C.I.A. Is Said to Have Bought and Destroyed Iraqi Chemical Weapons

16.02.2015 13:59

The Central Intelligence
Agency, working with
American troops during the
occupation of Iraq,
repeatedly purchased nerve-
agent rockets from a
secretive Iraqi seller, part of
a previously undisclosed
effort to ensure that old
chemical weapons remaining
in Iraq did not fall into the
hands of terrorists or militant
groups, according to current
and former American
The extraordinary arms
purchase plan, known as
Operation Avarice, began in
2005 and continued into 2006,
and the American military
deemed it a nonproliferation
success. It led to the United
States’ acquiring and
destroying at least 400 Borak
rockets, one of the
internationally condemned
chemical weapons that
Saddam Hussein’s Baathist
government manufactured in
the 1980s but that were not
accounted for by United
Nations inspections
mandated after the 1991
Persian Gulf war.
The effort was run out of the
C.I.A. station in Baghdad in
collaboration with the Army’s
203rd Military Intelligence
Battalion and teams of
chemical-defense and
explosive ordnance disposal
troops, officials and veterans
of the units said. Many
rockets were in poor
condition and some were
empty or held a nonlethal
liquid, the officials said. But
others contained the nerve
agent sarin, which analysis
showed to be purer than the
intelligence community had
expected given the age of the
A New York Times
investigation published in
October found that the
military had recovered
thousands of old chemical
warheads and shells in Iraq
and that Americans and
Iraqis had been wounded by
them, but the government
kept much of this information
secret, from the public and
troops alike.
These munitions were
remnants of an Iraqi special
weapons program that was
abandoned long before the
2003 invasion, and they
turned up sporadically
during the American
occupation in buried caches,
as part of improvised bombs
or on black markets.
The potency of sarin samples
from the purchases, as well
as tightly held assessments
about risks the munitions
posed, buttresses veterans’
claims that during the war
the military did not share
important intelligence about
battlefield perils with those
at risk or maintain an
adequate medical system for
treating victims of chemical
The purchases were made
from a sole Iraqi source who
was eager to sell his stock,
officials said. The amount of
money that the United States
paid for the rockets is not
publicly known, and neither
are the affiliations of the
Most of the officials and
veterans who spoke about the
program did so anonymously
because, they said, the details
remain classified. The C.I.A.
declined to comment. The
Pentagon, citing continuing
secrecy about the effort, did
not answer written questions
and acknowledged its role
only obliquely.
“Without speaking to any
specific programs, it is fair to
say that together with our
coalition partners in Iraq, the
U.S. military worked
diligently to find and remove
weapons that could be used
against our troops and the
Iraqi people,” Rear Adm.
John Kirby, the Pentagon
press secretary, said in a
written statement.
Retired Army Lt. Gen.
Richard P. Zahner, the top
American military
intelligence officer in Iraq in
2005 and 2006, said he did
not know of any other
intelligence program as
successful in reducing the
chemical weapons that
remained in Iraq after the
American-led invasion.
Through the C.I.A.’s
purchases, General Zahner
said, hundreds of weapons
with potential use for
terrorists were quietly taken
off the market. “This was a
timely and effective initiative
by our national intelligence
partners that negated the use
of these unique munitions,”
he said.
Not long after Operation
Avarice had secured its 400th
rocket, in 2006, American
troops were exposed several
times to other chemical
weapons. Many of these
veterans said that they had
not been warned by their
units about the risks posed by
the chemical weapons and
that their medical care and
follow-up were substandard,
in part because military
doctors seemed unaware that
chemical munitions
remained in Iraq.
In some cases, victims of
exposure said, officers
forbade them to discuss what
had occurred. The Pentagon
now says hundreds of other
veterans reported on health-
screening forms that they
believed they too had been
exposed during the war.
Aaron Stein, an associate
fellow at the Royal United
Services Institute, said the
belated acknowledgment of a
chemical-rocket purchases,
as well as the potentially
worrisome laboratory
analysis of the related sarin
samples, raised questions
about the military’s
commitment to the well-
being of those it sent to war.
“If we were aware of these
compounds, and as it became
clear over the course of the
war that our troops had been
exposed to them, why wasn’t
more done to protect the
guys on the ground?” he said.
“It speaks to the broader
The first purchase under
Operation Avarice, according
to veterans and officials
familiar with the effort,
occurred in early September
2005, when an Iraqi man
provided a single Borak. The
warhead presented
intelligence analysts with
fresh insight into a
longstanding mystery.
During its war against Iran in
the 1980s, Iraq had fielded
multiple variants of 122-
millimeter rockets designed
to disperse nerve agents.
The Borak warheads, which
are roughly 40 inches long
and attach to a motor
compatible with the common
Grad multiple rocket
launcher system, were
domestically produced. But
no clear picture ever
emerged of how many Iraq
manufactured or how many
it fired during the Iran-Iraq
In confidential declarations
in the 1990s to the United
Nations , Iraq gave shifting
production numbers, up to
18,500. It also claimed to
have destroyed its remaining
stock before international
inspectors arrived after the
Persian Gulf war.
No clear evidence ever
surfaced to support Iraq’s
claim, which meant that
questions about whether
Boraks remained were
“carried forward as one of
the big uncertainties,” said
Charles A. Duelfer, a senior
United Nations inspector at
the time who later led the
C.I.A.’s Iraq Survey Group.
There was “a big gap in the
information,” he said.
The mystery deepened in
2004 and early 2005, when
the United States recovered
17 Boraks. The circumstances
of those recoveries are not
publicly known. Then came
Operation Avarice and its
promise of a larger haul. It
began when the Iraqi seller
delivered his first Borak,
which the military secretly
flew to the United States for
The Iraqi seller would then
periodically notify the C.I.A.
in Baghdad that he had more
for sale, officials said.
The agency worked with the
Army intelligence battalion
and chemical weapons
specialists, who would fly by
helicopter to Iraq’s southeast
and meet the man for
The handoffs varied in size,
including one of more than
150 warheads. American
ordnance disposal
technicians promptly
destroyed most of them by
detonation, the officials said,
but some were taken to Camp
Slayer, by Baghdad’s airport,
for further testing.
One veteran familiar with the
program said warheads were
tested by putting them in “an
old cast-iron bathtub” and
drilling through their metal
exteriors to extract the liquid
sarin within.
The analysis of sarin samples
from 2005 found that the
purity level reached 13
percent — higher than
expected given the relatively
low quality and instability of
Iraq’s sarin production in the
1980s, officials said. Samples
from Boraks recovered in
2004 had contained
concentrations no higher
than 4 percent.
The new data became
grounds for concern. “Borak
rockets will be more
hazardous than previously
assessed,” one internal report
noted. It added a warning:
the use of a Borak in an
improvised bomb “could
effectively disperse the sarin
nerve agent.”
An internal record from 2006
referred to “agent purity of
up to 25 percent for
recovered unitary sarin
Cheryl Rofer, a retired
chemist for the Los Alamos
National Laboratory, said
such purity levels were
plausible, because Iraq’s
sarin batches varied in
quality and the contents of
warheads may have achieved
an equilibrium as the
contents degraded.
Military officials said that
because the seller was a
C.I.A. source they did not
know his name or whether he
was a smuggler, a former or
current Iraqi official, a front
for Iraq’s government, or
something else. But as he
continued to provide rockets,
his activities drew more
The Americans believed the
weapons came from near
Amarah, a city not far from
Iran. It was not clear,
however, if rockets had been
retrieved from a former
forward firing point used by
Iraq’s military during the
Iran-Iraq War, or from one of
the ammunition depots
around the city.
Neither the C.I.A. nor the
soldiers persuaded the man
to reveal his source of supply,
the officials said. “They were
pushing to see where did it
originate from, was there a
mother lode?” General
Zahner said.
Eventually, a veteran
familiar with the purchases
said, “the guy was getting a
little cocky.”
At least once he scammed his
handlers, selling rockets
filled with something other
than sarin.
Then in 2006, the veteran
said, the Iraqi drove a
truckload of warheads to
Baghdad and “called the intel
guys to tell them he was
going to turn them over to
the insurgents unless they
picked them up.”
Not long after that, the
veteran said, the relationship
appeared to dry up, ending
purchases that had ensured
“a lot of chemical weapons
were destroyed.”