Just weeks before it is set to go out of existence, the UN Monitoring and Verification Commission (UNMOVIC)—whose inspectors scoured Iraq unsuccessfully in search of Saddam’s stockpiles of WMD—has finally found something. Problem is, the discovery was made not in Iraq, but in its own New York offices.
According to news reports (here and here), inspectors were archiving old files last Friday when they came upon an unidentified liquid. Subsequent testing, completed Wednesday, revealed it was a small sample of the deadly chemical agent phosgene, apparently removed from Saddam’s Muthanna chemical weapons facility in 1996. Inspectors were at a loss to explain how it could have gotten to New York, not to mention how it would then have been forgotten and left in a filing cabinet. The UN has said it will investigate the matter.
The phosgene was discovered in UNMOVIC’s 48th Street storage unit, about a block away from UN Headquarters, along with with “an Iraqi Scud missile engine, Russian gyroscopes and 125 cabinets filled with sensitive information on Iraq’s past weapons programs.” The materials, including the chemical agent, were originally gathered by the agency’s predecessor, the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM).
The FBI and New York police collected the phosgene yesterday. It was flown by helicopter to a U.S. military laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland. Environmental testing of UNMOVIC’s storage facility revealed no contamination. According to Svetlana Utkina, who works with UNMOVIC, accidental release of the phosgene would have been deadly for those exposed.* “Your lungs would collapse immediately if you inhale this substance,” she told reporters. Inspectors reportedly found about a gram’s-worth of the phosgene in a soda-can-sized container sealed in a plastic bag. Asked what would happen if the container broke open, Utkina said, “probably about five people will get severe problems, (and a) couple of people will be dead.”
Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly described Utkina’s UN position.