US finds evidence of WMD at last - buried in a field in Maryland
Julian Borger in Washington
Wednesday May 28, 2003
The good news for the Pentagon yesterday was that its investigators had finally unearthed evidence of weapons of mass destruction, including 100 vials of anthrax and other dangerous bacteria.
The bad news was that the stash was found, not in Iraq, but fewer than 50 miles from Washington, near Fort Detrick in the Maryland countryside.
The anthrax was a non-virulent strain, and the discoveries are apparently remnants of an abandoned germ warfare programme. They merited only a local news item in the Washington Post.
But suspicious finds in Iraq have made front-page news (before later being cleared), given the failure of US military inspection teams to find evidence of the weapons that were the justification for the March invasion.
Even more embarrassing for the Pentagon, there was no documentation about the various biological agents disposed of at the US bio-defence centre at Fort Detrick. Iraq's failure to come up with paperwork proving the destruction of its biological arsenal was portrayed by the US as evidence of deception in the run-up to the war.
In an effort to explain why no chemical or biological weapons had been found in Iraq, the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said yesterday the regime may have destroyed them before the war.
Speaking to the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations thinktank, he said the speed of U.S. advance may have caught Iraq by surprise, but added: "It is also possible that they decided that they would destroy them prior to a conflict."
The US germ warfare programme at Fort Detrick was officially wound up in 1969, but the base has maintained a stock of nasty bugs to help maintain America's defences against biological attack.
The leading theory about the unsolved anthrax letter attacks in 2001 is that they were carried out by a disgruntled former Fort Detrick employee; equipment found dumped in a pond eight miles from the base has been linked to the crimes.
The Fort Detrick clean-up has unearthed over 2,000 tonnes of hazardous waste.
The sanitation crews were shocked to find vials containing live bacteria. As well as the vaccine form of anthrax, the discarded biological agents included Brucella melitensis, which causes the virulent flu-like disease brucellosis, and klebsiella, a cause of pneumonia.