Chemical From Iraq Discovered at U.N.
By ROBERT D. McFADDEN
Published: August 31, 2007
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No unconventional weapons were found in Iraq after
the United States-led invasion in 2003. But a
potentially deadly chemical agent produced by Saddam
Hussein’s regime has turned up, improbably, in an
office at the United Nations in New York, and it had
the F.B.I. and the city police scrambling yesterday.
Federal, city and United Nations officials said the
small quantity of the chemical, phosgene, was
contained and appeared to pose no immediate danger.
But unanswered questions about its risks and about
how material from Iraq’s notorious chemical warfare
center wound up in New York swirled all the way up
to the State Department, the Senate and the White
And nobody was taking any chances.
A joint hazardous-materials team from the F.B.I. and
the Police Department descended on the offices of
the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and
Inspection Commission at 866 United Nations Plaza,
at 48th Street, a block north of the world body’s
East Side headquarters, and removed the material for
safekeeping and analysis.
The air in the offices also was tested, using
chemical weapons detection equipment, and no toxic
vapors were found and no evacuation was necessary,
said Marie Okabe, a deputy spokeswoman for the
United Nations. “There is no immediate risk or
danger,” Ms. Okabe said. “Unmovic staff are still
working on the premises.”
Ms. Okabe said that a United Nations investigation,
in conjunction with the F.B.I., was under way to
determine how the potentially hazardous chemical
came to be there and how it had gone unnoticed for
more than a decade in New York.
The chemical believed to be phosgene, an
old-generation nerve-gas component used extensively
in the later stages of World War I and in Iraqi
attacks that killed thousands of Kurds in the late
1980s, was discovered in a steel box last Friday by
personnel cleaning out files and old boxes in a
weapons inspection agency that is to be closed soon,
said Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman for the agency.
The substance, a colorless liquid suspended in oil
in a container the size of a soda can that was
sealed in a plastic bag, was unmarked except for an
inventory number, and nobody knew what it was, Mr.
Buchanan said. A check of records indicated that the
chemical was phosgene that had been taken by United
Nations inspectors in 1996 from Iraq’s chemical
weapons facility at Al Muthanna, near Samarra.
Tiny quantities of a second chemical, sealed in
glass tubes about the size of a pen, were identified
as nuclear magnetic resonance materials, which are
used to calibrate chemical analysis equipment,
according to United Nations officials. It was
unclear yesterday if this chemical posed any danger.
The inspection agency has 1,400 linear feet of
inventory files and it was not until Wednesday —
five days after the discovery — that United Nations
officials found the inventory number and learned
that what they apparently had was Iraqi phosgene, a
volatile, highly poisonous chemical made of carbon
monoxide and chlorine that in gas or liquid form can
severely damage the skin, eyes, nose, throat and
lungs or even kill victims.
And it was not until late Wednesday that the State
Department was notified. Word was passed then to the
F.B.I. and the New York Police Department, which
took action yesterday. Even as the joint
hazardous-materials squad went to the United Nations
to secure the chemicals, questions about a
mysterious “nerve gas” in New York City were popping
up at the White House and the State Department.
President Bush’s spokesman, Tony Snow, said at a
White House press briefing that the materials had
been brought in by United Nations weapons inspectors
long ago, and should have been sent to a laboratory.
“These items should not have ended up, obviously, at
the New York offices,” Mr. Snow said. “Normally they
would be transported to an appropriately equipped
laboratory for analysis. I’m sure that there are
going to be a lot of red-faced people over at the
U.N. trying to figure out how they got there.”
At the State Department, Tom Casey, a deputy
spokesman, noted that the United Nations Security
Council had decided to shut down the inspection
agency that dealt with weapons issues in Iraq. Mr.
Casey also said the chemicals did not appear to pose
any hazard. He said an investigation by the United
Nations and the F.B.I. would look into “why these
items were there, why they were there for so long,
and verify that there are no other outstanding
issues related to it.”
The United Nations pulled its inspectors out of Iraq
just before the American-led invasion in March 2003,
leaving the search for unconventional weapons and
the responsibility for disarming Iraq to the United
States and Britain. A few months later, the Security
Council voted to shut down Unmovic and remove its
While no unconventional weapons were found, Iraq
under Saddam Hussein had extensively developed
chemical weapons; phosgene and mustard gas were used
in attacks against the Kurds directed by Mr.
Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as
Chemical Ali for his role in gassing villages in
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York,
spoke yesterday of a “potentially fatal chemical” at
the United Nations. “The U.N. should know it’s a
target,” he said. “They need to be even more careful
than anyone else. The fact that a container of
deadly poison from Iraq was found at the U.N. is a
wake-up call that they better start living up to the
higher safety standards of a post 9/11 New York.”
Normally, chemicals taken from Iraq should have been
taken directly by military transport to the Edgewood
Laboratories in Maryland for analysis, and not
brought to the United Nations headquarters,
according to Ms. Okabe.
Mr. Buchanan said the chemicals were found in a
steel box 2 feet by 3 feet by 18 inches in a
third-floor office of the inspection agency last
Friday. There were no labels or markings other than
a set of inventory numbers, he said.
“It may turn out to be nothing, but to be on the
safe side we have to consider the worst-case
scenario,” Mr. Buchanan said. In any case, he agreed
that the discovery was bizarre. Dangerous materials,
he said, “shouldn’t have come here,” adding: “We
don’t have any analytical capability.”