MAURICE EISENSTEIN is a former senior staff member and currently a senior consultant on national security matters for the Rand Corporation. He was interviewed by BEN EHRENREICH on what we know about the Iraqi chemical and biological weapons programs.
On the chemical side, the Iraqis have demonstrated a capacity to produce mustard gas, which they used in reasonably large quantities against the Kurds and against the Iranians. They've also demonstrated some capability to produce Sarin, which is 100 times more toxic and effective than mustard gas. They may also have VX capability as well. Whereas Sarin is fairly volatile and evaporates fairly fast, VX does not. It's very heavy, and it sits. So wherever you put that stuff, it hangs around for a long, long time, unless you get it to boil off with heat.
As to effects, when mustard gets on your skin, it forms an enormous wound that can begin to incapacitate you within an hour. In a day, it can eat right through the skin and can kill, depending on the rapidity of treatment. The VX and the Sarin are nerve agents. You can ingest or inhale them. If you inhale them, the quantities required to be fatal are extraordinarily small. And if you ingest them, the quantity is still small, but is of an order of magnitude greater than what it takes to inhale.
As to biological weapons, there was a list disseminated by the intelligence community. It contained five different biological agents, with anthrax the key one.
Anthrax, too, can be inhaled or ingested. In people who are very young, weak or old, small quantities inhaled or ingested can be fatal. But it doesn't happen instantaneously. With the nerve agents we're talking minutes, tens of minutes on the outside, for the effects to be fully realized. With biological agents, we're talking about a day to many days before it takes hold for most people. If you inhale or ingest anthrax, it could be a matter of 24 to 48 hours before you begin to show the effects. But once you show the symptoms, you're finished. Botulinum toxin acts much faster. The anthrax, on the other hand, is much more stable. You can store it for years. Most of these biological agents are sensitive to ultraviolet radiation, though, so if you take something like botulinum and spray it around in the daytime, it may lose its virility within an hour or two. The anthrax goes much, much slower. It may take days, and if it's in the dirt, and shielded, it could last for months or years.
So the biological agents need time to multiply before they overwhelm your immune system. The nerve agents get in and attack the nervous system immediately, and essentially your bodily functions begin to slow down and you stop breathing.
You can prepare anthrax by the 40-gallon drum and, as long as it's prepared properly, you can shove it under the ground five, 10 feet, and let it sit there for years. That's probably true with mustard gas as well. So the real question is, How much have they actually produced over the years and how much have they been able to tuck away or store away or hide away? I don't know that we have any real answer to that. a
The other big issue is how you package these things and how you disperse them, because the efficiency of the dispersal mechanism can make a huge difference in how much you need and how much damage you do. The Aum Shinrikyo folk in Tokyo, for example, had this Mickey Mouse way of trying to distribute the Sarin, and it was a total bust. The amounts of Sarin that they were screwing around with, however, could have killed thousands if properly aerosolized and dispersed. It only killed 12 because it stayed very, very local, so that just people close by were affected.
We know that the Iraqis have had warheads. My recollection is that they were simple devices that would just explode, either on impact or shortly before impact, causing a cloud of the stuff that would move with the wind. That would be at least with the chemical stuff. I don't know how they were intending to disperse the biological agents, because if you disperse them too high, a couple of hundred meters, the stuff can go anywhere and float for hundreds of miles. If you really want to do nerve gas, you probably want to have an aircraft that essentially is a sprayer. And then probably you can release it at a few hundred feet.
I would say that it would be a suicide mission for Iraq to try and use these weapons against another country or U.S. troops. But I think Saddam Hussein has the potential of trying to do something like that. It's very risky. He'd have to get an airplane loaded, off the ground, underneath U.S. radar. It would be difficult for him to do any of that, but he still might try, figuring that if it took 10 or 20 minutes before we could respond, he could be on the scene somewhere and do some damage.