The New York Sun is devoting four pages to former Saddam henchman Georges Sada's claim that Iraq's WMD were transported to Syria on modified commercial planes. I addressed the issue of intensive pre-war satellite, plane, and radar surveillance here.
For our purposes, the most interesting articles are these:
Spy satellites scanning targets every two hours (The Herald, 11 November 2002): AMERICAN spy satellites are scanning key targets throughout Iraq at least once every two hours in a concentrated surveillance operation which can pick out objects as small as six inches across in daylight and two to three feet wide at night.Alright, then. Here's how things transpired according to Mr. Sada:
The US national reconnaissance office controls three advanced KH-11 "Keyhole" satellites weighing 15 tons apiece and the size of a single-decker bus equipped with optical and infra-red cameras, and three Lacrosse imaging radar satellites with sensors which can detect signs of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons development....
In recent months, high-flying U2 manned spy planes dating back to the 1960s and Predator unmanned drones have been drafted in to plug some of the surveillance gaps.
Secret NRO Recons Eye Iraqi Threats (Aviation Week & Space Technology, 16 September 2002): "[S]ix secret National Reconnaissance Office high-resolution imaging satellites, each costing billion [sic], are maintaining an almost hourly watch on specific Iraqi facilities.
The pilots told Mr. Sada that two Iraqi Airways Boeings were converted to cargo planes by removing the seats, Mr. Sada said. Then Special Republican Guard brigades loaded materials onto the planes, he said, including "yellow barrels with skull and crossbones on each barrel." The pilots said there was also a ground convoy of trucks.This disaster, which killed 22 people and left a few thousand homeless, is described in great detail by Red Cross Red Crescent. For what it's worth, Iraq was reported to have sent 20 planeloads of supplies around June 9. If it's true that there were actually 56 Iraqi flights to Syria in that general timeframe, and a truck convoy, it should've set off alarm bells regardless of the situation in Syria...especially since Sada claims that at least some of these "humanitarian supplies" were packaged in yellow barrels festively decorated with skulls and crossbones.
The flights - 56 in total, Mr. Sada said - attracted little notice because they were thought to be civilian flights providing relief from Iraq to Syria, which had suffered a flood after a dam collapse in June of 2002.
What's even more interesting is that according to the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, "imagery intelligence" suggested that something unusual was happening around Iraqi ammunition depots in the previous months:
This imagery showed trucks transshipping materials to and from ammunition depots, including suspect CW-sites, in Iraq. In the late spring of 2002, analysts started to believe that these shipments involved CW munitions. This belief was based on the aforementioned "indicators" seen on the imagery--that is, activity and circumstances surrounding the shipments that were thought to be indicative of CW activity.So we've established to some extent that by May 2 of 2002 (according to footnote 505 in the Commission report), experts believed Iraq was transshipping CW. A little over a month later, according to Sada, the Iraqis flew their CW stockpiles - at least some of which were undisguised - to Syria in two modified commercial jets that made a total of 56 trips without incident.
It'd be interesting to know what size Boeings the Iraqis used for this stunt, and what their maximum cargo weight was; I'd like to compare this data with the estimates of Saddam's WMD stockpiles. In the meantime, all I can say is that if Sada is right, Saddam got very, very lucky. First, our surveillance spotted unusual truck activity at ammunition depots, apparently without monitoring the destination of those trucks. Then, the Iraqis were able to load (and load, and load) tons of chemical weapons - and who knows what else - into commercial airplanes, and fly them into Syria 56 times. Meanwhile, far below, a convoy loaded with other WMD wended its way blithely across the open desert.
All that is strange enough. But what's strangest of all is that to wingnuts, this narrative somehow vindicates George W. Bush.
More later, probably.