy to the test for 100 days.

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