Globe Photo / Amy Newman
Looking for trouble
As a biological-weapons inspector in Iraq, Rocco Casagrande was the eye of a storm
By Don Aucoin, Globe Staff, 3/13/2003
AMBRIDGE - Rocco Casagrande had never been to Iraq before he arrived in Baghdad in December as part of the United Nations weapons inspection team. By the time his duties ended last week, the 29-year-old biologist had taken part in a hunt for biological weapons in more than 50 inspections of military installations, weapons-manufacturing plants, hospitals, and other sites, including dairies. Casagrande says his inspection team did not uncover proof of an ongoing biological weapons program in Iraq, although he adds a crucial caveat: ''Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.''
While working on a doctorate in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he received in 2001, Casagrande began publishing articles on the vulnerability of agriculture to biological warfare and speaking at NATO-sponsored conferences on the subject. That brought him to the attention of the US State Department, he says, which nominated him to be part of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission. Under a three-month contract with the UN, Casagrande became chief of a four-person biological analysis lab, with primary responsibility for selecting samples for analysis, he says.
During his time in Iraq, Casagrande found Iraqi citizens to be friendly toward the foreigners in their midst. He grew accustomed to seeing images of himself and the other inspectors in the Iraqi media. ''They see you on the TV every night, a whole half-hour devoted to the inspections,'' he says. ''One of my British friends went to get gas, and at the gas station someone was like, `Hey, Mr. Cook, it's nice to see you. I saw you on the news last night. I told my friends, this guy comes to my station. We're friends!'''
Starting April 1, Casagrande will become head of a homeland-security program at Abt Associates, an international government- and business-research firm based in Cambridge. What follows is an abridged transcript of a recent interview he had with the Globe.
Q. Tell me about a day in the life of a weapons inspector.
A. What would happen is we'd get a list of sites to inspect from New York [UN headquarters], and they were picked partially at random to keep it more of a surprise. There is a logic behind it, but there is also a certain amount of randomness to it. And then we'd make plans to visit those sites that week or the next day, depending on how much notice we had. There would be a briefing either the day before or the morning of the inspection. We'd all pile into the cars and drive around the corner to where the good folks from the National Monitoring Directorate [the Iraqi agency monitoring the inspectors] were waiting for us. We'd say, ''OK, we have four cars in the convoy. Follow us.'' That's all the information they would get. They didn't know where we were headed. By and large, all these inspections were supposed to be a surprise. They just followed us. The second car in line was a radio car, so it was presumed, once we took a road, that only one site was on; they would radio ahead and say, ''Look, these guys are coming. Do what you have to do,'' let's say. So in the most sensitive sites, some efforts were made to disguise where we were heading, like intentionally go in one direction when a site was in another, and then veer off.
The other benefit of having the NMD car second is police would let us go through lights and stop traffic and help us get to places a lot quicker. Baghdad has a lot of traffic. Sometimes the police escort car had its light flashing, and all that.
Then we would get to the site and break into our teams. One team would always interview site personnel - whoever was in charge of a sector, the director, or sometimes they had a specific person whose job was to liase between the site, the Iraqi government, and us. So they knew everything that was important as far as activities going on at the site. So we'd interview them while the other half or two-thirds of the team was looking around, and check how all the equipment was being used, check on whether the stocks had been declared, and look around for anything unexpected.
A site could be a dairy, a site could be a large ammo dump. Hospitals were popular sites for us to visit in the biological group because they work with diseases that could then be harnessed as biological agents. We'd spend several hours on a site. If it was a small site, we'd get done in an hour or two. If it was a huge site, it might take well into the evening.
Q. Did you feel that the workers were intimidated by the presence of the Directorate or by your presence?
A. Usually they were very intimidated by both the Iraqis and us. They were very scared not to say the wrong thing. They were very concerned that their legitimate activities where they were would be viewed wrongly.
For example, in the Baghdad University College of Veterinary Medicine, there's work you expect some people to do in veterinary pathology; you expect them to look at anthrax. So I asked them, ''Do you work on anthrax?'' They said no. Then we found anthrax cultures. I'm like, ''You know, what's this?'' And then they admitted to having it. I said, ''Look, you should tell us these things. We expect to see them. It's OK that you have vaccine strains of anthrax; you work with cattle, you want them to be vaccinated, this is fine.'' But they were loath to even mention that, even though it was probably pretty sure we'd find it.
Another level of intimidation that would occur is when personnel from the state security organization would come with us. They're basically the not-so-secret police of the Iraqi regime. And sometimes even the National Monitoring Directorate people were a little intimidated by that.
Q. Did you feel that you were able to get a full and genuine look at what might be there? Did you feel as though the inspections were working?
A. At each site we went to, we were able to gain access to whatever we wanted to. Locked doors, if they couldn't find the key, were broken very rapidly, often before we could say, ''No, let's wait for the key.'' I can't think of an instance in which we went to a site and were prevented from seeing something we wanted to see. We weren't blocked going anywhere, let's put it that way.
Q. Were you conscious that, in the old '60s phrase, the whole world was watching?
A. Yeah, there was a constant presence of reporters, almost everywhere. Coming into our parking lot at night, there was someone taking pictures of us. When we got up in the morning we were greeted by cameras. CNN was usually out there. Sometimes reporters took their lives in their hands, trying to follow our convoy so they could get photos of us driving along. So they'd come up alongside, and ... highways are not safe places in Iraq, let's put it that way. We got to see our pictures every night; we had CNN in headquarters, so we saw our pictures. In the UN, there's a strict rule about no contact with media. That wasn't always upheld, but at least I did.
Q. You're released from that now, I take it.
A. Yes. I no longer work for the UN.
Q.Now that you're back, what is your overall take on how worthwhile the effort was? It seems as though we're moving inexorably toward war, notwithstanding all the work you did. Are you satisifed Iraq is serious about disarming?
A. If war happened, would it have been worthwhile for me to go? What did I accomplish? First of all, a war doesn't mean the end of a disarmament process in Iraq. Even if there's a regime change, the question of weapons of mass destruction will have to be answered. There will have to be a continuing inspection process even if Saddam Hussein is removed from power. So it's likely that UNMOVIC will have to return to Iraq after a war. In that case, all the information gathered in three months will be extremely useful.
Q. How many instances of evidence of biological weaponry did you encounter?
A. If we had uncovered any smoking guns, I'm sure you would have heard of it. However, as people say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, which is the problem.
Basically the crux of the whole problem is that Iraq admitted to having a chemical weapons program early on. Everyone knew they had chemical weapons; they've used them. Iraq admitted to having, after UNSCOM mounted enough evidence, they admitted to having a biological weapons program. They have not provided any evidence or anything that enables us to verify their story that they got rid of these things, the biological or chemical weapons. This is in a country where there are records for almost everything that happens. If a piece of equipment gets moved from one site to another, there's going to be a record for it.
Q. So what conclusion do you draw?
A. In the absence of evidence that Iraq has disarmed, a logical person would believe that it still has these weapons.
Q. So you're saying they acknowledge they used to have them and there's no proof that they destroyed them? You don't have any proof that they have them, either?
A. No. No. If we did, this would be a whole other ball of wax. The sticking point is, it would be unusual for such a bureaucratic regime to not have any paperwork to back up this momentous decision.
Q. Did Iraq's cooperation markedly improve in the last month, as [chief UN weapons inspector] Hans Blix said last week?
A. They had a lot more efforts to show us stuff, they took some efforts to be more proactive, but they weren't really addressing the main isues: not providing documentation for the decommissioning of the biological weapons program, not accounting for the discrepancy.
Q. You're satisfied that nothing escaped your detection, your team's detection?
A. I didn't say there was no evidence of any biological weapons. I said there was nothing that said yes, they have a biological weapons program. That's clear from what the reports to the Security Council have been. Is it possible to miss something at sites? Sure, of course. Even in a site that's relatively small, it's very difficult to see if something has been buried in the ground for three years. Sometimes we took with us some specialists who used ground-penetrating radar to look at the ground around sites, or underneath concrete, or underneath piles of corn that they would sometimes stack up in places.
When we didn't have those with us, there was always a question there could be something buried here, and you just wouldn't know. All we can say is that it is unlikely from what we've seen that this site is participating in a biological warfare program, or that it is likely. ...
Q. Are you glad you went to Iraq?
A. Yes. I learned a lot about the actual process of disarmament. And I learned a lot about different sites. I now know how a dairy operates! And I learned a lot about other aspects of biology. I also gained a greater appreciation for my own country. I'd never spent a significant amount of time in the Third World, and it was very good to come home.
Q. Did you like the Iraqi people?
A. I did. They're very friendly. Even though they're in a terrible situation, they've kept their sense of humor. They're still very ready to laugh. They'd be really good friends to have in general.
This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 3/13/2003.
© Copyright 2003 New York Times Co.
This story ran in the Boston Globe on x/x/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.