By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 2007
UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 30 -- U.N. weapons inspectors stumbled upon evidence of Saddam Hussein's elusive weapons of mass destruction: a vial of potentially lethal chemical gas that was stored in a U.N. shipping crate in Midtown Manhattan more than 10 years ago and forgotten, U.N. officials announced Thursday.
Experts from the U.N. Monitoring and Verification Commission -- which is set to shut down its operations in the coming months-- found a small sample of phosgene, a choking agent, as they prepared to archive more than 16 years of documents on Iraq's weapons program. They said the gas, which was left by the agency's predecessor, the U.N. Special Commission, is under seal and poses no threat to the public.
"There is no immediate risk or danger," said Marie Okabe, a spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
Okabe said that Ban reported the presence of the chemical gas to the U.N. Security Council and that the United Nations will launch an investigation to determine how the substance reached New York.
"It should never have been here in the first place, so we'd like it to be that way when the FBI takes it away," said Brian Mullady, an expert with the U.N. commission. "Since last night, when we discovered this, we've made an immediate sweep of all our archival materials to be sure that we have no more surprises, and we don't."
The FBI and the New York Police Department arrived Thursday at the commission's 48th Street office, just a block from U.N. headquarters, to examine the chemical materials before transporting them to a U.S. military laboratory in Aberdeen, Md. The FBI loaded three small containers of the materials onto a van before transferring them to a helicopter for the flight to Maryland.
The discovery provided an embarrassing coda to an unprecedented 16-year U.N. effort to find and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. "I'm sure that there are going to be a lot of red-faced people over at the U.N. trying to just figure out how [the materials] got there," said Tony Snow, the chief spokesman for the White House. Faulty intelligence suggesting that Hussein continued to produce weapons of mass destruction was used to justify the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The chemical gas was recovered from Hussein's Muthanna chemical weapons facility in 1996, according to Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the U.N. commission. It remains unclear how the gas reached the agency's storage facility, where it shared space with an Iraqi Scud missile engine, Russian gyroscopes and 125 cabinets filled with sensitive information on Iraq's past weapons programs.
Buchanan said that no other organization is better equipped to deal with the situation. "We have the expertise and equipment to do this kind of work," he said.
Buchanan said U.N. experts discovered a collection of metal and glass containers with a mysterious liquid substance last Friday. But they did not find an inventory of the contents until Wednesday. It contained phosgene -- a chemical agent first used in World War I -- and other chemical samples.
"Following discovery of these items, UNMOVIC chemical weapons experts sealed the packages and placed them in a safe," the commission said. "The experts also tested the environment surrounding the packages using a portable chemical detector and found no concentration of toxic vapors."
Svetlana Utkina, a Russian weapons expert who works for the commission, said that the phosgene, if exposed, could have been deadly. "Your lungs would collapse immediately if you inhale this substance," she said.