Jeffrey Lewis

Buzz Bomb

Why everyone's wrong about Assad's zombie gas.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

Since the government of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad began to totter, the nonproliferation community has been waiting to see if he will unleash what is believed to be a large stockpile of chemical weapons, including VX, sarin, and mustard gas. The possibility that Assad might use chemical weapons is widely regarded as a possible trigger for U.S. intervention. In December, President Obama warned Assad of "consequences" in the event Syria used its chemical weapons. A few days earlier, Hillary Clinton warned that the United States was "certainly planning to take action" in the event of "credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people."

So, what makes for "credible evidence"? Enter Josh Rogin, reporter at Foreign Policy, who published a pair of stories detailing a State Department cable regarding possible chemical weapons use by Syrian forces in Homs. An administration official described the cable as having "made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23."

The implication, obviously, is that the "compelling case" is the "credible evidence" that should prompt Washington to rethink its policy limiting itself to "non-lethal" aid to Syrian opposition forces and take action. A reconsideration might be in order, though not for the reason you think.

For starters, somehow, no one has bothered to mention that Agent 15 doesn’t exist.

Yep. Agent 15 is one of the bogus bits of intelligence that helped make the case for invading Iraq. Like many good fish stories, this one has a kernel of truth. A single document found by U.N. inspectors (at the infamous Chicken Farm, if you must know) mentioned something called "Agent 15." UNSCOM and others believed Agent 15 was a glycollate, related to laboratory experiments that Iraq admitted to with chemically similar incapacitants usually referred to as BZ or "buzz." But Iraq never produced BZ, Agent 15, or similar incapacitants.

"Agent 15" entered our collective lexicon in 1998, however, when the British announced they had "received intelligence, believed to be reliable, which indicated that, at the time of the Gulf War, Iraq may have possessed large quantities of a chemical warfare mental incapacitant agent known as "Agent 15." George Robertson, then defense secretary, described it as "one more filthy uncivilised weapon of war in [Saddam’s] armoury." He warned that Agent 15 could result in: "dilated pupils, flushed faces, dry mouth, tachycardia, increase in skin and body temperature, weakness, dizziness, disorientation, visual hallucinations, confusions, loss of time sense, loss of co-ordination and stupor." In other words, it turns you into the stars of Absolutely Fabulous. (I’ve placed a copy of the MOD report on my blog,

Robertson refused to divulge further details, claiming that the Ministry of Defense had yet to evaluate the report. In fact, he’d done quite enough. The always restrained British press went — and I am going to use the technical term here — apeshit. (My favorite headline: "Iraqi ‘zombie gas’ arsenal revealed.")

The claim didn’t stand up to scrutiny, even before the war. The United Kingdom doesn’t seem to have asserted the existence of Agent 15 stockpiles after March 2002, which is about the time the CIA put out a fact sheet stating clearly that "Iraq never went beyond research with Agent 15." For all the bullshit reasons we invaded Iraq, Agent 15 was not one of them.

I don’t want to spoil the ending if you still haven’t gotten through Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, but we didn’t find ­­any chemical weapons stockpiles in Iraq. No VX, no sarin, no Agent 15. The British government has not publicly revealed the source of the information, but one can get a flavor of the bum dope being peddled by Iraqi "sources" on chemical weapons from British and American reviews of the intelligence. Without naming names, these reports describe a litany of fabricators in surprising detail. (You want to read pp 100-101 of the Butler Report and pp. 126-130 of the Robb-Silberman Report.) In theory, this experience should be a cautionary tale.


Once "Agent 15" entered the debate, it stuck. It routinely appeared in laundry lists of Iraqi chemical agents from nongovernmental experts, presumably compiled by overworked interns. Eventually, there were reports of Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah getting high on Agent 15 before battle. David Hambling wrote a hilarious, and appropriately skeptical, post about this silliness.

Now, to be clear: BZ is a real chemical incapacitant. The United States, the United Kingdom, and others stockpiled it. U.S. scientists discovered BZ in 1951, producing it as a byproduct of peaceful chemical production (though not in a pure or isolated form). Iraq did research on BZ, including importing a sample from Egypt. There is no evidence that Syria has a BZ program, which is probably why the National Security Council released a statement describing the allegations outlined in the cable as "not consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program."

Incapacitating agents, by the way, are not what one usually thinks of as "chemical weapons" — nerve gas and the like. BZ and other chemical incapacitants arise out of the same deep well of craziness that led the government to develop LSD. The Chemical Weapons Convention largely dried up the crazy. We haven’t seen something spectacularly stupid since 1994, when the predecessor of the Air Force Research Laboratory was considering a proposal to develop a chemical agent that would "cause homosexual behavior" in the hopes of adversely affecting "discipline and morale." Incapacitating agents like BZ are controlled under Schedule 2 of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Schedule 1 is where are all the interesting things like mustard gas, sarin, and VX are listed. States do not even need to declare Schedule 2 chemicals if they are present in "low concentrations." In 2004, the states party to the CWC had a very boring, technical debate about when states should declare incidental production of BZ and two other Schedule 2 chemicals.

I don’t want to minimize the dangers of incapacitating agents. As an impressionable research assistant at CSIS, I participated in a study on non-lethal weapons which made very clear that all "non-lethal" weapons can still kill some people, who react in all sorts of unique and individual ways. (There was a proposal for a sticky foam that would harden into something like concrete to immobilize rioters. It seemed like a really good idea — for about 15 seconds, until someone asked how Han Solo breathed in carbonite.) At a simpler level, you can imagine the carnage if someone fired "just" tear gas into a nursing home.

But the allegation that Syria has used a chemical weapon isn’t really about the dangers of BZ or incapacitating agents. It is really an argument about the Syrian government violating a norm that places them outside the family of nations and compels us to intervene. Sure you can torture people or shell their villages, but poison gas?

Not surprisingly, one finds plenty of evidence-less allegations of chemical weapons use by groups seeking to encourage foreign intervention. In July 1995, for example, the Bosnians alleged that Yugoslav forces gassed them with BZ — at a time when the United States was still following Colin Powell’s suggestion to let Bosnia burn. (A few weeks later Clinton would authorize an air campaign, Operation Deliberate Force, a decision Powell now says was the correct one.) Kosovar Albanians made similar allegations of BZ use in April 1999 during Operation Allied Force. There is not a lot of evidence for either claim and, to my knowledge, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has never charged any Serbs with regards to this. Perhaps it’s too cynical to put allegations of chemical weapons use in the bin with bayonetting babies or dumping them out of incubators, but truth is the first casualty and all that.

Which brings us to the State Department cable. The United States does not have an embassy in Syria at the moment. The cable in question was sent from the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, which last I checked was in Turkey. So, who actually went to Homs to investigate these claims? According to portions of the cable reprinted by Rogin, a State Department "implementing partner" called Access Research Knowledge, using a local Syrian group called Basma, talked to three "contacts" in Syria. Stop me if you see where this is going.

We actually know a little bit about Access Research Knowledge (ARK) and Basma. Justin Vela wrote an article for Foreign Policy titled "Holding Civil Society Workshops While Syria Burns," which describes the two organizations:

ARK also provides funds and consulting to a new opposition media outlet founded by a group of liberal-minded Syrian activists called BasmaSyria.

A State Department spokesperson described ARK as "an implementing partner" of the U.S. nonlethal-aid program.

"ARK is currently undertaking activities to support the nonviolent Syrian opposition and Syrian civil society," the spokesperson said. "Project activities involving hundreds of beneficiaries have taken place in Syria and neighboring states since the onset of the Syrian crisis. It shares the inclusive vision of a future Syria for all Syrians where the rule of law is applied equally and the people of Syria are represented by a legitimate, responsive, and democratically elected government."

The activists themselves see the projects as a way to get their message out to the world more effectively.

"They are just helping us. We didn’t study media; we didn’t study photography," said an activist who works for BasmaSyria, which has distributed videos via YouTube, Facebook, and the Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya since August.

To make it clear: These appear to be U.S.- and U.K.-funded groups that produce anti-regime propaganda. Are we really surprised that they are alleging chemical weapons use? (And don’t get me started on these people diagnosing which chemicals were used based on grainy YouTube videos. Two words: Terry Schiavo.) Look, I am no seasoned intelligence professional. But perhaps this is not up to the standard set by Sherman Kent.

That is to say nothing of the leak. Let’s face it: Leaks are often dissatisfied officials appealing a decision in the press. The Obama administration has clearly indicated that it does not think chemical weapons were used at Homs. Don’t like the president’s decision? Let me get you Josh Rogin’s email.

Watching a U.S.-funded propaganda group "confirm" claims by Syrian opposition, I am reminded of the first rule of drug dealing: Don’t get high on your own supply. (What? I saw Scarface.) The use of the non-existent Agent 15 moniker is too clever by half. What it tells you is that someone got on the internet.

I have no objection to the State Department or intelligence community making up terrible lies about Bashar al-Assad. Maybe we can dust off the old plan to film a Saddam-double screwing a rent boy. Or we can ring up Jerry Post to talk about Bashar’s womb issues! All is fair in love and war.

And it may make humanitarian or strategic sense to intervene in Syria. The world would be a better place without the Assads, and vulnerable populations like the sick, elderly, and very young suffer and die disproportionately in protracted conflicts like this. One can certainly make a case for doing more than we are.

But we should not take a decision to intervene on the basis of the disinformation or propaganda we pay Syrian activists to create. I mean, imagine the consequences if the president were to order hundreds or thousands of U.S. servicemen and -women into harm’s way to prevent an evil dictator from using weapons of mass destruction that turn out to be completely imaginary?

Oh, nevermind. When do we bomb Damascus?

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk