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May 20, 2006

What I Didn't Find in the Middle East


A Future OpEd by Dr. S. Ward Casscells on the Iran War?

by Jorge Hirsch

What is Prof. Dr. Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ward Casscells' mission in the Middle East?

In February 2002, Ambassador Joseph Wilson was sent by the CIA on a mission to Africa. This became publicly known in July 2003, when he published a New York Times OpEd, "What I Didn't Find in Africa." Joseph Wilson's failure to find evidence of alleged Saddam's efforts to procure nuclear material from Niger undermined the administration's case for war on Iraq based on a supposed nuclear threat, and might have prevented the Iraq invasion if it had become public before March 2003.

S. Ward Casscells was deployed on a mission to the Middle and Far East late last year, and may be deployed to Iraq this year. Will we learn about the results of his mission imminently, and will it provide justification for an attack on Iran? Or will we find out that it yielded negative results a year or two from now, after a US attack on Iran has occurred?

The US State Department accuses Iran of having an "offensive biological weapons program." UNSC resolution 1540 of 2004 affirms the Security Council's resolve to take "appropriate and effective actions" against "any threat to international peace and security caused by the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their means of delivery." Since it was adopted under Chpt. VII, "appropriate and effective actions" may include military action. If a US attack against Iran is launched under the pretext of an imminent biological weapons threat, using UNSC 1540 as a justification, Dr. Casscells is likely to play a key role in these events.

In the case of Iraq, before the invasion the US State Department also alleged that "Iraq has biological weapons and a significant offensive biological weapons program." That "solid information" (later proven false) was hyped before the invasion (eg. Colin Powell's speech to the UN in February 2003) to justify it. Why aren't we hearing speeches about Iran's biological weapons danger now? Because such information was made classified in March 2003 under Executive Order 13292, so that it could avoid public scrutiny during preparation for the Iran attack.

Who is Dr. S. Ward Casscells?

Samuel Ward Casscells, III, M.D. is Chief of Cardiology and holder of an endowed Distinguished Professorship at University of Texas-Houston, Vice-President for Biotechnology, Director of Clinical Research at the Texas Heart Institute, Director of a Center for Advanced Imaging, on the editorial boards of six scientific journals, author of numerous scientific papers, and a bioterrorism/chemical terror expert . He is involved in patient care, teaching, and research on detection and prevention of heart attack and stroke. His research also deals with new methods of gene transfer into cells. From all appearances, Dr. Casscells is an extremely busy man. He also has a wife and three young kids.

In June 2005, at the age of 53, Dr. Casscells did an odd thing: he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He had to get three medical waivers – for age, hearing loss and a history of cancer. His enlistment commits him to serve a weekend a month, two weeks each summer, and he is subject to 90-day call-up every two years.

What motivated Dr. Casscells to join the Army, and what motivated the Army to accept him?

Why did the Army want Dr. Casscells?

The Army tells us why they were so interested in Dr. Casscells that they were willing to give him three health waivers:

So the Army is interested in Dr. Casscells because of his expertise in avian flu. Indeed, Casscells has done research into the role of influenza and influenza vaccination in causing and preventing cardiovascular disease. There are however numerous other people that are vastly more expert in avian flu, that could help the Army. Yet Dr. Casscells was appointed the "U.S. Army Medical Command's senior medical advisor for avian influenza and pandemic influenza." What is it that makes Dr. Casscells expertise in avian flu so special?

Dr. Casscells' Special Expertise

What distinguishes Dr. Casscells' expertise in avian flu from that of others is that Dr. Casscells has been interested in the possibility that avian flu could be used as a bioweapon. In his 2003 paper "Influenza as a bioweapon," he writes:

  • "The Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 killed 20-40 million people. ...In addition to such spontaneous mutations, we must, since the terrorist attacks of September and October 2001, consider the possibility of malicious genetic engineering to create more virulent strains."
  • "[T]he possibility for genetic engineering and aerosol transmission suggests an enormous potential for bioterrorism."
  • "CDC should advance influenza as a critical agent in priority as a bioterrorism threat."

In addition he states in this paper that "Influenza is a very different virus from smallpox, and the public health implications of influenza as a bioweapon differ from those for smallpox: influenza is readily available, whereas known stocks of smallpox are secured at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and at a facility in Russia (though there is reason to suspect its leakage to weapons programs elsewhere)." Iran has been accused of drawing from Russia's experts and supplies of smallpox for bioweapons programs.

Two of the four coauthors of that paper, Dr. Mohammad Madjid and Dr. Parsa Mirhaji, received their medical training in Iran [1], [2]. Madjid and Casscells coauthored a second paper on the subject, "Influenza as a bioterror threat: the need for global vaccination."

The fourth coauthor of the "Influenza as a bioweapon" paper, Dr. Scott Lillibridge, was hired at UT-Houston as a "bioterrorism expert," after being "the top government official for responding to bioterrorism attacks." He led the CDC's operations in response to the sarin gas terrorism in the Tokyo subway in 1995, and coordinated the response of the Department of Health and Human Services to the anthrax letters in October 2001. His wife Kristy Lillibridge worked at the CDC focusing on "develop[ing] techniques for screening animals and humans" to "[prevent] infectious diseases from entering the United States," and on "Bioterrorism Preparedness."

Casscells and his coauthors have led several efforts in disaster preparedness and chemical and bioterrorism prevention: "Defense of Houston," DREAMS project, T5 project [1], and most recently the TexSHIELD program with focus on avian influenza prevention and response. TexSHIELD will "also assist in the war on terrorism." Casscells was the principal architect of these Army-funded programs and has also been involved in numerous task forces and commissions on bioterrorism.

What motivated Casscells to join the Army?

Dr. Casscells says he joined the Army because:

Dr. Casscells never says that he joined the Army because he recognized that his special skills and expertise in avian flu and in bioterrorism prevention could be useful to it. Perhaps those considerations never crossed his mind.

But it is somewhat peculiar that a high profile person with a myriad of responsibilities and commitments that rely on his special expertise, plus a busy family life, decides to join the Army at the age of 53 for purely sentimental reasons. And apparently the decision "seemed abrupt to many of his family and friends," and "surprise[d] many friends and acquaintances."

So let's assume there is another reason why Dr. Casscells decided to join the Army. If he doesn't talk about it, it must be classified. Perhaps he was asked by somebody in a high position to make this sacrifice, and he couldn't refuse. Does Dr. Casscells know people in high places?

So it looks like Dr. Casscells has a lot of friends in high places. Perhaps he was asked by one of those friends, possibly even by his number one patient, President Bush, to enlist in the Army for a service that only he could provide to the country. A service that could not be talked about, so he had to come up with other "credible" reasons.

The Army, Avian Flu, and Bioterrorism

In November 2005, a few months after enlisting, Casscells was given a medal for exceptionally meritorious service as "the U.S. Army Medical Command Senior Medical Advisor for Avian Influenza and Pandemic Influenza." He had made several trips to the Middle East and Southeast Asia in the preceding months in that capacity.

The same news release mentions that Casscells directs TexSHIELD, which places "special emphasis on avian influenza." According to Casscells, TexSHIELD will "facilitate[s] the global involvement of American doctors, nurses and other allied health professionals in our response to global emergencies, such as the recent tsunami, flu epidemics and the possibility of bioterrorism."

In March 2006, there were reports that "bird flu threatens American troops in Iraq," stating that "bird flu mutation is more threatening than terrorist attacks." Troops were warned. A bird flu alert was declared in Southern Iraq.

There have been news reports since 2003 that US Army scientists have recreated in the laboratory the highly infectious 1918 Spanish Flu virus that killed millions [1] .

Dr. Casscells laboratory research work "is focused on new methods of gene transfer." Gene transfer is a major route to creating new disease agents, and it certainly could be used to build effective biological weapons [1 (doc)]. Casscells' paper on influenza as a bioweapon warned about the possibility of deliberate malicious genetic engineering. As he was finishing his Army training in February 2006, Casscells "volunteered to go to Iraq."

Iranian scientists do work on genetic engineering, and may well be creating mutations of the H5N1 influenza virus that make it human-to-human transmissible to develop antidotes against them, just as US scientists are.

Iran is the "most active state sponsor of terrorism" according to the US State Department.

"Wild Speculation"

Without being aware of the existence of Dr. Casscells, I wrote in this column that bird flu would offer a perfect "casus belli" for an attack on Iran. My hypothesis was based on the fact that the US administration is raising alarm over the dramatic consequences of a bird flu outbreak well beyond what is scientifically warranted, [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], and that the alleged enormous potential consequences (up to 150 million deaths worldwide) fits with the administration's statements "The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction – and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. There are few greater threats than a terrorist attack with WMD."

So let us apply some Bayesian reasoning. If my wild speculation is wrong, what is the probability that:

  • The Army's top expert on avian flu is also the main US scientist that has written papers on influenza as a bioweapon?
  • The Army's top expert on avian flu also has a close relation to President Bush, being his personal physician?
  • The single senior US scientist that has worked on prevention of bioterrorism and on influenza as a bioweapon enlists in the Army at age 53, with three medical waivers?
  • This person's two closest collaborators in research on bird flu pandemic and bioterrorism are of Iranian origin?

Without doing the math, I argue that these facts taken together represent extremely remarkable coincidences, i.e. have an extremely low probability of occurrence, if my wild speculation is incorrect. Instead, they are no longer coincidences if Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush entrusted this highly respected scientist with a top secret mission of the greatest importance to national security, on what is an obsession of the Bush administration.

Dr. Casscells' mission

The evidence suggests that Dr. Casscells was asked to enlist in the Army to build up a "casus belli" against Iran: that Iran is engaged in biological weapons work, specifically creating a mutation of the H5N1 virus that is human-to-human transmissible; that Dr. Casscells was deployed last year to the Middle East and the Far East and this year to Iraq to assemble the evidence, to examine bird flu cases on the spot and analyze their genetic makeup and differences in the different regions of the world, and perhaps do some genetic manipulation of his own. If Iran developed such a mutation and it was transmitted to Iranian birds, the first cases are likely to show up in neighboring countries like Iraq, before they spread to the rest of the world.

If Dr. Casscells had spent a considerable time in the Middle East working for the Army without enlisting, it would have been more obvious that his activity was related to his previous work funded by the Army, namely bioterrorism. In order to conceal this fact he was asked to enlist.

There may be "evidence" from "intelligence" that such bioterrorism work is going on in Iranian underground facilities. Dr. Casscells has the necessary high scientific standing, as well as the right background, to provide credibility to such a claim. It will be far stronger "evidence" than the feeble Colin Powell's claims on Iraq bioweapons trailers, against which Americans have been inoculated by now.

Finding different genetic sequences in bird flu viruses in the Middle East and other regions of the world would of course not be a fingerprint of deliberate genetic manipulation, since random mutations occur naturally. However given Dr. Casscells history of intense preoccupation with bioterrorism, he is likely to be inclined to interpret it as such.

Especially if he is concerned about the health of his number one patient, since as he wrote in the "Influenza as a bioweapon" paper, "influenza poses a greater threat to world leaders than does smallpox, because they are older and prone to influenza and its cardiovascular complications...." Sounds familiar? Cheney and Rumsfeld would also arguably be obvious targets.

Because the potential for catastrophic loss from a worldwide influenza pandemic is so high, the administration will argue that a military strike is justified, "even if uncertainty remains...." The arguments will be made after the bombing starts.

The appointment of Michael Hayden as head of the CIA also makes sense in this context, to strengthen the connection of Defense Department and CIA intelligence operations and thwart any independent CIA effort that could run counter to the buildup of damning evidence against Iran. According to intelligence expert John Pike, "Hayden is coming on board as the CIA is gearing up to overthrow the mullahs." Hayden will also ensure that related CIA intelligence activities will not become public, "The CIA needs to get out of the news – as source or subject."

I don't know whether Dr. Casscells is a knowing participant in the plan to attack Iran, or merely an unwitting key facilitator. Perhaps, just as ElBaradei states that he cannot "provide assurance" of the nonexistence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran, it will be enough for the administration if Dr. Casscells testifies that he "cannot rule out" that the "scientific evidence" he gathers on avian flu in the Middle East could point to a hidden underground Iranian bioweapon program to create a deadly mutation of the H5N1 virus.

Then what? HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt often emphasizes the importance of early local detection of dangerous mutations of the avian flu virus: "Think of the world as a vast dry forest that's susceptible to fire". "It only takes one spark and the fire starts. But if you're there when the spark happens, you can very simply put it out with your foot..."

"Nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack, (for example, deep underground bunkers or bioweapon facilities)."

"Geographic combatant commanders may request Presidential approval for use of nuclear weapons for a variety of conditions. Examples include: ...Imminent attack from adversary biological weapons that only effects from nuclear weapons can safely destroy."

"All options are on the table..."

An Open Plea to Dr. Casscells

I assume that Dr. Casscells is a good man and a patriotic American. So far I have no reason to believe otherwise.

I very much doubt that he has fully considered the possible consequences of his actions. Just like Colin Powell now regrets his February 2003 UN speech, just like Joseph Wilson may now regret not having written his OpEd earlier, Dr. Casscells may come to regret his role in these events.

If the Iran plans are carried through, the case for war against Iran will fall apart in the aftermath, like the one for Iraq did. But this time the perpetrators, aiders and abettors will be prosecuted and will face penalties that fit the crime.

Dr. Casscells has only a partial vision of the facts. I doubt very much that he has considered the detailed evidence presented in this column that it is a deliberate purposeful goal of this administration to strike Iranian facilities with earth-penetrating nuclear weapons, which has been recently supported by Seymour Hersh's and other news reports, and explicitly not ruled out by President Bush.

The fact that I can deduce the existence of a plan to accuse Iran of developing a mutated H5N1 virus, without having access to any classified intelligence, should make it clear to Dr. Casscells that such intelligence is bogus. Just like in the case of Iraq, it is likely to originate in unfounded claims from Iranian dissidents.

It is imperative that any evidence that is claimed to exist on an Iranian biological weapons threat that could be used to justify a US attack be made public. Then it can be subject to public scrutiny and to the scrutiny of other independent scientists. Others may have information that contradicts such intelligence claims. Dr. Casscells, you know full well that no scientific evidence has ever a claim to validity unless confirmed by independent scientific studies.

The nation's most eminent physicists have asked President Bush to take the nuclear option against Iran off the table. The American Physical Society, representing over 30,000 American physicists, has expressed deep concern over the possible use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state. The administration is not responding, and the nuclear option is still on the table. Congress is silent.

The use of nuclear weapons by the US against a non-nuclear country will usher in a different world. A world on a direct path to global nuclear annihilation.

Dr. Casscells: please let America know what is your mission in the Middle East. Please refuse to carry out your duties. Please resign from your job as a key facilitator of what will be a heinously criminal illegal and immoral act, that will shatter America's standing in the world and lead America and the world into a path of self-destruction.

Please help prevent the upcoming US nuclear attack on Iran.

You have an enormous responsibility on your shoulders. Don't fail America's future generations. Don't fail Lily, Henry, and Sam.

 

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Jorge Hirsch is a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego.

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