Buzz Bomb

Why everyone's wrong about Assad's zombie gas.

Since the government of Syria's Bashar al-Assad began to totter, the nonproliferation community has been waiting to see if he will unleash what is believed to be a large stockpile of chemical weapons, including VX, sarin, and mustard gas. The possibility that Assad might use chemical weapons is widely regarded as a possible trigger for U.S. intervention. In December, President Obama warned Assad of "consequences" in the event Syria used its chemical weapons. A few days earlier, Hillary Clinton warned that the United States was "certainly planning to take action" in the event of "credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people."

So, what makes for "credible evidence"? Enter Josh Rogin, reporter at Foreign Policy, who published a pair of stories detailing a State Department cable regarding possible chemical weapons use by Syrian forces in Homs. An administration official described the cable as having "made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23."

The implication, obviously, is that the "compelling case" is the "credible evidence" that should prompt Washington to rethink its policy limiting itself to "non-lethal" aid to Syrian opposition forces and take action. A reconsideration might be in order, though not for the reason you think.

For starters, somehow, no one has bothered to mention that Agent 15 doesn't exist.

Yep. Agent 15 is one of the bogus bits of intelligence that helped make the case for invading Iraq. Like many good fish stories, this one has a kernel of truth. A single document found by U.N. inspectors (at the infamous Chicken Farm, if you must know) mentioned something called "Agent 15." UNSCOM and others believed Agent 15 was a glycollate, related to laboratory experiments that Iraq admitted to with chemically similar incapacitants usually referred to as BZ or "buzz." But Iraq never produced BZ, Agent 15, or similar incapacitants.

"Agent 15" entered our collective lexicon in 1998, however, when the British announced they had "received intelligence, believed to be reliable, which indicated that, at the time of the Gulf War, Iraq may have possessed large quantities of a chemical warfare mental incapacitant agent known as "Agent 15." George Robertson, then defense secretary, described it as "one more filthy uncivilised weapon of war in [Saddam's] armoury." He warned that Agent 15 could result in: "dilated pupils, flushed faces, dry mouth, tachycardia, increase in skin and body temperature, weakness, dizziness, disorientation, visual hallucinations, confusions, loss of time sense, loss of co-ordination and stupor." In other words, it turns you into the stars of Absolutely Fabulous. (I've placed a copy of the MOD report on my blog, ArmsControlWonk.com.)

Robertson refused to divulge further details, claiming that the Ministry of Defense had yet to evaluate the report. In fact, he'd done quite enough. The always restrained British press went -- and I am going to use the technical term here -- apeshit. (My favorite headline: "Iraqi ‘zombie gas' arsenal revealed.")

The claim didn't stand up to scrutiny, even before the war. The United Kingdom doesn't seem to have asserted the existence of Agent 15 stockpiles after March 2002, which is about the time the CIA put out a fact sheet stating clearly that "Iraq never went beyond research with Agent 15." For all the bullshit reasons we invaded Iraq, Agent 15 was not one of them.

I don't want to spoil the ending if you still haven't gotten through Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, but we didn't find ­­any chemical weapons stockpiles in Iraq. No VX, no sarin, no Agent 15. The British government has not publicly revealed the source of the information, but one can get a flavor of the bum dope being peddled by Iraqi "sources" on chemical weapons from British and American reviews of the intelligence. Without naming names, these reports describe a litany of fabricators in surprising detail. (You want to read pp 100-101 of the Butler Report and pp. 126-130 of the Robb-Silberman Report.) In theory, this experience should be a cautionary tale.


Once "Agent 15" entered the debate, it stuck. It routinely appeared in laundry lists of Iraqi chemical agents from nongovernmental experts, presumably compiled by overworked interns. Eventually, there were reports of Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah getting high on Agent 15 before battle. David Hambling wrote a hilarious, and appropriately skeptical, post about this silliness.

Now, to be clear: BZ is a real chemical incapacitant. The United States, the United Kingdom, and others stockpiled it. U.S. scientists discovered BZ in 1951, producing it as a byproduct of peaceful chemical production (though not in a pure or isolated form). Iraq did research on BZ, including importing a sample from Egypt. There is no evidence that Syria has a BZ program, which is probably why the National Security Council released a statement describing the allegations outlined in the cable as "not consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program."

Incapacitating agents, by the way, are not what one usually thinks of as "chemical weapons" -- nerve gas and the like. BZ and other chemical incapacitants arise out of the same deep well of craziness that led the government to develop LSD. The Chemical Weapons Convention largely dried up the crazy. We haven't seen something spectacularly stupid since 1994, when the predecessor of the Air Force Research Laboratory was considering a proposal to develop a chemical agent that would "cause homosexual behavior" in the hopes of adversely affecting "discipline and morale." Incapacitating agents like BZ are controlled under Schedule 2 of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Schedule 1 is where are all the interesting things like mustard gas, sarin, and VX are listed. States do not even need to declare Schedule 2 chemicals if they are present in "low concentrations." In 2004, the states party to the CWC had a very boring, technical debate about when states should declare incidental production of BZ and two other Schedule 2 chemicals.

I don't want to minimize the dangers of incapacitating agents. As an impressionable research assistant at CSIS, I participated in a study on non-lethal weapons which made very clear that all "non-lethal" weapons can still kill some people, who react in all sorts of unique and individual ways. (There was a proposal for a sticky foam that would harden into something like concrete to immobilize rioters. It seemed like a really good idea -- for about 15 seconds, until someone asked how Han Solo breathed in carbonite.) At a simpler level, you can imagine the carnage if someone fired "just" tear gas into a nursing home.

But the allegation that Syria has used a chemical weapon isn't really about the dangers of BZ or incapacitating agents. It is really an argument about the Syrian government violating a norm that places them outside the family of nations and compels us to intervene. Sure you can torture people or shell their villages, but poison gas?

Not surprisingly, one finds plenty of evidence-less allegations of chemical weapons use by groups seeking to encourage foreign intervention. In July 1995, for example, the Bosnians alleged that Yugoslav forces gassed them with BZ -- at a time when the United States was still following Colin Powell's suggestion to let Bosnia burn. (A few weeks later Clinton would authorize an air campaign, Operation Deliberate Force, a decision Powell now says was the correct one.) Kosovar Albanians made similar allegations of BZ use in April 1999 during Operation Allied Force. There is not a lot of evidence for either claim and, to my knowledge, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has never charged any Serbs with regards to this. Perhaps it's too cynical to put allegations of chemical weapons use in the bin with bayonetting babies or dumping them out of incubators, but truth is the first casualty and all that.

Which brings us to the State Department cable. The United States does not have an embassy in Syria at the moment. The cable in question was sent from the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, which last I checked was in Turkey. So, who actually went to Homs to investigate these claims? According to portions of the cable reprinted by Rogin, a State Department "implementing partner" called Access Research Knowledge, using a local Syrian group called Basma, talked to three "contacts" in Syria. Stop me if you see where this is going.

We actually know a little bit about Access Research Knowledge (ARK) and Basma. Justin Vela wrote an article for Foreign Policy titled "Holding Civil Society Workshops While Syria Burns," which describes the two organizations:

ARK also provides funds and consulting to a new opposition media outlet founded by a group of liberal-minded Syrian activists called BasmaSyria.

A State Department spokesperson described ARK as "an implementing partner" of the U.S. nonlethal-aid program.

"ARK is currently undertaking activities to support the nonviolent Syrian opposition and Syrian civil society," the spokesperson said. "Project activities involving hundreds of beneficiaries have taken place in Syria and neighboring states since the onset of the Syrian crisis. It shares the inclusive vision of a future Syria for all Syrians where the rule of law is applied equally and the people of Syria are represented by a legitimate, responsive, and democratically elected government."

The activists themselves see the projects as a way to get their message out to the world more effectively.

"They are just helping us. We didn't study media; we didn't study photography," said an activist who works for BasmaSyria, which has distributed videos via YouTube, Facebook, and the Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya since August.

To make it clear: These appear to be U.S.- and U.K.-funded groups that produce anti-regime propaganda. Are we really surprised that they are alleging chemical weapons use? (And don't get me started on these people diagnosing which chemicals were used based on grainy YouTube videos. Two words: Terry Schiavo.) Look, I am no seasoned intelligence professional. But perhaps this is not up to the standard set by Sherman Kent.

That is to say nothing of the leak. Let's face it: Leaks are often dissatisfied officials appealing a decision in the press. The Obama administration has clearly indicated that it does not think chemical weapons were used at Homs. Don't like the president's decision? Let me get you Josh Rogin's email.

Watching a U.S.-funded propaganda group "confirm" claims by Syrian opposition, I am reminded of the first rule of drug dealing: Don't get high on your own supply. (What? I saw Scarface.) The use of the non-existent Agent 15 moniker is too clever by half. What it tells you is that someone got on the internet.

I have no objection to the State Department or intelligence community making up terrible lies about Bashar al-Assad. Maybe we can dust off the old plan to film a Saddam-double screwing a rent boy. Or we can ring up Jerry Post to talk about Bashar's womb issues! All is fair in love and war.

And it may make humanitarian or strategic sense to intervene in Syria. The world would be a better place without the Assads, and vulnerable populations like the sick, elderly, and very young suffer and die disproportionately in protracted conflicts like this. One can certainly make a case for doing more than we are.

But we should not take a decision to intervene on the basis of the disinformation or propaganda we pay Syrian activists to create. I mean, imagine the consequences if the president were to order hundreds or thousands of U.S. servicemen and -women into harm's way to prevent an evil dictator from using weapons of mass destruction that turn out to be completely imaginary?

Oh, nevermind. When do we bomb Damascus?

-/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Back to the Future

Missile defense doesn't work, so of course Congress is doubling it.

Reading through the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2013 is a surreal experience. While the rest of us are watching our elected officials careen from one (self-inflicted) macroeconomic crisis to the other, largely over issues related to the national deficit, the FY2013 NDAA appears to exist in a Neverneverland of constantly rising defense budgets despite increasingly dire warnings about the country's fiscal health.

With the recent remake of Red Dawn and David Lee Roth fronting Van Halen again, there are moments when I feel like it is 1984. (Speaking of the mid-80s nostalgia, did you know that Monday was the day to which Marty McFly traveled in Back to the Future II? Where, as Calvin asked, is my flying car?)

Nowhere is nostalgia for the heady days of Ronald Reagan more apparent than the section in the NDAA relating to funding for a new site somewhere in New England to defend against long-range ballistic missiles from Iran.

This summer, House Republicans became very enthused about the prospect of adding yet another site of ground-based midcourse defense interceptors to go with those in Alaska and California. They claim they were encouraged by the recommendations of several groups, including a recent National Academies study on boost-phase missile defense.

(It is perhaps necessary here to note that the United States has a very large number of programs to develop different missile defenses for different classes of missiles in different periods of their flight -- boost, midcourse, and terminal. In English, that is up to space, through space, and back down again. A system to intercept a short-range ballistic missile as it falls back toward earth is very different from something designed to hit a rocket as it is launching.)

At first, the notion of an East Coast interceptor site drew mild mockery. Al Kamen, of the Washington Post, held a contest to ask readers to suggest a location for the interceptors. Entries included schemes to protect valuable national treasures such as Fenway Park and Snookie.

I submitted Mianus, CT. As in, imagine the now-retired Joe Lieberman standing before the local gentry, solemnly declaring: "I strongly support the emplacement of two dozen ground-based interceptors, right here in Mianus. I can think of no better place to put them." I mean, how can you disagree with that?

Somehow I didn't win the contest. (I was robbed, I tell you.) In fact, actual sites under consideration to host the missile defense interceptors include Fort Drum, NY and Caribou, ME.

Undeterred by the prospect of ridicule, the House added $100 million to fund an environmental impact assessment of three sites. Republican senators, led by New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte, pushed a similar measure. Ayotte's measure did not make it into the final Senate bill, but it prevailed in conference.

Which, of course, raises the obvious question: Do we need another missile defense site?

Well, we certainly don't need another site like the one in Alaska. One of the strange features of this debate is that the House measure would study placing current U.S. ground-based interceptors in New England, even though the National Academies would terminate that program.

The National Academies was asked to study intercepting missiles in the boost phase of their flight, as well as the alternatives.  The committee was apparently so convinced of the impossibility of the boost-phase intercept that it started looking at alternatives -- specifically, the existing midcourse system, which provides the best opportunity to shoot down long-range missiles. The committee was, to judge by the text, shocked at the incompetence and mismanagement it found in U.S. missile defense programs. The report is a scathing indictment of U.S. missile defense efforts in general, and the Missile Defense Agency in particular. Here is a sample comment regarding one programmatic decision: "That this was not understood by those responsible for managing these systems raises questions about the systems analysis capability of the MDA and others." That is Washington-ese for "These people do not know what they are doing." Even a casual read of the report raises questions about whether the Missile Defense Agency should be abolished, with the programs turned over to the services.

The National Academies reserved particular hostility for our only current hope to intercept an Iranian missile, the current ground-based midcourse system in Alaska and California. The committee outlined "six fundamental precepts of a cost-effective ballistic missile defense." Their conclusion? "The committee finds the current GMD system deficient with respect to all of these principles." The committee went on to describe the current GMD system as a "classic example" of what it termed "a ‘hobby shop' approach, with many false starts on poorly analyzed concepts."

As a result, their recommendation was to develop and deploy an entirely different interceptor (based in part on a now canceled program called the kinetic energy interceptor) that would eventually replace the current interceptors in Alaska. The panel thought so highly of these interceptors that they recommended, once the new interceptor is ready, removing the old missiles from their silos and apparently using them for target practice. ("At a later time, the more capable interceptor would be retrofitted into the silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, with the existing GBIs diverted to the targets program supporting future operational flight tests." It is also possible the MDA might use them as boosters.)

Somehow, House Republicans were able to take this scathing assessment of the Disasta' in Alaska and use it as a reason to give the Missile Defense Agency an extra $400 million to expand the current, flawed GMD program, including $100 million to start planning for placing obsolete interceptors at a third site on the East Coast. The plus-up brought total GMD spending to more than $1.3 billion this year.

I suppose it is hardly surprising that Congress would turn the recommendation of the National Academies on its head. After all, it is not unknown for members of Congress to cherry pick recommendations. And, in this case, the package presented by the National Academies would require Congress to admit that the United States has invested $34 billion in a flawed midcourse defense architecture ("fragile" was the polite term) that has been chronically mismanaged by the Department of Defense. In the current budgetary environment, that is a difficult admission to make.

It's a lot easier to just stick some more crappy interceptors in Maine and pretend everything is fine.

Second, one might question the National Academies recommendation. It is important to understand why the National Academies recommended what amounts to a complete overhaul of the ground-based midcourse system.

With the current architecture comprising interceptors in Alaska and California, it is physically possible to intercepting a missile fired from Iran at the United States. The problem, of course, is that the system doesn't work all that well. (The last two tests have been misses.) The best chance of being able to shoot down an enemy missile is to fire several -- perhaps as many as five -- interceptors at each incoming missile. With the current system, the United States has one opportunity to fire at the incoming missile.

The problem with firing a salvo of interceptors is that it is very inefficient, particularly if Iran were to launch several missiles at once or the incoming missiles were accompanied by decoys and other so-called penetration aids. The famously photoshopped image of an Iranian salvo launch, as well as some parodies, makes precisely that point. One has to give the National Academies credit for proposing a complete redesign of the current architecture -- new interceptors, radars, and a concept of operations -- to deal with the problem. For years, many of my colleagues have been arguing that the Missile Defense Agency has systematically ignored the challenge posed by countermeasures. While I am not sure I share the National Academies confidence in the ability of the United States to stay ahead in the countermeasures game -- particularly in the current era of budgetary austerity -- this is the first missile defense study to take the problem seriously.

The planned missile defense site in Poland would offer an opportunity for an early shot at an Iranian missile. The problem, as suggested by the National Academies, is that Iran might be able to "loft" a missile too high for yet-to-be-developed interceptors to have a shot.

Now, the intelligence community agrees that the Iranians do not currently have such an ICBM -- or any ICBM actually. (Steven Hildreth, at the Congressional Research Service, has just prepared a very detailed report on Iran's ballistic missiles, which is generating headlines largely for concluding that this judgment appears sound.) As it turns out, it would take one heck of an Iranian ICBM to fly over the top of a missile defense interceptor site in Poland, with enough gas left in the tank to rain nuclear destruction on Martha's Vineyard. The National Academies assumed a solid-fueled missile with a range of 12,500 kilometers, which is more capable than anything the Chinese have. Only Russia has such a missile, which in part explains why the Obama administration chose this particular architecture in Europe. The National Academies is probably correct to worry about the possibility, but at this stage a 12,500-km range solid-fueled Iranian ICBM seems far enough away that a third site could still be considered at a later date.

Given the challenges associated with countermeasures and the far off prospect of an Iranian super-ICBM, I am inclined to think we could hold off on the East Coast site for now, while making many of the programmatic changes suggested by the National Academies panel, as well as entertaining one other modest notion.

There is an implicit question that arises from the National Academies panel: Should the United States abolish the Missile Defense Agency, returning missile defense programs to the services? In my lifetime, the entity has been called the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, and the Missile Defense Agency. Of the many things MDA has been called, highly competent is not one of them. This is an organization that has recently seen its chief executive resign over accusations that he bullied staff; previously, he had to send a memo to his employees asking them to spend less time surfing for porn. (I am waiting for the outraged letter from long-time MDA spokesman Rick Lehner to my editor Peter Scoblic. I can practically write it for him. It will look like this. Or this. Or this. I think he has a template titled OutragedLetter.docx)

Part of the problem with MDA and its predecessors has been a de facto, then de jure, exemption from the normal rules of testing and procurement. In its history, MDA has transferred only a small number of systems to the services. In general, missile defense systems have been driven by missile defense enthusiasts, not the services.

What would happen if missile defense programs were returned to the services, and expected to compete against other priorities on basic grounds like "cost-effectiveness"?

For one thing, the systems would probably be tested more frequently and under more realistic conditions. One of the strangest aspects of the debate about operational testing is that MDA, by and large, does not want to test interceptors as they might other systems. One of the strangest features in this debate was the suggestion in 2005 that MDA should reduce the number flight tests of the ground-based midcourse system because it kept missing and that was hurting the credibility of the system. (I am not making this up! Integrated Flight Tests hate our freedoms.)

In addition to more frequent and realistic testing, I also suspect the services would be much more sensitive to concepts of operations and other practical military concerns. The Navy, for example, is hardly enthusiastic about the European deployment of SM-3. The Navy is firmly against single-purpose ships, which means that missile defense interceptors compete for room with other systems on Aegis-class destroyers. Each SM-3 interceptor to knock down an Iranian missile represents a launch tube that can't be used to clean the Supreme Leader's clock. We need some defense against theater missiles, but the proper basis for deciding how much is normal programs analysis and evaluation, not happy memories of Ronald Reagan on horseback.

Some people may worry that, if missile defense programs were subject to the same cost-effectiveness criteria as any other military procurement systems, very few of the current programs would survive. This ought to be the point! Reasonable defense planning is about making tradeoffs to maximize security.

US Navy via Getty Images