Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 211-219)


18 JUNE 2003

  Q211  Chairman: We continue our inquiry into the Decision to go to War in Iraq. We welcome Dr Inch. Dr Inch, as a Committee we look to you for specialist advice on the scientific aspects of our inquiry, helping us to pose the correct questions on matters of science. We ask you to draw on your wide experience in this area. For the record, I should say that you were employed by our Ministry of Defence from 1965 to 1985 at Porton Down. Latterly you were Deputy Chief Scientific Officer with responsibility for all the basic chemical defence research. Before attending the Royal College of Defence Studies in 1985, you were, for a time, Deputy Director of Porton Down. You joined BP in 1986 where you were Vice President, responsible for BP's research and technology in the USA from 1990 to 1993. From 1993 until 2000 you were Secretary-General and Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Chemistry. There will be a number of technical questions that the Committee will pose to you. We know from your experience that your answers will be extremely valuable. Dr Inch, I have first a general question. The inspectors were absent from Iraq between 1998 until 2002. The assumption in the Government's paper is that during that time the regime continued to work on its programmes of prohibited weapons of mass destruction and missile programmes in violation of a whole raft of UN Security Council resolutions from the end of the Gulf War. How credible, from your experience, is that?

  Dr Inch: Can I give a kind of disclaimer at the start? I have had no direct links with Porton or the intelligence community for about 15 years. So everything that I say is kind of public record material and common sense deduction. It is not quite true that I have not spoken to some of the people at Porton because I am still involved in the Royal Society working party on decontamination and detection in regard to anti-terrorist issues. As chairman of the advisory committee to the National Authority on the Chemical Weapons Convention, I deal, from time to time, with chemical weapons convention issues. But I have no direct links in terms of the intelligence on the Iraq situation.

  Q212  Chairman: That is the disclaimer?

  Dr Inch: That is the disclaimer. I think you have to take the information in the dossier very much with a pinch of salt. The intelligence behind the dossier may be quite good, but I think that my interpretation of what is written raises more questions than answers. In many general terms that reflects some of the problems of making good technical assessments of the bits and pieces of intelligence information that comes your way. Sometimes the scientific community is in agreement with the intelligence community; and sometimes the scientific community disagrees strongly with the intelligence community's assessments. Perhaps I can give two historical examples as it is important to understand this. In the early 1970s the US intelligence community reported that there had been an accident in Sverdlovsk in Russia and that there had been an accidental release of anthrax from which many people had died. At that time in the US the chief scientific adviser was not convinced by the intelligence information; he did not think that it all held together. The signs and the symptoms did not fit the intelligence report. After the Iron Curtain came down that same person went to Sverdlovsk and was able to make a thorough interpretation. The scientific community had missed one or two important facts and the intelligence community was absolutely right. The total picture that emerged post-event was very convincing. That is one plus to the intelligence community. Rolling on to the early 1980s, the US intelligence community claimed that a new form of toxic material—T2 toxin—was being used in Laos and Cambodia which was subsequently dubbed "yellow rain". The American intelligence community went public at that time, and the information reached the Secretary of State and the President of the United States who went public on that information. Subsequently there was enormous pressure on our intelligence community to support the arguments. In this country our scientific community was never convinced; nothing really held together; the materials in question were insufficiently toxic; and there was a whole raft of other information that just did not fit. Eventually it was proven to our satisfaction that yellow rain was simply the droppings from flocks of bees. That is a big negative for the US intelligence community who, in my view, made in their interpretation a whole range of fundamental errors in not carrying out the proper checks and studies. When you apply those two lessons, there are signs of dilemma and you have to look at some of the statements in the dossier to see whether you can make sense of them. The short answer is that I do not know that you will be able to unless you have the right raw data from which to make some kind of an assessment. I can give you some pointers from the report of the kind of things that worry me as I look through some of the reported statements in it.

  Q213  Chairman: Please do.

  Dr Inch: On page 18 of the report at paragraph 3 it says that the intelligence suggests that: "These stocks would enable Iraq to produce significant quantities of mustard gas within weeks and of nerve agent within months". From a technical perspective I find it very difficult to understand unless the intelligence was very firm, very clear and very precise why it should be possible to make mustard gas within weeks but it would take months to make nerve agents. If you have the facilities in place, the previous knowledge and so on, and the plants available, it does not seem to me that it takes more time to make one than the other. The question is: how good was the intelligence? That would be the kind of question that I would wish to probe to find out whether it was hard or soft material that we are looking at. There are other examples.

  Q214  Chairman: It may be helpful to the Committee, if, having trawled through the dossier, you were to give us a separate memorandum with your concerns as a scientist about some of the matters that you find in the dossier.

  Dr Inch: I can do that[1]

  Q215  Chairman: If there are one or two startling examples you can give them now, but are you prepared to do that?

  Dr Inch: Yes, I would be very happy to do that. There are some general matters on that point in terms of questions about some of the technical claims within the document.

  Mr Olner: With regard to supplying that further information, does Dr Inch know the deadline for our work?

  Chairman: Yes, of course. Dr Inch, we are conducting a rather speedy inquiry, so our clerk will give you the deadline.

  Q216  Mr Chidgey: Dr Inch, it falls to me to examine this area of chemical and biological issues with you, mainly because I am the only Member of the Committee with anything approaching an applied scientific background. To quote Newton, the more I know the more I know how little I know. I am hoping that you can help us a little on this. In this series of question that I am going to ask you I shall be trying to get you to explain to us how readily you can convert, for example, from an industrial process—the processing of the basic ingredients that go into chemical and biological weapons—to military objectives to create weaponised material. I am quite deliberately using general terms so that you can be more specific. On the back of that, one of the issues that exercises me is just how stable is the weaponised material? How readily can it be stored, transported and placed within warheads and how difficult would it be to detect those processes? There is the change from industrial to military use, the creation of weapons material, transporting it, making it ready for use, all those kind of technical, challenging issues for the scientists and engineers, which for a layman are probably a complete maze. Clearly the telltale signs behind all this are essential in trying to gauge the accuracy of the information that is being presented to us in a political format.

  Dr Inch: First, I shall comment on the stability. Some chemicals are obviously more stable than others. There are problems, mainly with something like VX, but the other materials are fairly stable and I would have thought that they would have been stored and stabilised in adequate conditions. That is not a problem.

  Q217  Mr Chidgey: What would those conditions be?

  Dr Inch: To illustrate the point, the two countries with the big weapons stocks are the US and the old Soviet Union. Under the chemical weapons convention both countries are committed to destroying those stocks. It is going much more slowly than anticipated because of safety concerns. It will be 10 or 12 years before those stocks can be destroyed. Clearly, there is no real problem with the stability of them. They will not be in the same high quality as when they started, but they will still be very effective weapons stocks. That is the situation, I think, with anything held in Iraq.

  Q218  Mr Chidgey: How easy would it be to be absolutely sure that the storage facility was precisely the facility for chemical or biological weapons? Could it readily be mistaken or disguised as something else?

  Dr Inch: You asked about production as well and how easy it is to transfer from a civil to a military use. In recent years there has been a major change in manufacturing technology in the chemical industry. One still has the enormous petrochemical type complexes which are very dedicated to making one material by continuous procedure. But the pharmaceutical industry, for example, which also makes highly potent compounds, is in the mode of just-in-time synthesis. They make a few tonnes of material and then quickly move to something else. It is the same in a lot of industries these days; the equipment is designed to be flexible and used in a wide variety of ways. Once upon a time, when health and safety concerns around the world were not very important, one could probably detect a plant making a highly toxic material by the extra safety precautions. In the modern world everything is governed by very tight safety regulations and it becomes increasingly difficult to judge whether a plant is making something that is highly toxic or something that may just be toxic.

  Q219  Mr Chidgey: Does that kind of health and safety regime apply to Iraq?

  Dr Inch: It is pretty general industrial practice and the kind of equipment and so on is readily available and may be bought. It is the kind of engineering practice that gets into the culture. One could still go against that, but the point I am making is that for many of the compounds involved there would be no difficulty in switching from one form of manufacture to another. Can I give you one other example because I think it makes the point very clearly? Under the chemical weapons convention, there are scheduled chemicals which are the highly toxic ones, and there is another class of chemicals called discrete organic chemicals which are also banned under the convention. The real inspection regime for those materials is only now getting under way. But I think that the OPCW[2]inspectors in The Hague believe that about 30% of the plants that they see worldwide, making discrete organic chemicals for perfectly legal purposes, have the capability to be modified very rapidly to make chemical warfare agents.

1   Ninth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2002-03, The Decision to go to War in Iraq, HC 813-II, Ev 2. Back

2   Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Back

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