Friday, January 27, 2006

The Friendly Skies

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.

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.
Alright, then. Here's how things transpired according to Mr. Sada:
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.

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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

I have yet to hear of a satellite that can pick up images underground.

Maybe you missed all the articles about the airport tunnels.

Here's just one of thousands...

Phila said...

I have yet to hear of a satellite that can pick up images underground.

I think you're missing my point; try re-reading the post. Supposedly, our satellites saw trucks moving around above ground, and we suspected them of carrying CW. A month later, Iraq allegedly made 56 plane trips to Syria to help with a comparatively minor flood, and simultaneously sent a truck convoy across the desert to Syria, while we either didn't notice, or watched from the sidelines.

If that doesn't trouble you, fine. I have a different opinion, though. My opinion is that if you propose to attack a country based on its stockpiles of WMD, you better make sure you don't allow it to smuggle those weapons en masse to another country. If you can't prevent that from happening, you've failed in your objectives, and made the world more dangerous instead of safer.

I don't accept excuses like, "Well, were we supposed to know Saddam would use tunnels to hide and transport his WMD? And how were we supposed to monitor stuff happening underground?" That doesn't make any sense to me; not only was preventing WMD transshipping absolutely vital in security terms, but catching Saddam in the act would've had enormous implications for international support.

Personally, I don't think Iraq had any WMD worth mentioning. But if they did, letting them smuggle the weapons out of the country was simply not an option for the US. If Bush didn't have a rock-solid plan for detecting and stopping WMD transport, he's an incompetent and a failure.

Anonymous said...

"he's an incompetent and a failure."

Just based on what you said?

Hell, everthing the bastard touches turns to turds. He inverts King Midas.