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Invocation of the words, "weapons of mass destruction" has become key to Bushspeak. The President and his lieutenants hurl the term with Biblical inflection as blanket justification for all manner of foreign military adventures or domestic political repression. In the mouths of Pirates, the acronym "WMD" can mean a global plague that might kill millions - or next to nothing.

George Bush has transformed three letters of the alphabet into his own tool of terror. He has discovered that Americans will support instant death for anyone, anywhere, who can somehow be linked to substances that might be described as potential WMDs. Yet, nasty life forms and lethal chemical compounds abound in the world - a near-universal resource. As we wrote in our October 17 2002 commentary, "Permanent War, Permanent State of Emergency," Bush has concocted a blanket WMD excuse to use military force anyplace on the planet.

This logic, accepted by a majority of the Congress, can be applied to the tiniest Caribbean or Pacific island nation, in conjunction with any political grouplet thought to be located in any corner of the world. Low-level germ stocks can be manufactured in the smallest countries, and stolen or purchased by any serious terrorist organization. No industrial base is necessary. Under the Bush Doctrine, any nation accused of harboring people who might possess such "weapons of mass destruction" can be targeted and summarily neutralized. If capability alone justifies attack, universal capability means worldwide targets and permanent war.

Domestically, Bush has only to invoke a WMD threat to drive the population insane, a cover to detain anyone who might possess - or have knowledge of others who might be interested in obtaining - these ill-defined substances.

So, what exactly are these potential WMDs? In this week's Guest Commentary, Dwight Welch attempts to demystify the subject.

No, this is not another article about WMDs not being found or, Was the war begun under a false pretext? Rather, I seek to address a facet of this issue on technical grounds. First, the only true WMDs are nuclear weapons. On this front, the leaders of Russia, the USA, France, and England are the four aces of mass destruction. Unfortunately, nerve gas and pathogens also get grouped into this categorization. But examine the facts: the atomic bombs of WWII instantly killed hundreds of thousands of people. The Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system killed only 12 while sickening more than 5,000. Hardly a comparison.

Second, nerve gas and pathogens are tricky to work with. They may wind up killing the user. For instance, as the Iraqis discovered in the Iran-Iraq war, these gases are heavier than air. Thus, to their dismay, they discovered that nerve gas lobbed at Iranian soldiers on a mountain top, did little to the Iranians, but it settled back down into the valley where the Iraqis were firing them from. Pathogens such as small pox may also wind up infecting those employing such weapons, and rapidly coursing through their own populations. As the anthrax attacker found out, they can be tricky in other ways. He or she did not anticipate that the dust was so fine that it passed through the paper it was contained in, prior to reaching its destination. Again, there were relatively few deaths considering its large dispersal route, not mass destruction or mass death. Any military expert worth his salt will tell you that nerve and bio agents are ineffective weapons, not producing mass deaths, but mostly mass fear. The mass fear, in this case, was generated not by Iraq, but for a war which some of us regarded as being unnecessary.

Third, application of these agents coupled with their rapid rate of breakdown in the environment does not lend itself to mass destruction. Sarin readily breaks down in the presence of water. The water knocks off the fluorine atom turning it into a relatively low toxicity acid. Thus it would not do well dumped into a reservoir, nor dispersed during this wet June weather in Washington, DC. Consider the half-life of hours for typical cholinesterase inhibitors (nerve gases, many insecticides) in the presence of sunlight, compared to tens of thousands of years half-life for plutonium. Cholinesterase inhibitors break down notoriously fast, especially without a stabilizing agent. The Iraqi defector who wrote a book about Saddam's nuclear program has indicated that all of the cholinesterase inhibitors not found by the UN inspectors when they were kicked out in the late 90s have undoubtedly broken down by now. Biologicals do not fare well in hot storage sheds either. Mustard agent is an exception, having a shelf life of decades.

Another disingenuous complaint is about Saddam using poison gas against the Iranians and Kurds. Hello, this nerve gas was supplied by the USA (the world's largest producer of nerve gas) under the Reagan Administration. After Saddam gassed the Iranians Donald Rumsfeld, now Secretary of Defense, recommended diplomatic recognition of Saddam's regime, something he doesn't care to discuss these days.

A final consideration is this. Why would a potential terrorist bother to buy Sarin from Iraq and then smuggle it into the United States, when a nearly as deadly nerve agent, Ethyl Parathion, could be bought or stolen from any good local agricultural supply store? Sarin and EP have similar toxic effects according to the Merck Index (a leading technical catalogue of toxic substances), with Sarin being somewhat more toxic.

The 9/11 terrorists did not buy or receive airplanes from "terrorist governments," they stole them locally. Bombs and bullets are simple and the weapon of choice for terrorists. Tim McVeigh used fertilizer for heaven's sake. Nerve gas and bio-agents are high tech and difficult to use. A dirty bomb is a much more likely scenario. But while the nuclear site in Iraq was left unguarded for two and a half weeks (so much for the credibility of Saddam being an imminent nuclear threat), as Iraqis dumped the nuke isotopes on the ground so they could use the barrels for storing water, some 20% of Saddam's nuclear inventory disappeared. Please, there is no comparison between nuclear weapons and nerve gas.

Was the war worth it? Only time will tell. The intel on the WMDs is now being seriously questioned, but even if Saddam was hiding large stores of Sarin, they were unlikely to present much of a danger to U.S. citizens.

Mr. Welch is a Viet Nam veteran with 27 years at the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Pesticide Programs. The writer is also president-elect of the union that represents EPA headquarters scientists and engineers.

The views presented here are those of the author and not his employer, the EPA.

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