The Department of Defense was not adequately prepared to locate, secure, collect, and remove radiological materials in Iraq until about six months after the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion, according to a September Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The report from the congressional watchdog agency implies that radiological sources were left vulnerable during the interim and may have gone missing as a result. It also provides recommendations to the Pentagon to improve the conduct of any future such operations.
The report adds to the growing body of evidence that the U.S.-led coalition forces were not adequately prepared to secure Iraqi radiological sources, other nuclear materials, or suspected prohibited weapons and related materials, particularly in a violent post-war environment.
Iraq did not have active nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons programs at the time of the 2003 invasion, but it did have a number of radiological sources. Such sources have a wide variety of civilian applications but also can be combined with conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material in a so-called dirty bomb.
According to the GAO, the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), along with the Department of Energy, ultimately collected about 1,400 radioactive sources. The agencies transferred about 1,000 of them to the United States in June 2004, before the U.S.-led coalition relinquished formal control of the country to the interim Iraqi government. An additional 700 sources deemed adequately secure were left in the country. The sources that have been brought to the United States remain in temporary storage pending an interagency determination as to whether Washington “owns the material or is merely serving as its custodian,” the report says.
It is, however, “likely that other sources remain unsecured in Iraq,” the report says, adding that the total number of such sources is unknown. The report attributes this uncertainty to several factors: the Defense Department’s ignorance of the total number of radiological sources in Iraq prior to the invasion, the Pentagon’s decision not to visit certain relevant sites, and the likelihood that some sources were taken from sites before relevant U.S. personnel arrived.
The report adds that some vehicles leaving Iraq have been caught with radiological sources but does not say whether any such sources have actually left the country. UN inspectors have previously reported that radioactive and weapons-related materials have ended up in other countries. (See ACT, June 2005.)
Planning Failures, Future Fixes
The Defense Department made plans during late 2002 and early 2003 to find and eliminate suspected Iraqi, biological, and chemical weapons and related materials, as well as radiological sources. The department established military units tasked with locating and analyzing suspected Iraqi weapons sites, and DTRA was tasked 12 days before the invasion with hiring a contractor to dispose of weapons-related materials.
However, the GAO report concludes that the Pentagon failed to prepare adequately for this mission.
According to the report, the delays resulted from several factors, including DTRA’s difficult negotiations with its contractor as well as interagency coordinating snags. DTRA did not begin working in Iraq until September 2003.
Furthermore, individual military commanders “initially had no policy guidance on which radiological sources to collect, and what to do with them once they were collected.” Lacking official guidance—and often proper equipment—commanders had to make ad hoc decisions regarding the collection of radiological sources, sometimes tasking troops with guarding the sources at the sites where they were found.
Concerns about the security of Iraqi weapons-related materials have persisted since shortly after the invasion. U.S. and UN officials have reported that sites associated with Baghdad’s past weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs have been dismantled and looted even while the country was formally under coalition control.
Most recently, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) reported Aug. 30 that, based on its analysis of satellite images, approximately 118 of 378 inspected weapons sites containing equipment and materials of relevance “have been cleaned to varying degrees.” UNMOVIC inspectors examined 411 sites between November 2002 and March 2003. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also has described similar findings with respect to Iraq’s nuclear-related facilities.
IAEA inspectors recently found Iraq’s known uranium inventory to be intact, the agency announced Sept. 23.
The report recommends that the Defense Department “comprehensively review” its experience in Iraq. It also recommends that the secretary of defense provide specific guidance for collecting, securing, and disposing of radiological sources, including designating a responsible organization within the department, formulating specific procedures for executing the source collection task in a combat environment, improving interagency coordination, and establishing criteria for prioritizing the collection of different types of radiological sources.
In its response to the report, the Pentagon stated that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in January had designated the commander of Strategic Command with “overall responsibility” for issues related to combating WMD, including securing radiological sources. But a Defense Department joint staff officer told the GAO in August that Strategic Command has not yet issued its plan for combating WMD.
UNMOVIC Details Lessons Learned
Two recent reports from the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) have provided some “lessons learned” that may help to improve future inspections of suspected chemical and biological weapons and missile programs.
UN inspectors succeeded in disarming Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, although they were unable to resolve all ambiguities associated with Baghdad’s weapons programs.
UNMOVIC’s August report included an excerpt of a draft summary from a “lessons learned” compendium that the organization is compiling. The excerpt focused on Iraq’s biological weapons program, observing that greater use of environmental sampling earlier in the inspections process would likely have enabled the inspectors to uncover definitive evidence of Iraq’s biological weapons program more quickly. As it was, the inspectors took several years to uncover the program fully.
A May UNMOVIC report included similar discussions about Iraq’s chemical weapons and prohibited missile programs.
Whether the commission itself will ever get to apply its “lessons learned” is unclear because the UN Security Council has not yet made a decision regarding the commission’s future.