Top-secret lab in Md. hunts `smoking gun'

Scientists at Aberdeen are studying samples of suspected chemical agents

War in Iraq

April 17, 2003|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

If a "smoking gun" is found to support President Bush's assertion that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction - a primary justification for the current war - it might be discovered in a tiny glass tube inside an obscure brick building labeled E-5100, 25 miles north of Baltimore.

It is there, at Aberdeen Proving Ground's Forensic Analytical Center, that scientists are studying samples of suspected nerve and blister agents found by soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division this month near Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad.

Typical of the top-secret laboratory, officials confirm only that the samples are there. They will not say if, or when, their findings will be made public. Any announcement, they explain, is likely to come from the White House.

Usually, test results on suspected agents can be produced at the center's lab in 72 hours. But these are not "usual" times, officials say.

That is evident from the overwhelming environment of secrecy at the center.

"We take security very seriously here ... we have to," said Dennis Reutter, chief of the Forensic Analytical Center. Reutter, who has been at the Soldier Biological Chemical Command since 1994, earned his doctorate in physical chemistry from Duke University and taught forensic science at the FBI.

Other scientists working at the center are singular experts and international authorities in their fields, military officials said.

Security concerns are symbolized not only by the silence of the experts in white laboratory coats, but also by the military personnel deployed at the sprawling post in Harford County.

At the main gates, soldiers with loaded M-16 automatic rifles check cars and their drivers. Trained dogs sniff vehicles for explosives, and anyone who enters the post must pass an identity check.

Tight gets tighter

At the Forensic Analytical Center building, security is even tighter. Visitors must again produce identification to enter the area, which is surrounded by a double chain-link fence topped by swirls of razor wire. Snapping photos of the building's exterior is forbidden.

A tour this week of the facility by two journalists was carefully monitored by a member of the Army's security section.

While the building appears faded - it was built in 1969 for $2.3 million and at the time was the government's only quality-assurance chemical testing laboratory - its interior is brimming with state-of-the-art computers, nuclear magnetic resonance equipment, chromatographs and, of course, video cameras and alarms.

Any chemical or biological agents being examined or simply used for comparison analysis at the center are stored in a vault-like room that requires two people to open it with separate keys and codes. Inside the room are two more security checks that must be passed to reach the interior, part of which is a freezer.

Officials said that the material in the custody of FAC scientists was brought to Aberdeen Proving Ground from Iraq by the elite Technical Escort Unit, a low-profile group based at Aberdeen that has handled dangerous materials since 1943.

A strict chain-of-custody process that could pass legal muster is enforced with all materials submitted to the laboratory because they could be evidence in a court trial, Reutter said.

The chemicals found by the paratroopers near an Iraqi agricultural center could be nothing more than pesticides. Or, as others suspect, the chemicals could be proof of Saddam Hussein's suspected stockpile of biological and chemical weapons.

Officials in Iraq have insisted for years that all banned weapons were destroyed.

Predating modern era

While extensive attention has been focused on the so-called weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological warfare predates the modern era.

In the 5th century B.C., Spartans used bombs made of sulfur and tar to overcome the enemy. During medieval times, soldiers catapulted bodies of plague victims over the walls of besieged cities or dropped them into water wells. And during the French and Indian wars, blankets used by smallpox victims were given to American Indians.

The first deadly man-made gas attack came in April 1915 when the German army dropped chlorine gas over the Allied trenches in Belgium.

Since then, superpowers have dedicated millions of dollars and the best of their scientific talent to discover new methods of creating and understanding new pathogens or defending against attacks by nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Methods of detecting agents are also an important task at the FAC lab. Engineers and other experts designed and developed a mobile lab and detection vehicle that has been used at events such as the Olympics.

While the shooting war has cooled in Iraq, experts such as Reutter don't play down the constant dangers posed by chemical and biological threats. Reutter also remains concerned about the ease with which someone with little formal training can manufacture deadly agents.

"There is a certain ease to doing that," Reutter said.

"But," he added, "the biggest problem in manufacturing nerve agents is not dying in that very process."

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