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Welcome to Armageddon

• A joint investigation by Salon and Rolling Stone reveals why the Bush administration hasn't found any weapons of mass destruction: It's looking in the wrong place.

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By Miles Harvey

March 23, 2004  |  NEWPORT, Tenn. -- Say you were a terrorist in the late 1990s, around the time Osama bin Laden was planning the attack on the World Trade Center, and you wanted to get your hands on some weapons of mass destruction. You could have tried to track them down in Iraq, at one of the chemical-weapons facilities that the Bush administration accused Saddam Hussein of operating. Of course, neither the United Nations nor the U.S. military has managed to find a single chemical weapon in Iraq, so you probably would have come away empty-handed.

Or you could have just paid a visit to Newport, Tenn., population 7,242. There, east of town, past the Pigeon River and the True Gospel Free Will Baptist Church and the county dump, you would have stopped near a gated drive that led up a steep slope known as Rock Hill. Beyond that gate, in a small wooden shed, you would have found what you were after. No intricate alarm system to disable, not even a padlock on the shed's door -- just a thin pine branch jammed in the hasp. And behind that door, canisters filled with PFIB, a deadly, lung-attacking gas restricted under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

Invisible, odorless and lethal even in minute concentrations, PFIB -- or "p-fib," as some arms-industry insiders call it -- kills slowly and brutally. At first victims experience a headache, a cough, a fever, a tightness in the chest. But after six to eight hours, as fluids flood their lungs, they start to feel as though they're choking. It's known as "air hunger" -- a desperate desire for oxygen -- and for some victims it only gets worse. Soon they begin making pitiful gurgling sounds, coughing up phlegm and blood, unable to get enough air to form words. Within six to 48 hours they are dead, suffocated from within by what doctors sometimes call "dry-land drowning."

Yet despite the dangers of PFIB -- short for perfluoroisobutylene -- you would have had little trouble stealing enough of the deadly gas to wreak havoc in a subway or an office building. "If bin Laden had known that there were 23 cylinders of this stuff, all he had to do was hop a fence to get it -- literally," says Dean Ullock, an official with the Environmental Protection Agency. "A lot of this stuff was stored in a little garden shack in the back of the property, and all you would have had to do is walk in."

EPA officials stumbled across the shed packed with PFIB in 2000, when they were called in to shut down a private chemical laboratory on Rock Hill. As an on-scene coordinator for the EPA's Emergency Response and Removal Branch, the federal government's SWAT team for chemical disasters, Ullock has had to clean up some of the worst toxic hazards in the United States. But even he was horrified by what awaited him on that isolated hilltop in Tennessee. The lab contained about 7,000 gas cylinders and other containers -- many of them unlabeled and leaking -- filled with hundreds of potentially deadly chemicals. Among them were phosgene, the gas responsible for 80 percent of the chemical-warfare casualties during World War I, and PFIB, 10 times more deadly than phosgene. The PFIB, it turned out, had been manufactured for the U.S. Army a decade earlier for chemical-defense research. But such security risks, the Army insists, are not its problem. "Safety and security at private chemical facilities are the responsibility of that company," the Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command said in a statement issued to Salon and Rolling Stone.

One of the Bush administration's main pretexts for invading Iraq was to keep such lethal substances away from terrorists -- a possibility that posed "the danger of a catastrophe that could be orders of magnitude worse than Sept. 11," in the words of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. But chemical weapons made for the Pentagon itself often have wound up in the wrong place -- or disappeared completely. The Army Corps of Engineers is currently investigating some 200 sites in 35 states where the military and its contractors cannot account for missing chemical-warfare agents. Among the weapons already uncovered is a long-lost stash of deadly mustard gas buried less than five miles from the White House.

"One of the ultimate ironies is that for all of the U.S. government's finger-pointing at Iraq and other countries -- nations we're challenging to account for every one of their weapons of mass destruction -- our country is riddled with similar weapons that our government itself can't even find," says Elizabeth Crowe, an organizer for the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a coalition of citizens living near chemical-weapons sites.

And those 200 military sites represent only a small fraction of the U.S. facilities where chemicals with the potential to inflict mass casualties are manufactured. According to the Army's surgeon general, industrial chemicals in the United States are second only to bioterrorism as a threat to national security. By the government's own estimate, there are 15,000 chemical plants that contain large quantities of potentially deadly compounds. Many of the facilities have been shown to employ little security, offering terrorists easy access to chemicals that could be used as weapons of mass destruction.

The tale of how the U.S. government lost track of its own PFIB on a hilltop in Appalachia begins with a brilliant chemist. He wasn't a mad scientist, say those who knew him, but he was so consumed with his research, so confident in his own skills, that he never paused to consider the consequences of his recklessness. "He was just like your next-door neighbor, your friend, your buddy, your pal," says a former employee. "He didn't want to hurt anyone."

It begins in a place called Armageddon.

You can read the full story at Salon.com.


(Dude says "Support Salon.com")

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