One late summer day, Iraqi army units stand poised on the border of Kuwait. Two days later, Iranian-backed Shiites in Bahrain, home to U.S. Naval forces in the Gulf, launch a coup. As President Clinton mobilizes military units, a two-seat helicopter spools off an unmarked tanker in the Indian Ocean and heads for the U.S. Naval base at Diego Garcia. Spraying a fine mist from cylinders attached to its skids, the chopper makes three looping passes over the gathering armada of U.S. ships in the port and B-52 bomber crews on the runways.
Meanwhile, at U.S. air and Naval bases in Georgia and North Carolina, unmarked converted bread trucks pull up to staging areas and start pumping out an invisible plume of gas. Within minutes thousands of airmen, soldiers and logistics personnel are down and coiled in agony. Back in the Gulf, hundreds of sailors on U.S. ships headed for Kuwait begin collapsing with the "flu."
In fact, it's cholera, and the victims have been felled in a "germ war" that a study conducted for the Pentagon says U.S. forces are not ready for.
According to the study, made available to Salon, U.S. military units are "vulnerable" to a chemical and biological attack whose purpose is to delay, if not paralyze, the deployment of U.S. forces involved in desert fighting with Iraq. Yet many criticisms raised in the study, produced last November, have been ignored even as hostilities between the U.S. and Iraq appear imminent, informed sources say.
The study raises serious concerns should the Clinton administration take the Republicans' advice and seek to go all the way in toppling Saddam Hussein. "Our nation's ability to project power is vulnerable to limited chemical/biological (attacks)" when troops and equipment are being mobilized for the Gulf, warns the study conducted by Booz-Allen & Hamilton, a management consulting firm based in MacLean, Va.
The study projected a scenario in the year 2010, which suggests to one of the study's authors that U.S. vulnerability to germ-war attacks is even greater now, when U.S. and United Nations weapons inspectors are being barred by Iraqi authorities from checking out the regime's suspected weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological agents.
"The universal perception has been that's it's been a really important thing that you're pointing out and I hope someone else takes care of it," said Amoretta Hoeber, deputy secretary of the Army in the Reagan administration. "That's the generalized response we're getting."
The U.S. budget for protection against chemical and biological warfare has been soaring since last year. Estimates of "more than $2 billion could be defended," according to Bill Richardson, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for chemical and biological matters. That includes everything from the FBI's counter-terrorism programs to civil defense training to the U.S. Marines' mobile Chemical and Biological Incident Response Force teams, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
"They're putting a lot of money into this," Hoeber said, "but the problem is there's no one in charge and no one is thinking right about it yet. They're not thinking about protecting the military, they're thinking about domestic preparedness and things like that."
Sophisticated shipboard gas and germ war detection systems have been deployed but found wanting, according to a technician who told Salon that navy computer labs in New Jersey are frantically trying to fix the bugs as the Iraqi crisis deepens.
The Booz-Allen team contracted with about two dozen former top military officials, including a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Army's former chief special operations officer, to "war game" germ and chemical attacks on U.S. forces and how the Pentagon would respond to them.
In the scenario, economic sanctions on Iraq have been lifted, allowing Saddam Hussein to secretly rebuild his chemical and biological stocks. At the same time, despite warming relations with Washington, Iran has continued its military build-up and held to its goal of expelling U.S. forces from the Gulf. A crisis is triggered when the formerly bitter enemies act in concert, Iraq invading Kuwait but quickly assuring Saudi Arabia that its goal is limited to recapturing its "19th province." At the same time, Iran sends a "Trojan horse" naval convoy to Bahrain to back a
Shiite plot to overthrow the U.S.-friendly regime.
Then, in the war game scenario, chemical and biological attacks are launched to paralyze U.S. ground, Naval and air reinforcements en route.
"CNN had picked up the cholera story," the scenario goes. "The ships en route to the Gulf were being referred to as 'the plague convoy.'" They begin steaming in circle, their sick bays swamped. Suddenly Iraq looses a volley of missiles armed with mustard gas on a U.S. airfield in Kuwait, stopping a line of huge C-5 transports taking off for resupply flights to Europe.
In North Carolina, meanwhile, a crop duster lifts off the night runway at the appropriately named Locust, a farming town near Pope Air Force Base, and heads toward hangers filled with F-15 fighters and pilots. In Savannah, Ga., and 10 other East Coast military bases, Iraqi agents driving bread trucks position themselves upwind with gas-spewing generators.
"The teams had come into the United States two years earlier (and) obtained jobs in the area. The pilots worked as taxi drivers at the airport. The others had similar positions, driving hotel courtesy vans or delivery trucks," the scenario goes. The terrorist attacks paralyze U.S. personnel. "The casualties overwhelmed the largely ill-equipped and untrained first responders," the study adds.
Havoc reigns. Next, a saboteur steps off the last subway train at the Pentagon Metro station the following night, dons a gas mask and tosses several quart glass bottles of liquid mustard agent onto the platform. An anonymous caller "claims responsibility for the attack on behalf of the 'Friends of Iraq and Iran' and (says) that a second device has been emplaced within the Pentagon itself."
And so on.
In the end, the good guys win. After days of death, delays, confusion and mass panic, the U.S. moves its logistical bases to alternates in western Saudi Arabia, rushes unaffected Naval and Air Force units to the region, pounds the Iraqis into submission, decontaminates poisoned bases, buries the dead and evicts the Iranians from Bahrain.
Hooray. But not after considerable damage has been done -- and delays that might give the Iraqis time to sway U.S. public opinion against a long, drawn-out struggle on behalf of Kuwait, whose super-rich, quick-to-flee elites earned little sympathy when they were televised partying in Cairo while G.I.s put their lives on the line in Desert Storm.
That may be one reason U.S. officials from President Clinton on down have warned Saddam of instant, apocalyptic response if he launches chemical and biological attacks. They fear that the American public may have little stomach for protracted conflicts, especially when the casualties mount up.
At the same time, the Booz-Allen & Hamilton study ("Assessment of the Impact of Chemical and Biological Weapons on Joint Operations in 2010") assumes a rather brilliant symphony of political, military and terrorist attacks -- one for which the Iraqis have shown little previous aptitude. Even one of the study's authors concedes that the "Red Team" that took the part of the Iraqis in the war game might have played its roles too well.
"One of the things I've always thought about as questionable in the study is that it assumes a logical enemy," admitted Bill Richardson, a deputy assistant of Defense for chemical and biological matters in the Bush administration. "One must assume that -- but it's often wrong."
How much better an "illogical" enemy like Iraq makes us feel, so long as it possesses chemical and biological weapons, is another question.