Thursday, August 31, 2006

Vial Mendacity

ob·fus·cate ( P ) Pronunciation Key (bf-skt, b-fskt)
tr.v. ob·fus·cat·ed, ob·fus·cat·ing, ob·fus·cates
1. To make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand: “A great effort was made... to obscure or obfuscate the truth” (Robert Conquest).

2. To render indistinct or dim; darken: The fog obfuscated the shore.

David Kay, 2 October 2003:

Discussions with Iraqi scientists uncovered agent R&D work that paired overt work with nonpathogenic organisms serving as surrogates for prohibited investigation with pathogenic agents. Examples include: B. Thurengiensis (Bt) with B. anthracis (anthrax), and medicinal plants with ricin. In a similar vein, two key former BW scientists, confirmed that Iraq under the guise of legitimate activity developed refinements of processes and products relevant to BW agents. The scientists discussed the development of improved, simplified fermentation and spray drying capabilities for the simulant Bt that would have been directly applicable to anthrax, and one scientist confirmed that the production line for Bt could be switched to produce anthrax in one week if the seed stock were available.

A very large body of information has been developed through debriefings, site visits, and exploitation of captured Iraqi documents that confirms that Iraq concealed equipment and materials from UN inspectors when they returned in 2002.One noteworthy example is a collection of reference strains that ought to have been declared to the UN. Among them was a vial of live C. botulinum Okra B. from which a biological agent can be produced. This discovery - hidden in the home of a BW scientist - illustrates the point I made earlier about the difficulty of locating small stocks of material that can be used to covertly surge production of deadly weapons. The scientist who concealed the vials containing this agent has identified a large cache of agents that he was asked, but refused, to conceal. ISG is actively searching for this second cache.

Matthew Yglesias, 17 October 2003:

EVEN MORE BOTULISM. About a week and a half ago I noted that the botulism discovered by David Kay in an Iraqi scientist's refrigerator -- and since discussed in speeches by the president, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell -- was more hype than threat. Today Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times is on the case with a few more key points:
The single vial of botulinum B had been stored in an Iraqi scientist's kitchen refrigerator since 1993. It appears to have been produced by a nonprofit Virginia biological resource center, the American Type Culture Collection, which legally exported botulinum and other biological material to Iraq under a Commerce Department license in the late 1980s.

. . .

But Dr. David Franz, a former chief U.N. biological weapons inspector who is considered among America's foremost experts on biowarfare agents, said there was no evidence that Iraq or anyone else has ever succeeded in using botulinum B for biowarfare.

"The Soviets dropped it [as a goal] and so did we, because we couldn't get it working as a weapon," said Franz, who is the former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Md., the Pentagon's lead laboratory for bioweapons defense research.

Long story short: There's no threat here. This raises the question of why, exactly, Kay's team and the gang at the White House are trying to convince people that there is. Politically speaking, obfuscation is an effective strategy on this subject, since it's easy to get confused between the botulinum B bacteria (not dangerous, found in Iraq) and the botulinum A neurotoxin (dangerous, not found in Iraq). I myself made this mistake, but I'm not a biologist and I'm certainly not a biowarfare expert. This tactic -- saying things that are true in such a way as to get people to believe things that are false -- has become a prominent feature of the administration's public relations strategy on a number of fronts and, frankly, it stinks.

--Matthew Yglesias

George W. Bush, 3 October 2003:
The report states that Saddam Hussein's regime had a clandestine network of biological laboratories, a live strain of deadly agent botulinum, sophisticated concealment efforts and advanced design work on prohibited longer-range missiles

Richard Cheney, 3 October 2003:

Next item, reference strains of biological organisms concealed in a scientist's home, one of which can be used to produce biological weapons.

Colin Powell, 7 October 2003

Lo and behold, Kay and his team found strains of organisms concealed in a scientist's home, and they report that one of the strains could be used to produce biological agents

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan, 6 October 2003

Q The administration is now asking for an additional $600 million. What exactly is the $600 million for? And what will you say to the arguing from some that --

MR. McCLELLAN: We went through this --

Q -- you're throwing good money after bad?

MR. McCLELLAN: We went through this last week. In the wartime supplement, there is a classified section, just like there is any budget appropriation. And I'm not in a position to confirm or deny what's in there, or to get into a position of discussing what's in that classified section. And I'm sure no one in this room wants me to discuss classified information.

Q What about the argument, though, that it would appear to be throwing good money after bad?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let me mention that the Iraq survey group does continue to do its work. Dr. Kay pointed out over the weekend a lot of what they have found was not the focus of the initial coverage, and now I think it's important to look at what they have found, as well. Dr. Kay summarized in his report that was made public that -- and I quote that the report discovered what the report calls: dozens of WMD-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations during the inspections that began in late 2002.

He talked about the strain of botulinum toxin that were found. He talked about -- yesterday, about how a scientist was asked to keep a large amount of anthrax and turned that down. So there's a lot of work that continues. And it's important that the Iraq survey group continue to move forward on its work so that we can uncover the full extent of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs.

Brad DeLong, 17 December 2003:

I'll stop calling the Bush administration "Orwellian" when they stop using 1984 as an operations manual.

[Added to the Iraq Chronicle]

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