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Nothing undermines technical surveillance like an underground facility-and the rogue powers know it. Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya, and al Qaeda all made extensive use of the subterrane to frustrate our remote study of their secret facilities. Now there are rumors of a massive complex of tunnels under Baghdad, a possible storage location for clandestine chemical and biological weapons.

The latest revelation comes from Dr. Hussein Shahristani, the former head of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, who escaped in 1991, but has continued to sneak back into Iraq to aid rebels. In an interview with CBS News, he said that there are over 100 kilometers of tunnels under Baghdad, laid according to the plans for a public subway, but converted to military use. His knowledge is hearsay (he had direct contact with only one person who worked in the tunnels) but plausible. The United Nations inspectors had heard rumors of such a system, but have never been able to locate it. Tunnels are relatively cheap, and extremely effective for hiding weapons and people.

Tunneling for military purposes is almost as ancient as war itself. Originally, to “undermine” was to breach or destroy a military wall from below. Explosives placed in such mines eventually adopted the name mine for themselves. The United States began the modern era of large, deeply buried facilities with the completion of the Cheyenne Mountain complex in 1965 to hold the Operations Center for the North American Air Defense Command. The man-made cavern was deep enough to survive a hit by a small nuclear bomb. It holds 15 spring-suspended buildings, eleven of which are three stories high. It holds resources to sustain 800 people for 30 days. By that time the nuclear war would presumably be over.

Despite its own leadership in the underground, the military was shocked in 1974 by an inadvertent discovery. Soldiers near the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea noticed steam leaking from the ground. They dug down, hoping to find a hot spring, but discovered instead a tunnel that came from the north under the DMZ and extended over a kilometer into South Korea. It was made of reinforced concrete and had electric power and narrow-gauge rails. Three additional tunnels have subsequently been found, the most recent one in 1990. It is 145 meters below ground, 2 meters square. If used during a war, it could have conveyed a full division of troops every hour, including equipment. Nobody knows how many undetected tunnels still penetrate the DMZ. They are not easy to find. (Photos of the tunnels can be found online in an excerpt from Major General John Singlaub’s book Hazardous Duty.)

Once, large tunnels were dug by heroic miners called “sand hogs” who blasted with dynamite and dug with pick and shovel. Today, the tunnels are ground and scraped by tunnel boring machines, 150-ton monsters that resemble the giant worms of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. These massive vehicles can dig up to 75 meters per day in soft earth, but only a few meters per day in granite. A set of tunnel borers dug the Chunnel in three years. When they finished, the machines were left near the middle, buried deep under the English Channel. It was too expensive to back them out.

In the early 1990s, Libya began construction of a vast underground “fertilizer factory” near the town of Tarhunah. It isn’t clear why such a factory need be underground; the U.S. suspected it was designed to make chemical weapons. Indeed, in 1996 two German businessmen were convicted of exporting chemical warfare equipment to the plant. U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry told Congress that he would consider using “the whole range of American weapons” to keep the facility from completion. Libya halted construction shortly afterwards.

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