They are trying to find potentially dangerous materials — once shrouded in secrecy — with only poorly kept records and fading memories to go on.
Thousands of tons of hazardous substances like anthrax are at stake.
Only the hunt is not in Iraq.
It's in Maryland.
According to The Washington Post, the U.S. Army has spent two years and $25 million cleaning up an area of central Maryland's Fort Detrick that was used as a target range and waste dump.
In what has become the Army's biggest remediation project ever, the cleanup of Area B has unearthed vials of live bacteria and nonvirulent anthrax. Some 2,000 tons have been scooped out of the ground to date, in a project due to end in 2003.
"You never know what's there until you start digging," Col. John Ball, Fort Detrick garrison commander, told The Post.
The site is so toxic that clean-up crews wear respirators and the materials sometimes burst into flames as they are dug up. Animals from the surrounding forest are autopsied when they die to see what killed them. At one point, digging released a gas that sent workers to the hospital.
The very small amount of anthrax that was found was in vaccine form and could not have spread the disease. But cleanup crews have also unearthed old lab rats, syringes, and drums and canisters with unidentified contents.
"The documentation for where this came from doesn't exist," Lt. Col. Donald Archibald, Fort Detrick's director of safety, environment and integrated planning, told The Post.
The dump was used from 1955 into the 1960s. The cleanup began ten years after tests of monitoring wells near the dump showed dangerous chemicals. Subsequent testing indicated that wells used by houses near the site were contaminated.
The United States' biological weapons program ran from 1941, when it was headed by pharmaceutical magnate George Merck, until President Nixon ended the research in 1969.
During the intervening 28 years, the U.S. conducted research and testing on a wide variety of agents at several facilities across the country, as well as in cities where civilians were unwitting guinea pigs in tests using harmless bacteria to trace weapons' potential.
According to a history of the program provided by the Henry L. Stimson Center, research at facilities like Fort Detrick and Pine Bluff, in Arkansas, included development of 500-pound bombs for anthrax and botulinum toxin, as well work on strains of tularemia, staph and encephalitis.
In 1950, open-air tests with apparently harmless agents were conducted on Navy ships off Norfolk, Va., and over the San Francisco Bay. In 1965, the Army used nonhazardous Bacillus globigii to test the way germs might spread through Washington DC's National Airport and Greyhound bus terminal.
In 1969, when Mr. Nixon announced he was halting U.S. research on germ warfare, national security adviser Henry Kissinger said it was because, "We have simply not concluded that this is an effective or proper instrument of warfare."