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Former Chemical Weapons Investigator Discusses Suspected Attack In Syria


Inspectors will be on the ground tomorrow in the Syrian town of Douma. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is going in to investigate the killing of dozens of civilians in the April 7 attack. Their investigation is likely to inform how the U.S. and its allies respond to the suspected use of chemical weapons.

Earlier today we reached Angela Kane. She's the former U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs. She oversaw the investigation of the 2013 sarin gas attack in Ghouta, the one that killed more than a thousand people. She told us what inspectors will be looking for this time around.

ANGELA KANE: They will be taking samples from the victims. They will be taking urine samples, blood samples, any other samples - environmental samples - that they could possibly get. And they will guard these. And they will never leave their possessions. And they will take these samples out with them for analysis at the various OPCW-related laboratories in Europe.

CORNISH: Now, how do you go about determining what kind of chemical has been used?

KANE: Well, as you know, when we went in in 2013, which was the first investigation that was done, we actually determined that this was sarin. And that was determined on the base of the samples that we took out, meaning the environmental samples. But also we had a lot of samples taken from people who were actually affected by the sarin. That was possible because only a few days - I think it was two or three days - had passed since the sarin was released. Now, the longer you wait with taking the samples, the more the chance is that these samples will be evaporated or that the chemical is not so strong anymore.

CORNISH: You're describing both time and access as being critical to this process. What are the challenges, then, in essentially a war zone?

KANE: Well, the challenges are always there. When we went in in 2013, the difficulty was that the territory in Eastern Ghouta was in rebel hands. So the government said they could not be responsible for our safety. And if you remember that our convoy was shot at the very first time and the first vehicle, which was an armored vehicle, was totally compromised.

Now, I understand in Douma right now the government took over the area. They actually sent buses in there - I mean, to the extent of, like, 80 or 90 buses - to take out the fighters. And that may also include some of the victims of course who were affected by that attack. But on the other hand, that means that the government is responsible for the security of the fact-finding mission of the experts that are going in to do the analysis.

CORNISH: So we don't know. There could be more challenges ahead.

KANE: There could be more challenges ahead. But I think it's a positive signal that hopefully this will bring some clarity into the situation. A, that you have a chain of custody that can be trusted because the previous investigations were attacked, as you know, for example, by the Russian Federation and the Security Council because they said, this is all secondhand information, so we cannot really be sure that this is the correct assessment of what actually happened on the ground.

CORNISH: But at the end of the day, do you worry about proliferation? Do you worry that the signal sent out by Syria in using chemical weapons sends a signal to other countries that, like, hey, there's no real consequence here?

KANE: I don't think that I worry about proliferation. Proliferation is always a possibility. But what I worry about is really that the norm against using chemical weapons has been undermined now for several years. And that I find extremely sad. Everyone remembers still the First World War, other weapons that were used in terms of chemicals in the Second World War, even pesticides in Vietnam, for example, that is also chemical agents. But now what we have seen is that it seems to become a weekly occurrence that chemical weapons or materials that are chemicals are used as weapons against populations, against civilians. And that I find extremely of concern and extremely sad also.

CORNISH: Angela Kane, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KANE: Thank you, Audie. Bye-bye.

CORNISH: She is the former U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs.

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