Friday, April 01, 2005

U.S. Report Says Al-Qaeda Had Capacity for `Agent X' Bio-Weapon

March 31 (Bloomberg) -- Al-Qaeda had developed an ``extensive, well-organized'' biological weapons program before the war in Afghanistan and had the capacity to produce a ``virulent'' germ codenamed ``Agent X,'' a U.S. presidential commission reported.

Before the U.S. started the war against terrorism at the end of 2001, intelligence agencies couldn't determine how successful Osama bin Laden's group had been in developing weapons with substances including ``botulinum toxic and toxins obtained from venomous animals,'' according to the 600-page report the commission released today.

The agencies also didn't know whether al-Qaeda acquired a ``far more dangerous strain'' of biological material that the report, citing security concerns, identifies only as ``Agent X.'' After the U.S. overthrew Afghanistan's Taliban government, research found the terrorist group had made more progress than known and ``had probably succeeded in isolating cultures of Agent X.''

``Reporting supports the hypothesis that al-Qaeda had acquired several biological agents as early as 1999, and had the necessary equipment to enable limited, basic production of Agent X,'' the report said.

The report doesn't indicate whether the terror group produced ``Agent X'' for use as a weapon.

The report's finding on al-Qaeda's biological weapons efforts illustrates how incomplete U.S. intelligence was on the capabilities of an enemy that sought to harm vast numbers of civilians. One of the report's recommendations is for the government to focus more on biological terrorism.

Ricin, Salmonella and Anthrax

The co-chairmen of the commission, senior U.S. appellate Judge Laurence Silberman and former Virginia Senator Charles Robb, declined in a press conference to provide further information on Agent X. ``What you have in the report is the extent of what we can discuss with respect to Agent X,'' Robb said.

News reports in the months after the U.S. ousted the Taliban regime from Afghanistan identified several of al-Qaeda's possible germ-warfare pursuits including ricin, salmonella and anthrax. Today's report cites documents found at an Afghan training camp that included ``scientific notes pertaining to Agent X.''

``It's probably 99 percent likely that it's a bacterial agent,'' said Jonathan Tucker, a senior research fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington. Tucker, who studies biological and chemical weapons issues, said Agent X probably isn't a virus because ``it's more difficult to cultivate.''

`Technical Know-How'

Al-Qaeda's skills are rudimentary and creating a viral agent requires lot of ``technical know-how,'' he said. Tucker speculated that Agent X is an anthrax bacterium or the bacterium that produces botulinum toxin. He couldn't rule out a number of other agents such as salmonella.

Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow for strategic assessment at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said he has a ``pretty good idea'' what Agent X might be. ``I'm not prepared to discuss it'' because the commission kept it classified, he said.

The disclosures on ``Agent X'' are included in a broader report analyzing U.S. intelligence failures since the Sept. 11 attacks. The report says U.S. intelligence was ``dead wrong'' about the military threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq and knows ``disturbingly little'' about the ability of terrorists to mount biological, chemical or nuclear attacks.

The commission, which called for overhauling U.S. spy agencies, said a ``major intelligence failure'' by the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies misled President George W. Bush into believing Iraq had stockpiled chemical and biological weapons and planned to produce nuclear weapons. The U.S. invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003.
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