Commentary

Mystery of the Vanishing Weapons

This article was published in The Washington Times, Oct. 12, 2003.

The Iraq Survey Group, a team of 1,200 inspectors headed by David Kay, found none of the chemical or biological weapons that had been specifically named by top U.S. officials before the war, nor any of the equally specific equipment, such as mobile labs and unmanned aircraft. What they did find was a single vial of decade-old botulinum in some scientist’s fridge, plans to build missiles that could exceed the allowed range and some research programs that were undisclosed in violation of the U.N. deal.

What they did not find was any sign of the biological, chemical or nuclear “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) that U.S. and British governments claimed Iraq possessed in hugely lethal quantities. The group is confident “Iraq did not have a large, ongoing centrally controlled CW (chemical weapons) program after 1991.” There is even less evidence of nukes and no evidence of biological agents, unless you count that one little vial.

The stark contrast between what was said about WMD before the war and what has since been found certainly appears to be a massive failure of intelligence, despite what CIA Director George Tenet says. For numerous pundits who previously went along with the notion Iraq had a formidable arsenal of vaguely identified exotic weapons, however, failure to discover such weapons is now said to be little more than an insignificant annoyance. The real purpose of the war, they tell us, was a humanitarian crusade to get rid of one of the world’s nastiest dictators and turn Iraq into a much nicer place, thanks to many billions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers.

Numerous explanations and evasions have been created since June to minimize the uncomfortably wide chasm between WMD “intelligence” and reality. The first was to denigrate WMD skeptics as foolishly impatient. In mid-June, national security writer Jack Kelly thought it “at best wildly premature” to complain the supposedly huge stockpiles of WMD had not yet been found. Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations likewise found it most likely Saddam “did have something to hide — and we’ll still find it.”

More recently, Notra Trulock from Accuracy in Media wrote that “Kay’s team still has much work ahead before a final judgment can be made on Iraq’s WMD programs.” Unfortunately, asking for more and more time is beginning to sound quite desperate and unconvincing.

A second defensive strategy has been to point out that the Clinton administration also expressed anxiety about WMD in Iraq in the late ’90s. The bipartisan nature of the intelligence blunder does help to absolve current administration officials from charges of deliberate deception. But it fails to absolve them from charges of being too easily duped by old misinformation. Two wrong presidents do not make one right.

A third technique has been to simply assert, as Daniel Pipes did recently, that “there was indeed massive and undisputed evidence to indicate that the Iraqi regime was building WMD.” If the evidence was “undisputed,” then why did stubborn people like me keep disputing it?

In reality, the evidence was always flimsy, consisting largely of hearsay, technological fantasy and old paperwork. Anyone who still believes the evidence was massive and beyond dispute should read the half-baked CIA report released last October and the equally misleading British dossier (both available on the Internet). These reports are full of weasel words about precursors, growth media, dual-use capabilities (castor oil factories could make ricin), and suspicious desires and intentions.

A fourth diversion has been to hint Iraq’s mysterious weapons and delivery systems were just packed up and shipped off to some other country such as Syria or Lebanon. That story is no way to make our intelligence look more intelligent. If huge stockpiles of lethal weapons and their required delivery systems (e.g., artillery shells or aircraft sprayers) could be moved from one country to another without U.S. satellites and spy planes even noticing, then the CIA would be far more incompetent than its harshest critics ever claimed.

The latest and least defensible defense of the CIA has been to flatly deny administration spokesmen ever claimed Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons or that such weapons posed any imminent threat. A Wall Street Journal editorial thus claims, “The Imminence Test and the Stockpile Standard… are postwar inventions, and political transparently political inventions.” That is a remarkable remark, and one that relies entirely on extremely short memories.

On Jan. 23, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz addressed the Council on Foreign Relations. He claimed that “in 1997, U.N. inspectors found Iraq had produced and weaponized at least 10 liters of ricin. In concentrated form, that quantity of ricin is enough to kill more than 1 million people. Baghdad declared to the U.N. inspectors that it had over 19,000 liters of botulinum toxin, enough to kill tens of millions; and 8,500 liters of anthrax, with the potential to kill hundreds of millions. And consider that the U.N. inspectors believe that much larger quantities of biological agents remained undeclared. Indeed, the inspectors think that Iraq has manufactured 2 to 4 times the amount of biological agents it has admitted to and has failed to explain the whereabouts of more than 2 metric tons of raw material for the growth of biological agents.

Despite 11 years of inspections and sanctions, containment and military response, Baghdad retains chemical and biological weapons and is producing more.” Mr. Wolfowitz was clearly claiming Iraq still “retains” sufficient biological weaponry to kills “hundreds of millions” — a number large enough to wipe out the entire population of North America. To make it even scarier, Mr. Wolfowitz added Iraq “is producing more,” so the dangers today “are far greater now than they would have been five or 10 years ago.”

Yet even this very public claim that Iraq has more than enough weapons to kill “hundreds of millions” failed to meet the Wall Street Journal’s “Imminence Test and Stockpile Standard,” since the Journal now assures us talking about stockpiles and imminent threats is just a transparently political postwar invention.

The British dossier of last September said, “Iraq can deliver chemical and biological agents using an extensive range of artillery shells, free-fall bombs, sprayers and ballistic missiles … within 45 minutes of a decision to do so.” Didn’t this alleged threat of chemical and biological attack within 45 minutes meet the “Imminence Test and Stockpile Standard”? In his address to the United Nations early this year, Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed, “The Iraqi regime has also developed ways to disperse lethal biological agents widely, indiscriminately into the water supply, into the air.” The threat from all those imaginary stockpiles of weapons and delivery systems was supposedly so imminent we could not safely wait for U.N. inspectors to find any evidence before launching a pre-emptive strike. Mr. Powell summarized his presentation by saying “Leaving Saddam Hussein possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option.” That turns out to have been quite literally true: Saddam could not be left in possession of weapons he did not possess. Even if we let Mr. Kay’s investigators waste all the time and money they want — in marked contrast to our previous impatience with U.N. investigators — the embarrassing exaggeration of Iraq’s weapons is not going to go away before the presidential election. Patience only takes us so far.

The president has clearly been badly served. At some point those who produced the shoddy intelligence about Iraqi WMD, and those who most grossly exaggerated its significance, are going to have to be held accountable. That means doing the honorable thing through a few graceful apologies and timely resignations.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist.