Top American scientists assigned to the weapons hunt in Iraq found no evidence Saddam Hussein's regime was making or stockpiling smallpox, senior military officers involved in the search have told the Associated Press.
Smallpox fears were part of the case the Bush administration used to build support for invading Iraq and they were raised again as recently as last weekend by Vice President Dick Cheney.
But a three-month search by "Team Pox" turned up only signs to the contrary: disabled equipment that had been rendered harmless by U.N. inspectors, Iraqi scientists deemed credible who gave no indication they had worked with smallpox and a laboratory thought to be back in use that was covered in cobwebs, the officials told the AP.
Fears that smallpox could be used as a weapon led the Bush administration to launch a vaccination campaign for 500,000 U.S. military personnel after the Sept. 11 attacks, and to order enough vaccine to inoculate the entire U.S. population if necessary.
The negative smallpox findings reported to U.S. intelligence agencies come nearly six months after the administration went to war to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that Hussein long denied having and the military hasn't been able to find.
Smallpox was declared eradicated worldwide in 1980. All samples of the virus were to have been destroyed except those held by special labs in Atlanta and Russia, but some experts fear Russian samples could have gotten into the hands of hostile nations.
Two of the six members of Team Pox, whose existence and work hasn't been previously disclosed, have left Iraq while the rest remain involved in other aspects of the weapons hunt, said the officers, who described the smallpox pursuit for the first time.
Though Team Pox ended its work in July, their findings don't dismiss the possibility that smallpox could be discovered, the officials told the AP.
When Team Pox searched key locations in Iraq, such as the defunct Darwah foot-and-mouth disease center, they found the facility in the same condition U.N. inspectors left it in seven years ago.
In 1996, inspectors destroyed a fermenter, storage tank and inactivation tank at Darwah and poured concrete into the air conditioners while other equipment was tagged for monitoring.
The smallpox team found cobwebs covering much of the inside, although a CIA National Intelligence Estimate said the Iraqis were refurbishing the facility.
U.S. satellites had spotted trucks pulling up in the past year - an indication of renewed activity, the team was told. But investigations on the ground revealed the trucks belonged to black marketeers stealing scrap metal.
In the runup to the war, the CIA said chances were even that smallpox was part of an Iraqi biological weapons program, according to the National Intelligence Estimate.
Bush administration officials often cited smallpox when describing Hussein's intentions and continue to do so.
On Sunday, Cheney said two trailers discovered in Iraq could have been used to make smallpox. The vice president referred to the trailers as "mobile biological facilities" - a characterization that has been disputed by intelligence analysts within two U.S. government agencies that believe the trailers were used to fill weather balloons.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, making the U.S. case for war last February at the United Nations, said Hussein "has the wherewithal to develop smallpox."
Despite those suspicions, Pentagon planners didn't organize aspecific search for smallpox when they put together a post-Hussein weapons hunt with hundreds of military personnel with expertise in missiles and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
"There was some discussion about creating specialized teams but we didn't have enough people," said Lt. Col. Michael Slifka, who planned the weapons hunt for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
The original search teams, which disbanded when a Pentagon-led effort known as the Iraq Survey Group took over in August, were made up of military officers trained in detecting chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Those teams didn't have an investigative capability and didn't include experts in specific areas such as smallpox.
Surprised by the configuration, a handful of American biologists and virologists sent to Kuwait and then Baghdad with little instruction except to help, set up Team Pox on their own.
The team, which included two specialists who worked as U.N. inspectors in the 1990s, wrapped up their work midsummer mostly out of frustration with the Iraq Survey Group.
Those involved described to the AP missed opportunities caused by bureaucratic obstacles hampering the search effort.
In several instances, the team couldn't follow up tips because of transportation problems. The violence plaguing Iraq means such teams can operate only under military guidelines and travel only with military escort. So their mobility is dictated by the military's schedule and availability to move from them from one location to another.
Some Iraqi scientists interviewed had the know-how and expertise to produce smallpox, but none said they had done work on smallpox or other viruses that could be used in biological weapons programs.