Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 220-239)


18 JUNE 2003

  Q220  Mr Chidgey: My question on that particular point is whether, due to the way in which you describe the situation, we should not talk about dual-use facilities, but about multi-use processing facilities. In other words, the plants that you describe could do any number of things one of which is producing chemical weapons.

  Dr Inch: One has to be a little careful. Dual-use chemicals are things like phosgene or hydrogen cyanide, in the kind of definitions that are highly toxic in their own right and could be used as a chemical warfare agent, although maybe not too effectively, whereas the facilities—you are absolutely right—are multi-purpose facilities rather than dual-purpose facilities.

  Q221  Mr Chidgey: Given that situation, if you were in the position of trying to define whether or not Iraq was operating a chemical weapons warfare programme and you were presented with a site that was a pharmaceutical chemical complex, what would you be looking for? Clearly the plant itself is not sufficient evidence to say that it is definitely a processing plant for chemical weapons.

  Dr Inch: Personally, I would have given as much attention to carrying out some environmental analysis on the plant as I would to the facilities, given the situation in Iraq. We read in the report that they have gone to great lengths to hide things. I do not believe that you can hide the fact that you had been making some toxic chemicals on that site. If a site had been declared as a chemical weapons producing site, or if the original inspectors at the end of the Gulf War knew it was a site, you would not find out the information, but if there was intelligence pointing to quite new production facilities that were being denied as production facilities by the Iraqis, then I believe that the trace analysis and so on of certain residues would probably give confirmation of whether or not that was a correct statement.

  Q222  Mr Chidgey: On that basis, what is your view of the assessment that Iraq was continuing to produce chemical and biological weapons after the inspectors left in 1998?

  Dr Inch: I have to say that I have no view. I do not think that there is any compelling evidence to say that they did, but again there is no compelling evidence to say that they did not. You really need to make a close inspection of the data available.

  Q223  Mr Chidgey: Do you have a view on the assessment that Iraq had a usable chemical and biological weapons capability in breach of UN Security Council resolutions, which has included the recent production of chemical and biological agents?

  Dr Inch: I have no view. I think you really need to judge the data. There are some other statements on the dual-use facilities. It says: "New chemical facilities have been built, some with illegal foreign assistance". Again, that is talking about the import of precursors and so on. I would have thought that that evidence needed to be pretty hard if it exists, and it should be quite clear. Under the various UN embargoes and under the chemical weapons convention now signed by over 150 countries and under the terms of the Australia group regulations, which is the western group which embargoes supplies of materials and products, Iraq would definitely be a "no go" area for any of those materials from any respecting western government. Under the convention it is the responsibility of national governments to ensure that there are no exports to places like Iraq. Otherwise the treaties and so on are not being properly implemented.

  Q224  Mr Chidgey: Dr Inch, if you could attach to the note that you are going to give us on the dossier the specific questions to which we should seek answers in regard to this matter it would be very helpful.

  Dr Inch: I shall try to do that[3]

  Q225  Sir John Stanley: We are in some difficulty because we are taking a great deal of evidence the rest of today and again tomorrow. Your subsequent paper will be of great interest to us. Could you help us with some pointers? At the outset you said that there were some specific points where you felt that the Government's assessment should be treated with a pinch of salt.

  Dr Inch: Yes.

  Q226  Sir John Stanley: On the one example that you gave us in paragraph 3 on page 18, if I understood what you said correctly, you were saying that the Government were probably under-estimating the degree of threat rather than over-estimating it because from what you said you were suggesting that not only could the mustard gas be produced within weeks but that the nerve agent could as well. Did I understand you correctly? Is that what you were saying to us?

  Dr Inch: I was not making any comment on that. What I was saying was that I would have thought that to be able to make that kind of statement in terms of weeks for mustard gas and months for nerve agents, that there must have been some pretty good intelligence that suggested where and how those two time scales were going to differ. That would be a question that I would want to ask: how good was that?

  Q227  Sir John Stanley: Can you point out to us the particular paragraphs and points in the paper where you felt the comment should be treated with a pinch of salt?

  Dr Inch: It was in those general terms really. It is probably easier to do it in writing, but I found that there were too many weasel-words in the report, as I read it. They could do this or they might do that and so on, rather than saying that the evidence was hard. That was some of the concern that I had.

  Q228  Sir John Stanley: Perhaps I can follow on the point that Mr Chidgey was making. As you know, the Prime Minister, in the final debate that we had in the House on 18 March before we went to war in Iraq, set out very clearly the Government's view as to the scale of the potential CW, BW stocks that may still be in Iraq. Just for the record, the Prime Minister said in col. 762: "When the inspectors left in 1998, they left unaccounted for 10,000 litres of anthrax; a far-reaching VX nerve agent programme; up to 6,500 chemical munitions; at least 80 tonnes of mustard gas, and possibly more than 10 times that amount; unquantifiable amounts of sarin, botulinum toxin and a host of other biological poisons; and an entire Scud missile programme". Against the scale of those stocks—the implication behind that was that much of that was unaccounted for and might therefore still be around in Iraq—and from your scientific standpoint, are you mystified, as certainly those of us who are not scientists are, that after this length of time after the war, in the post-war period with the access that we have now had to the Iraqi scientists, and after large numbers of the people on the 50 most wanted list are now under interrogation, that we have still been able to turn up virtually nothing?

  Dr Inch: I am totally confused by this intelligence, particularly about the missile stocks and so on. It is very difficult to see where it has all gone in such a short space of time, particularly when such movements, I would have thought, would have been monitored by our total air superiority. You cannot move that amount of weaponry around without seeing it, I would not have thought. The chemical basis is a different matter. There are even problems in interpreting the reasons for some of the chemical stocks. It is difficult to be certain of what the situation was there. For example, if you take the aflatoxins, which are signalled up strongly in the report, they are potent carcinogens and not particularly toxic and they were in dilute solutions, gas. It is given in litres rather than in solid form. It is difficult for me as a scientist to think why anyone would want to use aflatoxins as a chemical weapon. If you have a slow carcinogen and were to use it on people who may have a nuclear capability, and you want to trigger a nuclear response that is the kind of chemical to use. When you have something that is slow acting, you only have to think of the possibility of using something like that that has insidious slow effects on the civil population to see what a country like Israel might think of that.

  Q229  Sir John Stanley: Do you have any view as a scientist that these stocks are largely unaccounted for? Would it be relatively easy to hide them in some incredibly clever way so that we would be unable to unearth them? Presumably if they are to be hidden, there must be substantial numbers of people who must be involved in the hiding operation, so can you give any explanation as to why we cannot trace where they are?

  Dr Inch: None at all. Handling this amount of material is not a trivial exercise. If you are trying to move it around quickly, I would find it difficult to conceive that some accidents did not occur in the process and you would not have had some kind of civil report of deaths from poisoning. That is extraordinary to me.

  Q230  Sir John Stanley: Does it suggest to you that the scale of stocks may not have been anything like the scale as reported in the assessment?

  Dr Inch: That is one conclusion. You have to ask how good is the housekeeping, and how good is the record keeping in the first place. I do not really know enough about the way that the Iraqis function, but you may remember the time we had major problems with our nuclear housekeeping. It may be 30 years ago now, but I remember that there were problems trying to make all our numbers add up and that is a much more sensitive issue.

  Q231  Mr Illsley: Dr Inch, I have two questions. The first is that a few minutes ago you referred to the telltale signs after perhaps chemicals had been removed from a facility and that you would look at the environment of that facility to see whether production had been carried on there at any point. How long would that trace remain after the production had finished? Is there a timescale that can be measured in months or years?

  Dr Inch: It depends on the facility and the atmospheric conditions and whether there was moisture and so on. If it is in a plant, in a building, I think you would find traces for a very long period afterwards. Our analytical methods now are so sensitive that it is difficult not to find some kind of traces that would give some indication.

  Q232  Mr Illsley: Do you have any knowledge of the quality of the scientific community in Iraq in terms of their capability of producing chemical and biological weapons, and perhaps even nuclear weapons? I ask that question because one or two reports were received and logged in this country of mobile weapons facilities. Recently in the press the scientific community in this country now are beginning to think that the mobile weapons facilities were simply tankers to produce hydrogen for barrage balloons, which does not suggest the top quality weapons that we might have been led to believe were in Iraq if they are still producing vehicles to produce hydrogen for barrage balloons. Does the Iraqi community lag behind in terms of its expertise or do they have the capability to produce these weapons?

  Dr Inch: They certainly have the capability to produce the weapons by conventional methods. Whether they have the technology to think in terms of mobile laboratories is a different matter. Last year, at this time, in preparation for the chemical weapons convention review conference, I was one of the co-ordinators at the conference in Bergen that actually looked at new synthetic technologies for chemical weapons. The idea was that other developing technologies may mean that anyone wanting to break out of the chemical weapons convention could get away with it undetected, so we looked critically at a whole range of techniques such as solid phase synthesis, combatorial chemistry and nanotechnology devices of one kind and another. The conclusion was that it was all possible, but it required a lot more work and the answer was probably not yet. If that was the kind of conclusion from the developed, western nations in terms of the state of technology, then it is pretty unlikely that anyone in the hierarchy could do it better than was already possible elsewhere. So in terms of the mobile situation for chemicals, I find it very unlikely. I am not sufficiently familiar with the biologicals although I realise and read that there has been great doubt, as you say, about those procedures too.

  Q233  Mr Illsley: One of the theories put forward is that perhaps some of the WMD production facilities and the weapons themselves might have been loaded into railway carriages and/or lorries and transported into another country. Would they have the technology to do that as well? Could they just load the stuff up and transport it across the border in a train or in a lorry?

  Dr Inch: I think that is possible.

  Q234  Chairman: You mentioned the state of technology. Can you also comment on the quality of housekeeping in Iraq and the general reputation for Iraq in that field? Are they particularly conscious of health and safety?

  Dr Inch: I could not answer that question. I have no knowledge of that. If you ask that question about Iran, I have better contacts. I am pretty sure that they are as good as we are and that they are getting as good as we are now at housekeeping. That is another issue, but on Iraq, no.

  Q235  Mr Olner: Do you think it would be fair to say that because chemical weapons have been used by Saddam Hussein on Iran and on his own Kurdish population, and seeing that they have not signed the chemical weapons convention, that he was still pursuing acquiring chemical weapons and biological weapons?

  Dr Inch: I really have no knowledge of that. It has always been of enormous advantage to him to create the impression that he was. Some people think that chemical weapons are more of a kind of bugbear on the battlefield than they are a weapon of mass destruction. The fact that someone thinks you have biological and chemical weapons means that any forces opposing you have to take all the necessary precautions. They have to wear the protective clothing; they have to have all the injections and suffer Gulf War syndrome and the rest of it. To force any potential opposition into that kind of posture has to be an advantage to anyone. If you go back to the Second World War, Sir Winston Churchill took strong steps to stop the Germans from using chemical weapons by pretending that we had things that we could return in kind, whereas that may not have been very true. At times there is a powerful argument for making people think that you have something that you do not have.

  Q236  Mr Olner: And you suffer the consequences, of course, if people think you have them and take action.

  Dr Inch: That is right.

  Q237  Mr Olner: In some respects, with justification.

  Dr Inch: Yes.

  Q238  Mr Olner: On a technical point, how possible is it for chemical weapons or biological weapons production facilities to be maintained without detection? Chemical plants are very easy to see. How small can they be and how easily can they remain undetected?

  Dr Inch: You can make chemical weapons in the garden shed if you wish.

  Q239  Mr Olner: So you are saying that there is no possible way that we could easily detect that these were being produced?

  Dr Inch: No, not on that kind of scale. That kind of scenario, of course, is always attractive to a terrorist organisation, but in terms of a state waging war, the quantities that you would make would be totally useless.

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

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