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.
On the other hand, CRAZY DICTATOR HAS ZOMBIE GAS!
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.