UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations found small amounts of a potentially lethal chemical warfare agent, removed from Iraq a decade ago, in offices near its New York headquarters but officials said on Thursday there was no danger.
The FBI and New York police were called and they had removed the substances by late afternoon on Thursday, said Marie Okabe, a U.N. spokeswoman.
The material was identified as phosgene, an older generation chemical warfare agent, which could have been lethal if it had evaporated, the officials said.
Phosgene was used extensively during World War One as a choking agent that attacks the lungs.
The phosgene was recovered in 1996 from a former Iraqi chemical weapons facility, al-Muthanna, north of Baghdad.
“It should not have come here,” said Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, known as UNMOVIC, in whose offices the substance was found. Normally, such materials would be taken to a secure laboratory.
R.P. Eddy, executive director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Policing Terrorism and a former U.N. adviser, agreed. “Did someone there make a stupid mistake that could have actually been catastrophic? Yes. Does that mean the U.N. is a flawed organization? No. This is one goofball error,” he said.
In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow said, “I’m sure that there are going to be a lot of red-faced people over at the U.N. trying to just figure out how they got there.”
The inspectors, searching for weapons of mass destruction, were thrown out of Iraq by Saddam Hussein in 1998 and came back in early 2002. The United States ordered them to leave shortly before the March 2003 invasion.
The Security Council on June 29 disbanded UNMOVIC. The inspectors were cleaning out their offices.
They discovered two small plastic packages with metal and glass containers, ranging in size from small vials to tubes the length of a pen with liquid substances, Buchanan said.
The vials were in a small sealed metal box, thought to contain papers. The container was discovered last Friday but only on Wednesday did the inspectors find a list of what the items were.
The chemicals are being taken to the U.S. Army laboratory in Edgewood, Maryland. They were brought to New York in 1996 by inspectors, Okabe said.
On the New York Stock Exchange, the Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard and Poor’s 500 dropped after midday on an erroneous report the substance found was nerve gas and that U.N. headquarters had been evacuated. The market recovered after the world body said there was no danger.
Okabe, who announced the news at her regular U.N. briefing. said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had been informed and “there will be an investigation.”
No office was evacuated until the FBI came to collect the materials and ordered the staff to leave temporarily.
The experts believe “the packages are properly secured and pose no immediate risk or danger to the immediate public,” Buchanan said, adding the materials were isolated in a secured room and no toxic vapors had escaped.
“We made a determination based on what it was ... that it was safe for us to come back to work, so we’re working in the premises,” Brian Mullady, an UNMOVIC expert said. “We feel perfectly safe.”
Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip and Michele Nichols