How UNSCOM found and destroyed Iraq’s biological weapons

By Filippa Lentzos, Henrietta Wilson | July 23, 2021

An UNSCOM inspector from the Netherlands measures the volume of nerve agent in a container on October 7, 1991. (UN Photo)

Editor’s note: Kings College London and the UN’s Office for Disarmament Affairs hosted a webinar in April to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), which oversaw destruction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction after the Persian Gulf War. What follows is an edited transcript of that event. The July issue of the Bulletin’s bimonthly magazine features an array of essays and recollections from officials and inspectors involved in the disarmament of Iraq. It can be found here.

Filippa Lentzos: Our aim with this event is to look back to recognise, and celebrate, UNSCOM’s successes, particularly in terms of its biological weapons work, as well as to understand how it achieved these. We also aim to look forwards, to reflect on ways in which UNSCOM’s experiences can help understand and address contemporary security challenges.

We are delighted to be joined by so many people who worked with and for UNSCOM, and who are engaged with contemporary research, investigations and decision-making. Thank you all for coming, and particularly to our wonderful panel of speakers. One person, who is not on the program, but who was absolutely integral to UNSCOM, is Ambassador Rolf Ekéus. I am so very pleased he is here with us in the audience today. A very warm, and special, welcome to you Rolf. We have done our very best to get as many UNSCOM-people together for this occasion as we could, but we are by no means complete. I would also like to take the opportunity to recognise the many people involved with UNSCOM, including the Iraqis, who either couldn’t be here today, or who have passed away.

A few words about what to expect today. In a few moments, we will hear some opening remarks from Ioan Tudor, of UNODA. We will then have a historical framer from Steve Black, and a contemporary framer from Henrietta Wilson. We then have seven sets of reflections. Charles Duelfer, Deputy Executive Chair of UNSCOM, will provide some big picture remarks. Dave Franz, Tim Trevan, Terry Taylor and Åke Sellström will provide some on-the-ground inspection experiences and perspectives from UNSCOM’s efforts to verify that BW activities had ceased and were destroyed or rendered harmless. Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack will focus on a second key part of UNSCOM’s work: monitoring to continuously verify that proscribed activities were not being diverted to reconstitute new weapons programs. And Nikita Smidovitch will round up our presentations with some remarks on inspector training – an aspect that became of the key lessons learned from UNSCOM and which went on to have significant relevance for UNSCOM’s successor, UNMOVIC, and which continues to be of contemporary relevance.

It now gives me great pleasure to introduce Ioan Tudor. Ioan is the current Chief of the WMD Branch at the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs. He has held several positions at the UN, including as Chief of Staff to the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism for Syria. Before joining the UN, he worked at the OPCW and served as Head of the Government Relations and Political Affairs Branch. Ioan was also an Observer, on behalf of the OPCW, at the College of Commissioners of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC).

Ioan Tudor: Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening to all wherever you may be located.

It is my pleasure to welcome you all to this commemorative webinar marking the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM). I would like to congratulate King’s College London on this initiative – today’s event will allow a welcome reflection on UNSCOM’s work and achievements, with a particular focus on its biological weapons work.

The establishment of UNSCOM 30 years ago was a major development in multilateral efforts to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. One of the lessons drawn over the years from the case of UNSCOM and its partner in the nuclear field, IAEA, is that international verification can work effectively even under the most challenging conditions. UNSCOM demonstrated that an international inspection regime can perform credibly: they were able to prepare themselves well, deploy quickly, organize efficiently, and produce reports of a high technical standard to the Security Council.

While the work of UNSCOM came to an end in December 1999 when the Security Council replaced it with the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), it is important to note that UNSCOM’s legacy and impact reached beyond just its successor UNMOVIC. The Special Commission’s impact can be seen in further multilateral initiatives to strengthen the nonproliferation regime in the chemical and biological fields, including the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism for the investigation of allegations of chemical and/or biological weapons (UNSGM), as well as the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism established by the Security Council in 2015 to identify the perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria.

The importance of such initiatives was also highlighted in the Secretary-General’s Disarmament Agenda, Securing Our Common Future, launched in May 2018, in which the Secretary-General pledged, amongst other things, to work with UN member states to ensure respect for the norms against chemical and biological weapons use. To this end, UNODA was requested to undertake actions to strengthen the readiness of the UN Secretary General’s Mechanism.

As also noted by the Secretary-General in his Agenda, “concerns regarding the increasing risk of biological weapons have continued to grow as developments in science and technology lower barriers for their acquisition, access and use, including by non-state actors. There is therefore a need to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which acts as a forum for consideration of preventative measures, such as strong national health systems, robust response capacities and effective counter-measures.”

One global development that must be mentioned here is the COVID-19 pandemic – the very reason why we meet virtually today, and which also signals the potential impact of biological incidents. The pandemic has demonstrated the global disruption which infectious diseases can cause and has highlighted the lack of preparedness at the national, regional and international level. The deliberate release of a pathogen that has been manipulated to be more virulent, for example, or that has been intentionally released in multiple locations at once, would lead to an even more serious global crisis. In order to improve preparedness and response to future disease threats, serious attention needs to be devoted to preventing the deliberate use of diseases and biological toxins as weapons against humans, animals and plants.

The BWC has established a strong norm against the production, development and use of biological weapons since its entry into force in 1975. However, it lacks an oversight institution, contains no verification provisions and does not have an operationalized mechanism to provide and deliver assistance.

There is an expectation by BWC states parties that “the United Nations and other international organizations could also play an important role in coordinating, mobilizing and delivering assistance upon request of the concerned State Party.” Therefore, respective capacities and experiences of UN and relevant international organizations should be identified and used, within their mandates, when required.

It is in this very context that experiences to be shared by today’s panelists, some of whom I had the privilege to work with in recent years, can inform current efforts to strengthen arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation regimes.

I look forward to what I am sure will be interesting and informative reflections on UNSCOM’s unique work and achievements, as well as to discussions on how lessons from UNSCOM’s experiences can inform current disarmament and arms control initiatives. Thank you very much for your attention.

Filippa Lentzos: Warm thanks, Ioan, for those welcoming words. I am now delighted to introduce you to Steve Black. Steve served as historian to UNSCOM from 1993 to 1999, and he has written several UNSCOM histories. He also served as Deputy Chief Inspector, as Inspector Mission Planner, Operations Officer and Report Coordinator on 15 UNSCOM chemical and biological weapons inspections in Iraq. Steve also served in the Iraq Survey Group, set up after the 2003 Iraq invasion to investigate the scope of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Steve, it gives me great pleasure to give you the floor.

Stephen Black: Good morning for me, for all the rest of you in Europe: good afternoon. Looking through the attendee list, I see a lot of people that I met when they were very early in their careers, and I’m really happy to see you’re still in the game. I also saw a bunch of people that mentored me and that I learned a lot from early in my own career and I’m equally happy to see you’re still in the game.

What I want to try to do, for those of you that weren’t up to your eyeballs in this whole process in the 1990s, is to give you a sense of what the world was like and where the basic mandate came from for UNSCOM in terms of diplomacy and its legal basis. And also to fill you in on some of the things that really led to that rapid ability of UNSCOM to spool up some of the precedents that existed in arms control before UNSCOM even came into existence.

So, as they say in the cartoon, you have to set the Wayback Machine for 1990. As you’ll recall, the Cold War was at its end. You had this sort of sweet spot in international affairs, where many countries were willing to agree on things. If those same issues came up today, people would disagree just for the sake of disagreeing. But the sweet spot allowed the Security Council to actually become a functional instrument in international affairs, and the Security Council itself played a role in the entire Iraq disarmament issue in a way that I think, since then, it has struggled to achieve again.

The immediate foundation of this disarmament effort was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. That kicked off the ball. There were all sorts of things that went on beforehand, and we’ll come back around to that later, but for now we’re with Iraq invading Kuwait in 1990. The international reaction to this was widespread and almost universally negative. You basically had the whole world agreeing that Iraq should not be allowed to invade its neighbour. A very large and diverse coalition of countries, principally led by the US but it was very international, then undertook military action with the blessing of the United Nations Security Council to push Iraq out of Kuwait. The ceasefire came pretty quickly, but the military ceasefire on the ground had to be followed with something that would provide a more lasting basis for peace in the region. Security Council Resolution 687 was the foundation for all of the things that were supposed to establish a more peaceful situation in that immediate region. The Resolution covers all manner of things like defining borders, repatriation of goods and people, addressing hostage issues, and so on, but one of the core components of it was this idea that Iraq had to give up its weapons of mass destruction and certain ballistic missile systems.

Iraq’s WMD programs had been a major issue, principally all through the 1980s, largely as a result of widespread use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War. The world was horrified by this. There were scenes right out of World War One, with massive battlefield use of chemical weapons. There was international condemnation at the time, but there was not much that could be done directly to solve the problem. You add to this the fact that during the Gulf War in 1991, there was threat of use of chemical weapons, and, probably even more importantly, widespread fear by coalition members that chemical weapons or potentially biological weapons would also be used. We also saw significant use of ballistic missiles by Iraq against coalition partners, and earlier, in the 1980s, there was ballistic missile use between the cities of Tehran and Baghdad.

This all laid the ground for a thing that needed to be addressed, and that was largely folded into Resolution 687. The specific requirement was that Iraq give up all of its chemical and biological weapons, any efforts at a nuclear weapons programme, as well as ballistic missiles and launchers with a range greater than 150 kilometres. Iraq also had to give up its means of production of those systems. In order to motivate Iraq to do this, you had two things going on in Resolution 687. One was the fact that it was a ceasefire agreement. In other words, if you break the agreement you return to the status quo ante as they say, which was a state of open hostility. So Iraq had that hanging over its head. The positive motivation was paragraph 22, which directly tied Iraq’s compliance with the disarmament provisions to its ability to sell oil on the open market. So that was the carrot and the stick for Iraq’s compliance.

In order to implement these requirements, the Security Council created a Special Commission. This was a unique thing. The Special Commission did not exist under the Secretary General’s part of the United Nations system; it was a body directly tied to the Security Council. Now, Iraq was obliged under Resolution 687 to provide declarations of all of its WMD and missile holdings. The weapons that were in existence were to be notionally turned over to the Special Commission for eventual destruction, either under Special Commission supervision or by the Special Commission itself, and then the Special Commission could undertake on-site inspections for the purpose of verifying those declarations and those destruction activities. So that’s what the Special Commission was tasked to do. It’s painfully simple to describe but, as you’ll hear later today, it was a hard thing to implement.

The Special Commission, when it started, seemed like a large task and when you look back on it, it seems like UNSCOM was cutting new ground in this regard. It was certainly unprecedented in having a single organisation responsible for so many things, but it’s not like it was created from whole cloth. The notion of post-war disarmament goes all the way back to the Versailles Treaty. Obviously, there are big political and diplomatic differences, but the basic concept that the victor gets to take away weapons from the defeated country is already extant when UNSCOM is created. The Non-Proliferation Treaty on nuclear weapons obviously has declaration verification – that entire process is already part of international arms control practices. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement set in place a wide spectrum of on-site inspection practices, many of which UNSCOM adopted, almost in whole cloth. Some of the support that went to UNSCOM from supporting governments followed exactly the same process as the briefings to inspection teams on their way in to do inspections in the then Soviet Union for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement. There was ongoing debate and development of the Chemical Weapons Convention, with an enormous number of people—in fact, a bunch of them are at this webinar—doing research and development efforts to try to craft the verification provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and most of that work was directly portable over to UNSCOM’s initial inspections.

In fact, most of this goes for all of these different precedents which are forerunners to UNSCOM’s verification efforts. The people moved, wholesale, from one of these other verification efforts either in development or in existence, over to support the UNSCOM practices. And probably one of the more interesting ones is the trilateral work between the Soviet Union, the UK and the US to look at biological weapons issues. It is a fascinating story, and a number of the UNSCOM participants in the biological weapons investigations cut their teeth on those trilateral processes on either side of the table. So either they were being inspected or they were doing the inspecting, but that brings an enormously valuable set of tools to the Iraq process, rather than having to create it, as I said, out of whole cloth.

UNSCOM’s basic approach, and the work that it was trying to do, are not outliers in the world of arms control. It might have been a new step, a thing that had not quite been done before, but it was really on the continuum of the development of arms control verification practices. And just as UNSCOM made use of all of those earlier regimes (in development or existing) to get it started, I think there are future regimes and things that are being looked at right now that we’ll be able to draw good ideas and practices from, as well as things to try to avoid from UNSCOM’s experiences.

I chafe at the idea when people say ‘UNSCOM was totally unprecedented’, ‘we’ll never be able to do that again’, and ‘I don’t want to hear about UNSCOM when we’re talking about arms control regimes’. The reality is you can pick and choose good ideas from UNSCOM’s practices, and there were a lot of very clever things that got done, and I’m delighted to have people that are involved in current development of verification regimes go back and look at UNSCOM because there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, if somebody has already figured that out.

Henrietta Wilson: Thank you so much, Steve, for an amazing set of comments. You’ve captured the flavour of where UNSCOM came from, what it did, and how it fits within wider efforts going backwards and coming to the present time.

Before I hand over to the remaining weapons inspectors, I’m going to say a few words to bring things into what’s happening now. Ioan and Steve have already outlined some ways in which UNSCOM gives really important lessons to people who are today engaged with weapons regulation and verification. What I’m going to focus on is thinking about how UNSCOM resonates with current open-source research—in other words, remote monitoring using digital technologies.

UNSCOM clearly involved a great deal of in-person, on-site activities. It also included some remote monitoring, and UNSCOM was really important in pioneering developing systems for doing that remote monitoring and incorporating it into other activities. Since UNSCOM, digital technologies have transformed possibilities for remote monitoring. The Internet gives a lot of people direct access to information from things like commercial satellites, or social media, or transport flows, or publications about commercial enterprises. There’s a lot of information available, and a lot of non-governmental groups and individuals are accessing this and using it to track weapons flows, to track weapons uses, and to track human rights abuses. Often called OSINT, open source intelligence, or open source research, it is basically a whole set of activity-tracking practices using publicly available information.

UNSCOM foreshadowed some of this OSINT activity. Both provide really interesting examples of international verification that’s happening outside of a negotiated treaty framework. Usually, international verification is tied to what different states agree can be looked for and accessed. UNSCOM and OSINT kind of blur these boundaries. I’m not for a moment arguing they had unrestricted access to anything, but they can go beyond the categories of weapons that have been defined by treaty negotiators, they can go into places that the investigated party would rather they didn’t go. So that’s one link.

Some of their techniques look very similar too. In particular, the UNSCOM technique of material balances, where people were auditing the amount of material that was in Iraq and the amount of material that they knew had been supplied to Iraq. Looking at these could suggest the amounts of weapons and components that were unaccounted for in declarations. Some OSINT techniques look very similar to this. For instance, those of open source researchers who are looking at shipping routes going in and out of North Korea, looking at what’s on those ships, looking at where the blind spots are. There are similarities there with UNSCOM’s material balance techniques.

And really importantly, both OSINT and UNSCOM raise very significant questions about what happens next. When people find evidence of wrongdoing, what can they do with that evidence? This raises the classic arms control question After detection, what? I’m sure we’ll hear all sorts of ways in which UNSCOM approached this question with new experiences and practices. Coming forward in time, the difficulties of After detection: what? are clearly illustrated in the range of current efforts, some falling under the remit of international organisations, some undertaken by OSINT researchers, trying to trace the perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria that has already been mentioned today, and which some people here have been involved in.

Finally, at the heart of both UNSCOM and OSINT are people. UNSCOM and OSINT both involve a certain type of person. They both rely on talented, inventive, meticulous people who are looking for and finding solutions to really difficult monitoring problems. And, as well as individuals, they are essentially collaborative. Both groups require really good team-working and team skills. So while the technologies have changed since UNSCOM, there are clear resonances in the techniques and personalities. And across both the OSINT and UNSCOM communities, there’s this sense that politically verification is very, very difficult.

The overlaps that I’ve alluded to are represented in the people we have in our virtual room today. As Filippa said, we’re really grateful to all the speakers for agreeing to share their experiences and insights. We’re also absolutely bowled over by the calibre of the audience. We have some former weapons inspectors in our audience. We have some people doing OSINT in our audience, some of whom weren’t born when UNSCOM was set up. But there are also some who were weapons inspectors previously and are now doing the new OSINT work. It is extremely exciting to have you all here. Thank you all very much for coming.

Now it’s time for me to hand over to our next speaker: Charles Duelfer. Charles served as the Deputy Executive Chair of UNSCOM and as a Special Adviser to the Director of the CIA on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. He also led the Iraq Survey Group. Thank you very much, Charles

Charles Duelfer: I have six points I will try to make.

It was in the Iraq Survey Group where we learned how well UNSCOM had succeeded in rooting out the extent of Iraq’s WMD program. But I will focus on UNSCOM and its lessons learned over the ensuing 30 years. I should hasten to warn you that for 10 years I’ve been giving presentations inside the US government on lessons learned from Iraq and in particular, monitoring and what it means for intelligence. That presentation runs three hours. Here, I will try to be short, but if you push the wrong button, I may transmit much longer.

The first point is that there’s something I would call the “truth-trust curve”, which, almost from day one in the UNSCOM experience, went in the wrong opposing directions. It became, in my opinion, a negative feedback loop. As Steve Black was saying, the deal in Resolution 687 was that Iraq had to give up, accountably and verifiably, all of its WMDs or it wouldn’t get out of sanctions or the oil embargo. Saddam’s assumption at the start was that things would tend to revert to the norm. People would want to get on doing business again, buying and selling oil, and so on. And he wanted to make that process as short as possible. So, in meeting with his lieutenants to discuss what to do with inspectors when they arrived, he said, ‘Okay guys, give them the obvious stuff, give them the missiles, give them the chemical stuff, everybody knows we’ve got that. UNSCOM will count that stuff up and then the sanctions will be lifted, and we’ll be back to normal.’ This (not illogical) initial decision explains the series of lies and the tortuous path to truth that ensued.

UNSCOM, under the direction of Rolf Ekéus—who was a great leader and all the innovations that UNSCOM had were a result of him saying yes to ideas which bubbled up—became much more fastidious in what we’d accept as truth than Iraq’s leadership had expected. As it turned out, Iraq gradually gave more and more information, and the amount of truth they provided went up over time. But because they had started with a big lie and only incrementally gave things up, the trust of the inspectors, and I dare say the intelligence communities and politicians around the world, diminished over time. Every time the Iraqis revealed something new, it also demonstrated the Iraqis had been lying again. So, the willingness of inspectors and intelligence analysts to give Saddam the benefit of the doubt, to cut him any slack, went down. Simply stated, as Iraqi truth went up over time, trust of Iraq went down. And that caused big problems.

The second point I’d like to make is that there’s always a question of inspection regime adequacy: in our case, could we do what Resolution 687 said we had to do. As Steve mentioned, it was a ceasefire resolution. It was coercive disarmament. And while each inspection regime has its own terms that the inspectors are supposed to meet, ultimately it’s always a political issue. And as time went on with UNSCOM, as we got closer to the point in time when we ultimately left Iraq, there were a lot of challenges—all related to whether we could actually do the mission or not. We’ve learned subsequently that judging the value of an inspection regime is not clear cut. But in the case of Iraq, it turned out to be much more valuable than we realised and I will come back to that. From the ground-level inspectors point of view, our task seemed nearly impossible. We could not account for every single little thing that was a component of Iraq’s WMDs—the weapons and the infrastructure. By the same token, Iraq could not prove a negative. So, in a sense, what we were charged with, and I think every inspection regime is charged with, was at its base level impossible. There has to be an intersection of political science and physical science. And at some point, a political judgement has to be made, “Good enough, or not good enough.”

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Third. What if UNSCOM did feel that Iraq had verifiably accounted for its WMDs? The resolutions included, as Steve Black pointed out, with a carrot. That carrot was: if UNSCOM inspectors say Iraq has actually done what it was supposed to do, the Security Council would fulfil its end of the bargain and lift the sanctions and the embargo. But, who really believed that if all the restrictions and the embargo were lifted, and, recognising the reality that without another war, the odds of those ‘sticks’ being re-imposed were next to zero? And Saddam, not being an idiot by any stretch of imagination, would he really continue to comply with UNSCOM long-term monitoring and inspection in perpetuity? The preponderance of views, from cynics and non-cynics, was that that was probably not going to happen. At the same time, the Iraqis certainly did not fully believe that the Security Council (especially not the United States) would ever really agree to lifting the embargo. So that was an inherent issue.

The fourth point I’d make is that as a product of the truth-trust curve and the doubts about Saddam, UNSCOM reported in 1998 that we could not complete the job. We could not confidently verify the disposition of Iraq’s WMD, as demanded by the Security Council resolutions) under the conditions that Iraq would permit us to operate.

In retrospect, we can look more critically at the point where a political judgement in a technical world comes in. When we left Iraq at the end of 1998, and reported that we could not complete the job, the consequence was that all of the data that had been fulfilling the need for information by the international community, stopped. And I can tell you from the American intelligence perspective, they went from having a lot of data, a lot of baseline information from people going all over Iraq, interviewing people, all the things that UNSCOM did, and providing detailed public reporting to the Security Council, to having nothing.

So the uncertainties that UNSCOM had—and they were important uncertainties about chemical weapons and ballistic missiles, etc.—that took on a different perspective, when you realise you will have no new inspection information. And yet, as time goes on, presidents and leaders of other countries are not going to stop asking the question, “What do you think Saddam has?” And the intelligence community will wonder, “Well do you think Saddam has gotten rid of his stuff, or is he going to reconstitute WMD?” Without on-the-ground data, the intelligence community ended up making assessments on the basis of increasingly flimsy information.

People worried that imperfect inspections can provide a false sense of security. But the alternative in the absence of inspectors was a potent and growing feeling of anxiety. The further we got in time from UNSCOM’s departure, the less we knew about what Saddam was doing. Moreover, there’s a tendency in the intelligence community, and not just in the United States, to be conservative in assessments. You tend to think the worst.

Then 9/11 happened. It was at the beginning of George Bush, the younger’s, presidency. All of a sudden, he had to recalibrate his risk tolerance. He was a new president, and suddenly the United States had been attacked. The risk tolerance of the country which existed at the end of 1998 was far different than the risk tolerance after September 2001. Suddenly, the hypothesis that maybe Saddam did have some WMDs seemed more plausible. He certainly had the expertise to create WMDs. And maybe he could give that to somebody who’s bad, and maybe that person could use them against the United States. Maybe that was a low risk, but the consequences would be very high. We all know how the Bush administration judged that.

But you can ask the question—and it’s not a totally useless exercise—what if UNSCOM had continued its inspections? Suppose there had been this continuous reporting from having inspectors on the ground, you could have bounded the uncertainty in a substantial way, even though those inspections were imperfect. In respect of the ensuing events, I think there’s a greater appreciation of that value now that didn’t exist in 1998.

Let me make a point about the Iraq Survey Group, which I had the privilege to lead. We had enormous resources, and we had a lot of people. Circumstances were very different from those during UNSCOM. We had people killed. We had a lot of people injured. It was different. But I think we conclusively came to an understanding about what Saddam had. And importantly, where he was going. One of the key things that I wanted to do with respect to all this effort was in some way address the equation in Saddam’s head that he was solving when at some points he elected to have and use WMD, and at other points he elected not to have WMDs. What were the factors or variables that he was evaluating that led him to come to different conclusions at different points in time? What lessons does that provide us for the future?

There were a lot of other things that the Iraq Survey Group did, and we had extraordinary access to all of the people who were involved in the programs, in decision-making, to Saddam and everybody else. It was one of my personal goals to involve as many of our UNSCOM alumni in that process. We had Australians, Brits and Americans, and they were, frankly, the backbone of the knowledge. They got to speak with the Iraqis that they had spoken with before, and their background was extremely helpful.

Lastly, and others have mentioned this, but it is important to recognise the innovations which UNSCOM brought to bear and the creativity of the ideas—all of which Rolf Ekéus promoted. I am deeply jealous of what inspectors now have. The ability to have an iPhone, be able to take the measurements, to size things, to have a searchable database where you just plug in the data, that have open source imagery, open source RF emitters, all kinds of things. It’s an amazingly different world that exists now, and while there are lessons to be learned from UNSCOM, the technological opportunities for inspectors have improved far beyond what UNSCOM had and further than I expected.

I want to end by putting things in perspective. We began today saying this event is about celebrating UNSCOM’s successes. There were some things that didn’t go so well. One key thing is that we did not know how successful we were. And there’s a problem in that. We didn’t know how much of the base material balance we had accounted for. And I’m not sure anybody else could have done better. But equally, at that point in time, on the trust-truth curve, we could not say that the residual didn’t really matter. That’s a problem. I’m not sure it’s a solvable problem, but it gets to the political science part of this, and this is where Rolf Ekéus and Richard Butler and all such leaders step into this crucible in the Security Council. The Council is the ultimate political authority. Verification is not just a technical issue. You’ve got to feed these politicians the right data, but they often demand more flavoring. It was easy for me to be categorical as the American Deputy, and say the data isn’t good enough. Rolf, and Richard, they had to manage the political environment, and that’s always going to be a judgement and a place for political debate. I’ll end there, thank you.

Filippa Lentzos: Thank you, Charles, for your many insightful points. I’ll move straight to introduce my good friend Dave Franz. Dave served as Commander of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), and as Deputy Commander of the US Army Medical Research and Material Command. He retired as Colonel after 27 years on active duty. Dave, go ahead.

David Franz: Thanks Steve and Charles for that helpful background. I’m going to take us now from that 30,000-foot view down to the ground level. I led biological weapons (BW) missions 3, 5 and 20. David Kelly led BW1, and my boss at USAMRIID, David Huxsoll, led BW2. We are all different and take different lessons from our experiences. For me, UNSCOM was the start of a 25-years career working with people in similar but slightly different settings, primarily in Russia, China and in Pakistan, but in other regions of the world as well. What I’ve been doing since those UNSCOM days, however, isn’t really arms control, I prefer to call it making friends with science. It’s opening lines of communication at the scientist level, which might also have helpful implications for national and global security.

For example, compare our interactions with someone in leadership, Hussein Kamal, and someone closer to the bench, Dr Taha, at the technical level. General Hussein, speaking to a journalist at the end of BW3, accused my team specifically, and me directly, of spying for the US. Dr Taha on the other hand was generally very cooperative, although not forthcoming during BW3.

As Steve and Charles have suggested, there was a lot going on globally during the period that I was involved with UNSCOM. The UNSCOM inspection regimes in Iraqmostly took place during the Bush-senior and Clinton Administrations. It was between the two Gulf Wars, and overlapped with the visits to Russia under the US-UK-Russia Trilateral Agreement which were mentioned earlier.

Three days into our first mission in March of 1993, our minders stopped us from entering the Baghdad College of Veterinary Medicine. They said our educational institutions are sacred; you can’t go in. Even General Amir Mohammad Rashid al-Ubaidi, the former Iraqi oil minister and director of Iraq’s Military Industrial Corporation, came out to reinforce that message, and my negotiations and arguments didn’t sway them. No problem. I reached into my ‘back pocket’ for a handy satellite phone [He shows an image of himself using a suitcase-sized phone in the back of a UN vehicle] and called Mr Ekéus at home. He said, “Tell them you will end your mission, depart Iraq, and they can deal with the Security Council.” So I told my team to pack up, and as we started to drive away, the minders chased us. “No problem, you can enter”, they said.

We did enter the campus and, it turns out, I had a wonderful experience visiting with the Dean of the Veterinary School. I was originally a veterinarian, and this was a fellow veterinarian, and we of course had a great time together. He said, “Have some tea with me while your inspectors go through and look around, anywhere they would like to go in my college. Just let me know if my faculty can’t answer any of your questions.” My observation at the time, which is so well known to me and most of us today, is that it’s easier to work with scientists, who share common interests, than with political leaders. But I was new to that business at that time, and I thought well that’s really interesting. So I put my satellite phone back in my ‘pocket’ and I didn’t need it again for the rest of the BW3 mission.

We had a great team. We were well prepared by the leadership in New York. I was also blessed to have an outstanding operations officer from the Australian Special Forces who really supported me and compensated for many of my weaknesses as a leader. I also had four very competent and dedicated Russian members on this team. I would work with one of those gentlemen again on the opposite side of the table in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the trilateral negotiations. Our report for BW3 stated our finding that Al Hakam was likely their key BW site, but we couldn’t confirm this.d

Nine months later, in June of 1994, we were back, this time with actual biological weapons expertise. Going back through Al Hakam with Bill Patrick was like taking blinders off my eyes. On that trip, I learned the critical importance of actual biological weapons experience in this business. Those expertise requirements are probably slightly different today with the advances in technology. But at that time, it was critical, at least for me, to have an expert on the team; someone who had actually done it. We didn’t have much available expertise in this regard, certainly not in the US and now we have even less. I would return with BW20 in February of 1995, only nine months later, but about 15 BW inspections later, so you can see that the pace of biological weapons inspections was certainly quickening.

Another example of human interaction comes from a visual memory I recall on our way to Mosul in a German helicopter. Our Iraqi minder, who had been a minder on a previous mission, and our US Army Arabic translator seemed very comfortable working together. They also spoke a common language, in this case Arabic, not science, and they established a rapport that really facilitated our work. Again, we’re all human. I would go on, along with David Kelly and Terry Taylor, to watch human interactions in the trilateral process with Russia and the UK. It wasn’t all deadly serious. Terry was seen speaking into a banana at breakfast one morning, as we staged at the main airbase in Frankfort on the way in. None of the rest of the team ever figured out why he carried a banana, but he was certainly a very successful and productive team member.

Finally, I’ll close with this. What took me three trips to Iraq and numerous trips to Russia to figure out, Professor Lederberg—really our only US Nobel Laureate who cared about biodefence—knew all along. Just as I was retiring from the US Army in 1998, Richard Preston published a piece in The New Yorker, in which Josh Lederberg was quoted as saying, “There is no technical solution to this problem of biological weapons. It needs an ethical, human and moral solution if it’s going to happen at all. Don’t ask me what the odds are for an ethical solution, but there is no other solution.” And then he paused and looked at Richard and said, “But what are the odds for an ethical solution? Would an ethical solution appeal to a sociopath?” And I think more than 20 years later, Josh’ words may still ring true.

Henrietta Wilson: Dave, what a fantastic insight into what it felt like to be on the ground in some of those extraordinary situations. Thank you for that. I’m next going to introduce Tim Trevan, who served as Special Advisor to UNSCOM Executive Chair Rolf Ekéus and spokesperson for UNSCOM from 1992 to 1995. He has since worked on biorisk management and health security issues internationally. He is the author of Saddam’s Secrets: The Hunt for Iraq’s Hidden Weapons that I can really recommend. Thank you very much, Tim.

Tim Trevan: Thanks Henrietta. It is great to see so many former colleagues, and particularly Ambassador Rolf Ekéus, it is great to see you. Since my UNSCOM days, my particular focus has turned away from arms control issues to why people, teams and organisations do what they do, in the context of safety. I’m still very much involved in doing that for biological risks, but the lessons that I’m working with are really meta-lessons that go beyond the 30,000-feet level, to the 50,000-feet level, so that’s where I’m going to occupy today. And I’d like to reference some of what Steve, Charles and Dave have just talked about in what I’m going to say.

Essentially, UNSCOM’s work had three phases: to verify the holdings that Iraq had; to destroy the holdings that they were no longer permitted to have; and then to monitor their dual-use capabilities and industrial capabilities going forward to ensure they didn’t re-acquire what they shouldn’t have. I’m going to focus on that first one, verifying the holdings. And as Steve said, the expectation was that Iraq would make honest declarations, which would put us in a situation of full knowledge, and that they would then fully cooperate with UNSCOM, so that we would report to the Security Council that they were in compliance and hence sanctions could be lifted. We did not expect them to create situations where the possibility of the reversion to the status quo ante, as Steve referred to, would be on the table. So we had that sort of belief, because of the sanctions, because of the threat of resumed hostilities.

What we got instead of the full, final and complete disclosures is what we used to affectionately refer to as the full, final and complete fairy tales: version one, version two, version three, through version x. And so that gets to what Charles was talking about – the truth-trust curve. In essence, we moved from an environment of verifying honestly-made and fully cooperative efforts to confirm declarations—a situation of full knowledge—to one of hunting for things which had not been declared—a situation of uncertainty. And this had a lot of implications at an organisational level as to how you should organise to do that work.

From the field of occupational safety, Jens Rasmussen has described three different types of work.[1] There’s skills-based work, which is, you have a task to do, you use these skills to do it, and they tend to be motor skills. There’s rules-based work: If this, then that. And then there’s knowledge-based work: innovation, creation, problem-solving, where you don’t have certainty about what you’re dealing with. When you’re in a world of certainty, when you’re simply dealing with things you know well, then you occupy the space of skills-based and rules-based work. When you move into the world of hunting for things in an uncertain environment, then you move very heavily into the knowledge-based environment. And that has huge implications for how you organise and for the types of people that you need in the process, and for culture.

At roughly the same time as UNSCOM was working, people in other fields were creating a new field of study called high reliability organisations. How do organisations that work in extremely dangerous and fast-changing environments do their work safely? This field started in around 1986, UNSCOM started in 1991, so not much overlap in terms of providing a background for UNSCOM’s work. But in retrospect it’s very interesting to see how much the current literature on high reliability organisations, 30 years on, shows that a lot of UNSCOM under Rolf’s leadership, intuitively did right.

On an organisational level, if you’re in a knowledge-based environment where you’re having to problem solve and create and innovate, then you want flat organisational structures, and Rolf established that. Anyone could talk to Rolf about any crazy idea they had for how we could do the job. He created a culture in which crazy ideas are listened to respectfully. Over the last five years, a new and growing understanding about psychological safety has come into existence; and UNSCOM had a practice of psychological safety, that is, people were not punished for thinking differently, they were able to be fully honest about what they were thinking about, and they did not face any consequences for saying anything which ran against the orthodoxy. Knowledge-based work also needs decentralised decision-making. The only people with full knowledge of what’s happening on the ground, are the people there—it’s not the people in New York—and so giving delegated authority for people to make decisions on the fly is key. And within very tight bounds, that was given to inspectors. When you have a strong organisational culture, you can give that delegated authority to do things on the ground.

You need to have a reporting culture, a learning culture and flexibility. UNSCOM had all of those. Teams were briefed before they went in, they were briefed as soon as they came out, and people worked hard to learn from these as quickly as possible. Effort was put into shortening learning cycles so that as soon as we found things that didn’t work, that was known, and as soon as we found things that did work, that was also known.

We did all of these things in terms of organisational culture, and attitudes, creating what I call the “ITCH for Excellence”, having inspectors who had Initiative, Trust to speak their mind, Curiosity to think of new ways of doing things, and Humility to understand that they didn’t have all the answers and to listen to other people. And we had people of the highest quality, who got supported in the job. Yes, there was a core group in UNSCOM in New York, but the teams were tailor-made for the task at hand. We brought in the world’s top experts from multiple countries to fill the specific roles required for the teams, rather than relying on a standard set of inspectors, who may or may not have had the relevant expertise. Dave’s reference to Bill there shows how important it was to have the absolutely right expertise on an inspection. Thank you.

Filippa Lentzos: Warm thanks Tim. Let’s move on to Terry Taylor and his experiences. Terry served as Commissioner for UNSCOM from 1993 to 1995. He was Chief Inspector from 1993 to 1997. He has worked on international security and non-proliferation issues with UNODA and the 1540 Committee Group of Experts, as well as with the UK Ministry of Defence, IISS, NTI and the International Council for the Life Sciences. We’re very pleased to have you with us and look forward to hearing what you’ve got to say.

Terence Taylor: Thank you so much Filippa.

So many wise words have already been said. It’s a bit of a challenge to inject something new. And from Charles, I have a quotation from the Roman historian Tacitus, which is, I simply paraphrase, “the unknown is assumed to have great potential”. I think that this is at the heart of some of the things that you were saying and certainly has a real point—a political point and a technical point—because we didn’t know what the end state was.

Steve raised great points, talking about the history. In my own case, involvement with the Chemical Weapons Convention negotiations, other arms control negotiations, conventional confidence-building measures in Europe and other parts of the world, were important precursors to UNSCOM. These were very influential to me.

I want to start with something that’s not often talked about, and that is the challenge for any inspection organisation—the ones that exist now, and for us at the time—that comes from any adversarial relationship. Charles described so eloquently earlier on, the adversarial situation between the Iraqis and the inspections regime. The Iraqis conducted information attacks on UNSCOM, all the way from New York to the ground level in Iraq. This meant, for example, that it was almost impossible to have a surprise inspections. So we had to develop special measures to defeat that.

We found for inspections, in my case biological weapons inspections, where we needed to speak to, for example, Iraqi scientists at their place of work, we needed to take special measures to make sure the Iraqis didn’t get advance warning. Because we were under threat of information attacks, the work done in New York and Iraq on desktop computers was vulnerable. The special measures included doing work off-site on laptops. It also involved keeping secrets and protecting what your ultimate inspection objective was, or who it was you wanted to interview. Planning, when you wanted to create surprise, had to be done off-site, but with full knowledge and support, of course, of Ambassador Rolf Ekéus. He always knew what we were up to and if we got into a problem on the ground, I could get on a satellite phone and he’d know what I was talking about. Rolf’s leadership was so important in these contexts.

My next point is the challenge of having two separate organisations involved. At the high level, we had Rolf Ekéus as head of UNSCOM and Hans Blix as head of IAEA. This divided responsibility, and with two people reporting to the Security Council created problem. The lesson essentially was that a unified organisation is needed, so the inspection teams were not working in stovepipes. The Iraqis did try to play one organisation off against the other and it put pressure on the whole system. The effect of divided responsibility filtered all the way down. Another example is from the field, from Al Hakam. Our mission was to destroy the whole place. Nothing was going to remain, buildings, desks, chairs, everything had to go, because all of it was associated with the biological weapons programme. Now that’s a bit tough, when you have a large site, I think it was a three by four-kilometre rectangular site, something like that. And remember, it was an Iraqi workforce that was doing the destruction; UNSCOM was overseeing it. Our Iraqi workforce turned up on the first day, and they were mostly teenagers aged between 13 and 16, with no protective equipment. So that was a time for the phone call to New York. And then I got the same message as Dave: “Tell them that you’re leaving, that this is an unacceptable non-starter. So we drove off with them trying to stop us going. But, the next day they called us up and said, “Please come back.” We got a more adult workforce when we returned.

We were going to start destroying a building, I can’t remember what it was called, and the Iraqi team said that they hadn’t got any explosives because all the RDX—an explosive not only used in demolitions but also as ammunition—was destroyed during the coalition attacks and there was none left. But I knew that inspectors looking at the nuclear programme had a store of HMX—a high grade explosive with a near instantaneous explosion capacity— from the Iraqi nuclear program stored under IAEA control. The magic phone call to Ekéus worked again. Not long after, probably the next day, a truck turned up with HMX explosives. This was double disarmament, destroying the explosives from the nuclear program by using them to blow up a biological weapons facility.

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The two explosive ordnance disposal people from the UK I had with me had never handled HMX. It had never been used before in demolition. We didn’t get it quite right the first time, when they kindly invited me—fortunately standing in a trench—to press the trigger. The first time, nothing much happened to the buildings. So the wonderful British warrant officer said: “Well we’ll soon fix that, Sir”. He adjusted the amount of explosive and the building went into tiny, tiny pieces. Thank God we were in a trench. We were all okay, but the building vanished into dust. I think windows were broken for several miles around with a few complaints.

This illustrates the challenge of stovepiping in conducting inspections, and the need to work across the different disciplines. This came out in other inspections too, for example in the discovery of the growth media. The media was identified by not quite an expert, by looking at videos taken by the chemical weapons team at al Adile, the medical store. And that’s where we saw these big tubs of growth media. That was almost an accidental discovery: why would we as biological inspectors look at these chemical places that the chemical team was visiting? So stovepiping is a real challenge, and it is a lesson for the future in multiple disarmament processes, including nuclear, chemical, biological, missiles, fuel fabrication for missiles, aerial delivery means, trade tactics. Different efforts need to be under one head, with one person in charge, integrating all these things.

A point about information. I prefer to use the word information, not intelligence. Under the Resolution 687, UN member states were required to supply relevant information to UNSCOM, in most cases from their intelligence sources. Unfortunately, in some cases, because the information was classified, whatever the original source, it was assigned higher priority. It was deemed to be more important than information gathered from other sources, and in particular the information appearing from our inspections—and that was a challenge. It’s a human problem about how you handle different sources of information and how you put it all together, and that’s a really important issue.

A couple of technical points. One is that there is a risk of weapons expertise proliferating to others, so you have to think very carefully about who joins inspection teams, and what information you as the team leader disclose to other inspectors. Not many people know about biological weapons and the physical process of making them. Theoretical aspects are important too, but there really are not many people who know about making biological weapons, even taking into account new technologies. Although it is true to say that advances in science and technology makes proliferation easier across the board, nuclear and chemical as well as on the biological side. Generally, I think it true that to make an effective biological weapon, that is going to have a mass effect, as opposed to an individual assassination type, is actually very difficult. And that was the aspect the Iraqis, on the biological weapons side, had a real problem with: how to deliver a biological weapon. They hadn’t quite mastered the engineering involved in that.

I liked Dave’s and Tim’s emphasis on people, how important they are. Another angle on that is the tacit knowledge in people’s heads. The Iraqis were very careful and tried to conceal the level of technical knowledge they had, not just hide the weapons. Even if the materiel was being destroyed, they hoped to hide knowledge that would indicate how far they had got with the program. There’s another illustration from my last inspection. My deputy chief inspector, a civil engineer, had all sorts of relevant skills. He was able, in this particular case, to look at the building and say: “Terry, there’s something under the ground here.” And sure enough, there was. It didn’t turn out to be anything to do with biological weapons, but unfortunately for the other side it was actually a communications facility, which they were trying to keep secret. So, you have to be very flexible about the types of skills you need.

The single most important thing that I carry forward is my interactions with people, as Dave called it “the people thing”, in the trilateral process. The reciprocal agreement for the trilateral agreement was, I think, essentially, a two and a half page document, and it didn’t have any details of exactly what we were supposed to do on the ground. However, the less detail you have, the more flexibility you have. There is a danger of going too far in agreements or having too much detail because you don’t know the direction you’re going to go in. So I’ll finish on a caution against detail.

Henrietta Wilson: Many thanks Terry. Next, we’re lucky to have Åke Sellström with us. Åke served as Chief Weapons Inspector with UNSCOM and as a Special Adviser to Rolf Ekéus. He also served as Special Advisor to the Chair of UNMOVIC, Hans Blix, in 2000. Since then, he has contributed to international chemical weapons inspections processes, including for the UN and the OPCW in Syria.

Åke Sellström: Thank you for organising this and for the opportunity to talk to and to see old friends. I came into this as quite an ignorant professor of histology, and I’ve spent most of my career working on antidotes to chemical weapons. When Rolf Ekéus asked for Swedish assistance to build databases for equipment that was used in the chemical weapons programme, I signed up. I arrived on a very cold day in April 1994 as a latecomer to the other inspectors in New York, and took my place on the 31st floor. I knew very little about databases, and I knew next to nothing about the equipment, or the quality of the steel that was used for that equipment. But as other speakers have already mentioned, we had a fantastic Chair, who became an inspiring mentor to me. Being a Swede was another quality of his. We also had fantastic colleagues. Some of the key people that took care of me at the chemical desk were Horst Reeps, Igor Mitrokhin and Cees Wolterbeek.

I slowly became an inspector, or had the inspector mindset put on. I built the equipment database. At that time—and now I realise it much more—we were wrapping up the destruction, or ‘the making Iraq harmless’ part of UNSCOM’s mission, and entering into the monitoring part. My second task was, accordingly, to write site folders for the chemical file—the factories, the laboratories, etc. that were to be inspected. I also went to Baghdad to start up the monitoring in chemistry with two Austrians. In Baghdad, I also became involved in setting up a simple chemical laboratory in the Canal Hotel.

As time went on, I was more and more coming into the big picture. This became fully true, following the release of the chicken farm documents. There were lots of documents, with research data and other data. Working with the material I got familiar with some of the key words the Iraqis used for key agents. We had tea. We had coffee. We had Debus (Date syrup). And there was sugar. Some of them were chemicals, like Debus, or VX, considered the Ferrari of chemical weapons. That was the most effective chemical you could have: a 10th of a drop on your skin could kill you. The others—the tea and the coffee and the sugar—were code names for biological agents. Tea was a suspension of a protein. Coffee was a very rough mixture of anthrax spores, and sugar was to have these spores in a dried format.

Monitoring and ‘making harmless’ was a challenging development. Others have touched on this already. How do you assess what remains to be monitored? When was our job done? Was Iraq ‘harmless’ when it came to chemical and biological weapons? These judgements became my obsession. Many of you are aware that 200 litres or so of good quality anthrax spores will have the same effect as a 10kg nuclear weapon, and that 2000 litres of VX would have the same effect if dropped on unprotected people.

I first looked into Iraq’s VX research to see how potent it was. How it was carried out, and what they achieved. I was nagging the chemical group for not pursuing this line before. And I was also telling Rolf Ekéus that we had to investigate this. We couldn’t just rely on the old stuff that we had destroyed, i.e. the old programme. It was obvious that they had restarted programmes again after the peace with Iran. They restarted programmes concerning VX as well as some of the bio agents.

Finally, they sent me to Baghdad. My first experience as Chief Inspector was interesting. I was used to working in flat groups. At the time, I was head of a research institute. For my first experience sitting down with the team, in Bahrain to prepare for Baghdad, I proceeded like a usually do with my research team. I defined the problem and I said, so how do you think we should attack this? And I had two British officers, leaning their heads forward and saying ‘shit, this man doesn’t know how to do it!’ Flat hierarchies didn’t translate so well on my first attempt.

For the most part of my field work with UNSCOM, I sat in a chair in Baghdad, communicating with General Amer Saadi, the Iraqi Minister of Armament. But, I had a fantastic tailor-made team. I had the best experts on VX in the world. I learned a lot from them. One of our key problems was finding out how the Iraqis were producing the VX. One French expert asked them [in a French accent]: ‘Did you ‘eat it?’ They looked just as surprised as you do now. And, of course, what he meant was: ‘Did you heat it?’ It was apparently essential for the process, whether it was heated or not. The discussion went on and then we had a Russian expert that asked the primary leader of the VX development: ‘Where did you go to school?’ And he responded, ‘I went to the Timochenko Academy in Moscow.’ ‘Aha, and who was your teacher?’ When he mentioned a name that I don’t remember, the Russian guy said: ‘Ha, I know exactly how you made your VX!’ And that was it. You know that was a prime example of how easily you penetrated a wall of silence. The Iraqis just blushed, and with a laugh sort of laid out what they had done. They had done very skilful work.

UNSCOM eventually had a new chair. The new chair had problems trusting the inspectors and their assessment on whether there remained weapons of military significance with the Iraqis. At this time, this question remained one of our core challenges. How much is military significant if you have VX or dry anthrax? Remember, 200 litres of anthrax could as effective against humans as a 10 kg nuclear device.

The new chair gathered an international panel, representing more than a dozen different nations. And these experts were to look into the biological weapons programme, as well as the Iraqi Declarations, to assess what remained to become harmless and left over for monitoring. I was asked to coordinate this exercise. We had a number of meetings where we met with the Iraqis. At these meetings, we pointed out what was lacking in the declarations, and most of the international experts agreed that key elements of the declarations were still missing. We eventually received updates on what we asked for, but we didn’t ever come to a point where we could say, ‘Iraq is now harmless when it comes to biological weapons’, because the granular detail simply wasn’t there. We didn’t have the resolution to detect a garage type activity, or one or two or three scuds, filled with whatever they were filled with.

It was very satisfying to see afterwards, following the invasion of Iraq, and the extensive effort to look through what could have existed, that we had been done, that we had completed our task. Charles Duelfer mentioned this, but the trust, or rather the distrust we had in Iraq, didn’t help us to be convinced that we actually had reached our goal. Again, the minute amounts that you needed to be of military significance, or of significance for the security effect of your neighbours, made it a very difficult task.

There are three main points I take away from UNSCOM experience. One is about the organisation: Executive Chairman Rolf Ekéus, Deputy Executive Chairman Charles Duelfer, and the staff. I appreciated how the organisation was driven, the flatness of it. I was sort of enjoying our morning meetings, and having a Swedish chairman doing as well as our chairman was doing. I valued the people that trained me into the task in the chemical file, and the collaborators that I worked together with in the biological file, Richard Spertzel and Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack. They taught me a lot. There was a lot of proliferation going on there, especially from Dick to a Swede who doesn’t know anything about making biological weapons. I appreciated the multitude of specialities that were there—the linguists, international lawyers, people into missiles, and whatever. Whatever expertise your needed was available or was made available.

The second point relates to what is happening now with Syria and OPCW. The declaration assessment at OPCW is not the same as what we were doing in Iraq, and they have a different endpoint than what we had, but they have similar problems to extract information from Syria, and, then, to define what may be their endpoint. Of course, completeness is the endpoint, but completeness is almost a theoretical thing.

The third point that I take away is that, although we did a very good job all in all, we also created a distrust in the possibility of verifying declarations in the biological area, since biological weapons could be quite significant, even in small volumes and at very low scales. UNSCOM’s findings, and the confirmation in 2003, when the Iraq Survey Group also failed to find something, or prove that there was nothing, probably meant that the OPBW that was envisaged to as a copy of the OPCW for biological weapons never happened.

To compensate for how difficult it is to perform biological weapons inspection, we’ve ended up with a patchwork approach: 1) the Secretary-General’s Mechanism that the Secretary-General could draw on to investigate allegations of biological weapons use; 2) the health sector and its laboratories, and the increased requirements for health sector laboratories to declare what they have, and to look over the security; and 3) Resolution 1540 to control the spread of biological weapons to non-state actors. Thank you so much.

Filippa Lentzos: Thank you so much Åke, lots of wonderful anecdotes there and again emphasising that human side to verification work. We are now going to change gears slightly. We’ve looked at some of the ground level experience of inspectors, trying to identify a programme and render it harmless. We’re now going to look at the monitoring aspect of what UNSCOM was doing. Clearly there is no better person to tell us about that than Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack, who was chief of the team tasked with establishing and operating biological monitoring, and who herself also served as Chief Weapons Inspector on many biological weapons inspections. After Gabriele’s time with UNSCOM from 1995 to 1999, when UNSCOM wound down, she went on to work with UNMOVIC until 2001. She has held several senior UN positions since, including Chief of the WMD Branch, Chief of the Regional Disarmament Branch of ODA, and most recently in the OPCW UN Joint Investigative Mechanism for Syria. Gabriele, we’re so pleased to have you here, welcome.

Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack:Thank you so much, and thank you for organising the event. It’s great to see all my former colleagues, even on Zoom.

In UNSCOM I was given the task of implementing and putting into practice long-term monitoring in the biological weapons area. This task was unprecedented. For other types of weapons of mass destruction, there was at least some understanding about how monitoring non-proscribed activities could be done. But in the biological area we literally started from scratch, and even within our own group there were a lot of sceptics who doubted that biological monitoring could be effectively done, and there were widely divergent opinions on how to proceed on practically every issue.\

Finally, a system was developed, which incorporated a layer-by-layer approach, covering different aspects of the sites and activities to be monitored, and used many complementary and overlapping tools, including on-site inspections. UNSCOM also concluded that effective monitoring could not be done by short-term visiting teams, and instead decided to place resident monitoring teams of three to five experts in Iraq.

From the start, we ran into a huge complicating factor. Just as we were launching our monitoring activities, UNSCOM began to expose Iraq’s concealed offensive biological weapons programme. On top of its regular duties, my monitoring team had in January 1995 been tasked with finding incontrovertible evidence of the proscribed biological weapons activities. In July 1995, Iraq finally had to admit that it had successfully mass-produced anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin, and weaponized and deployed operational missiles and aerial bombs filled with these agents. Iraq’s acknowledgement of its secret biological weapons programme made UNSCOM realise more clearly that the long-term monitoring regime would be dealing with a more formidable opponent—one who had the necessary knowledge and capabilities to produce and weaponize biological agents, and who also had mastered concealment efforts over several years.

The UNSCOM biological long-term monitoring system was widely regarded as effective, including by our Iraqi counterparts themselves. Hussein Kamel, the head of the Military Industrialization Commission and the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, reported to Saddam, “There are no doubts that their monitoring is working efficiently”.[2] Expert post-factum assessment was also favourable. For example, Graham Pearson concluded that the ongoing monitoring and verification regimes devised by UNSCOM were effective in implementing the Security Council decision on Iraq.[3]

I have thought a lot about how UNSCOM’s experiences, and the lessons learned, could benefit the Biological Weapons Convention. I advocate a new approach for strengthening the BWC, which leaves behind the tried but failed attempt to draft a legally binding verification protocol, and instead start working directly on ways and means to address and resolve non-compliance concerns.[4] Specifically, I suggest that states parties could launch a focused process to identify possible cases of non-compliance, and outline options to address each specific case. A menu of options for case-resolution might include various modes of consultative and clarification formats, such as familiarisation visits, presentations and demonstration of activities, roundtable discussions, expert panels, and peer reviews. Each of the options could be further elaborated as part of a specific toolbox.

Depending on each case, modalities and tools could relate to timing, speed, and scope of in-country and on-site access, as well as composition and expertise of teams, types of technical means to be used, sampling rules and interviews. During discussions about which option/s to use for each case, various situations and solutions could be suggested, thoroughly examined, and even tested through tabletop exercises. These activities could also involve other stakeholders such as industry and international organisations.

The suggested multi-layered and multi-tool procedures would not be legally binding—no protocol—but would instead be available for states parties to draw on and use once a suspected non-compliance case emerges. Most importantly the suggested approach would allow BWC states parties to be continuously, productively and cooperatively engaged in the work to strengthen the core of the Biological Weapons Convention.

Henrietta Wilson: Gabriele, a wonderful set of remarks, bringing us right up to today’s challenges, and extremely interesting to hear your thoughts about the Biological Weapons Convention, thank you very much. I’m absolutely delighted to be handing over to Nikita Smidovich as our final speaker for today. Nikita is the longest serving staff member of UNSCOM and UNMOVIC. He was one of the first people recruited to UNSCOM, in June 1991, and he served as Deputy Director for Operations and Coordinator for missile and biological weapons issues at UNSCOM all the way through until it ended, and then he became Chief of Training for UNMOVIC so it’ll be great to get his long-standing perspectives on all the things we’ve been talking about. Thank you very much Nikita.

Nikita Smidovich: First, I would like to express appreciation and gratitude to Ambassador Rolf Ekéus. Personally, I am grateful for his invitation to New York to work for the United Nations. Professionally, he taught me one of the basic lessons of diplomacy – that diplomacy should not pave the way to wars.

UNSCOM was given ‘absolute’ inspection and investigative rights. This was indeed very helpful in planning and implementing our tasks in Iraq. But there was a downside. It deprived us of convenient excuses which are often used by inspection agencies, that is, that their failures are the fault of their ‘limited’ mandate. Given the comprehensive terms of Security Council Resolution 687, UNSCOM could blame nothing but itself for its failures. Although today we are focussing on UNSCOM’s successes, UNSCOM had its share of failures. The actual basis of these failures was not the mandate limitations but, in large part, the lack of proper inspection skills of personnel performing inspections. Every one of us who participated in UNSCOM can easily recall their own failures or the failures of fellow inspectors, including failures of epic proportions.

When UNSCOM started in 1991, the United Nations had no qualified personnel to carry out its designated activities. Governments were asked to send their military, diplomatic, intelligence, technical, and scientific experts to perform UNSCOM inspections. These people were among the best in their respective countries in their expert fields, but it turned out that they lacked the skills needed for conducting the new task of international on-site inspections, specifically those with absolute inspection rights. It soon became clear that simply modifying the pre-existing, multilateral or national procedures would not be sufficient. I will just point out two examples: one political and one technical.

First the political. It turned out that the most useful evidence was to get an admission from the host country about its illicit activities. Thus, international verification under the Security Council is not like a national court of law, or even scientific research. The best evidence of Iraq’s biological weapons program was Iraq’s own admission of such a program. The question then becomes, how can you make a government admit its illegal activities, which it had previously concealed and vocally denied.

A technical example from UNSCOM is related to information collection. UNSCOM was the first to undertake interviews as part of international inspections. This meant that new processes had to be worked out; whether they were effective or not is a different question.d

We realised that we needed specific inspection skills and so we launched a dedicated training program, covering biological, chemical and missile areas. It became a very extensive program, providing training for every inspector to be sent by UNMOVIC to Iraq. The training comprehensively addressed all aspects of inspection activities, from health and safety, through on-site investigation, to cultural sensitivity. For seven years since 2000, we conducted more than 40 training courses, five or six courses annually, and we trained more than 400 people, including 100 biological inspectors. The main task was to change the trainees’ mindset, from what they had developed during their previous professional careers to that needed for being a skilled international inspector. This was a new and challenging profession for them. Later, we used the same approach in UNODA – Gabriele tasked me with launching a training activity for the Secretary General’s Mechanism for investigating allegations of biological and chemical weapons use—again, the most difficult task was changing the mindset of people doing international inspections.

Unfortunately, there is no international inspectors’ school even today. No one is educated specifically to become a professional international WMD inspector. Treaty-based organisations do train their staff, but only to perform their specifically-mandated tasks. I believe that efforts should be made to set up and sustain activities to train future personnel to conduct effective international WMD investigations.

Filippa Lentzos: Thank you so much Nikita. We’re nearing the end of our time together, and I’ll take a few moments to draw the webinar to a close. It has been a really wonderful experience to be here with all of you, and amazing to hear so many first-hand accounts of UNSCOM’s successes, and how it achieved these, showing that verified elimination of weapons of mass destruction is technically possible despite difficult circumstances—although it does require extremely hard work and creative solutions. And sometimes, a very large phone.

This is all interesting in itself, but it is also very important for current work aiming to strengthen global weapons regulation regimes, including everyone now involved in monitoring illicit flows of weapons and weapons uses, such as the people who are in our audience with experience of online, open source investigations, and the people looking into Syrian chemical weapons use.

There is of course so much more we could say about all this but for now, it is really just time for me to say some very big thank-yous from myself, Henrietta and Ioan. Thank you to Isabel Lucio at King’s CSSS for all her technical support making this happen, to our fantastic speakers, and to all of you for coming. Thank you all very much. Goodbye.



[2] “Meeting between Saddam and His Security Council Regarding Iraqi Biological and Nuclear Weapons Program,” 05 Feb 1995, Conflict Records Research Center, Washington, D.C.,; Original Audio for SH-SHTP-A-001-011

[3] The Search for Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, Inspection, Verification and Non-Proliferation, Graham S. Pearson, Palgrave MacMillan, 2005


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