Before the US-British invasion of Iraq, most skeptics did not argue that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed no illicit weapons of mass destruction. Rather, the majority of the international community doubted that Iraqi non-conventional weapons capabilities posed a pressing threat to the peace. Repeatedly presented with false, dated, improperly cited and, in at least one case, plagiarized “intelligence” of the Iraqi threat, the UN Security Council refused to authorize war to enforce Resolution 1441, unanimously passed on November 8, 2002. On the streets, anti-war organizers’ efforts culminated in the largest worldwide demonstrations in history. The message of anti-war dissent was clear: available evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction did not constitute a case for war.
George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his strongest ally, sought to justify the invasion of Iraq with numerous claims that the Hussein’s regime sat on large volumes of chemical and biological agents which could be delivered to targets outside Iraq’s borders. With the war over, as day after day goes by without evidence of these vast weapons programs, it is interesting to observe the Bush administration retreat from its pre-war positions. Unwittingly, the White House now appears to be inching toward the pre-war stance of chief UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei: some of the ingredients to develop chemical and biological agents may exist in Iraq, but there is no sign of deliverable weapons of mass destruction.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who wrote a January 23, 2003 op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Why We Know Iraq Is Lying” about having destroyed its weaponized chemical and biological materials, sounded a little like the much-disparaged Blix and ElBaradei on May 1, when she was quoted saying that “you may find assembly lines, you may find pieces hidden here and there” that could be precursors to lethal agents or chemicals with dual uses. These scattered pieces, she continued, could be put together “just in time” to make the proscribed armaments. While weapons caches may still be discovered, for the time being, the chemicals and “assembly lines” have clearly acquired a second use for the Bush administration—as it attempts to lower the standard for what constitutes a weapon of mass destruction.
Believing the Hype
Before the war, the US insisted, time and time again, that these weapons existed in large numbers and posed a threat so urgent that military action was required to “disarm” the deposed dictator. In his January 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush laid out his administration’s case for war with Iraq by saying that US “intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent. In such quantities, these chemical agents could also kill untold thousands.” Bush also presented allegations, later refuted by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iraq had purchased enriched uranium ore from the African nation of Niger.
The following month, the White House sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to make its case before the still unconvinced UN Security Council. Using intercepted communications and satellite images, Powell succeeded in convincing large sectors of the American public that Iraq had the nerve agents and chemical shells it claimed not to have. Outside US borders, however, Powell succeeded mainly in raising serious questions about Washington’s commitment to UN weapons monitoring and the goal of disarming Iraq. Under the terms of Resolution 1441, UN member states are required to provide full cooperation in the weapons inspection process. Much of the information in Powell’s presentation had been collected before the resumption of inspections in late November 2002. If the US was in possession of evidence of Iraqi concealment or weapons activities, then its first obligation was to share that information with UN inspectors, who could ensure that the prohibited weapons were then destroyed or rendered harmless. Defenders of Washington’s apparent failure to share crucial intelligence implied that Blix and ElBaradei could not be trusted with such a sensitive mission.
Even facing certain loss of power as US tanks rolled into Baghdad, the Iraqi regime did not use the chemical or biological weapons whose “grave and gathering danger” Rice, Bush and Powell had posited before the war. Presaging Rice’s new take on the situation, the British government explained this fact by arguing that the regime was not able to deploy its weapons because their components had been dispersed. This argument directly contradicted London’s claim before the war, featured in the heavily hyped “British dossier” of September 2002, that Iraq was capable of fielding an operational battery of weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, and that Hussein’s commanders had standing orders to fire them. In an introduction to the dossier, Blair opined: “I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current, that [Saddam] has made progress on WMD, and that he has to be stopped…Intelligence reports make clear that he sees the building up of his WMD capability, and the belief overseas that he would use these weapons, as vital to his three strategic interests, and in particular his goal of regional domination.”
Since the Iraq war began on March 19, US, British and allied forces have checked out over a dozen suspect sites—searching for chemical, biological and nuclear arms materials. Special operations teams, including so-called “mobile exploitation teams” composed of specialized military officers, Defense Intelligence Agency officials and CIA analysts, are trying to locate and test possible weapons materials at as many as 36 sites.
To date, the US-led “mobile exploitation teams” have provided no conclusive evidence that chemical and biological agents exist in weaponized form, though the media has done much to convince the public to the contrary. There was a brief frenzy of speculation—fueled by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and later dampened by Powell—that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction may have been moved to Syria. Embedded reporters have passed along dozens of allegations of discoveries of chemical and biological weapons. Cable news networks, in particular, have focused an inordinate amount of broadcast time on repeated images of alleged mobile labs, chemical munitions and biological weapons facilities, while often neglecting to retract their stories when corroborating evidence fails to emerge.
On April 11, for example, FOX News praised their own Rick Leventhal for witnessing the discovery of a mobile weapons lab secreted inside a larger truck resembling a surface-to-air missile support or radar vehicle. FOX ran and reran pictures of the dilapidated truck, while announcers speculated that anyone who doubted the existence of mobile labs before the war would be now proven wrong. In a second story about the discovery of high-grade weapons material, later withdrawn by the US military, FOX quoted a former Iraqi scientist saying that “the material definitely could have been planned [sic]” for use in a bomb. The reporter then added, “I think this demonstrates the failure of the UN weapons inspections, and demonstrates that our guys are going to find the weapons of mass destruction.”
With no concrete evidence of Iraqi chemical or biological weapons, the White House has conceded that the Iraqi regime may have destroyed them before the war started. The US and its few allies, under increasing international pressure to prove that Iraq had such weapons, are raising further suspicion by refusing to allow UN inspectors to help in the search. The Pentagon has recruited its own inspectors, and begun negotiating contracts for weapons disposal with US companies. It plans to send around a thousand additional military personal and scientists to assist with interviews and fact-finding in the coming weeks.
Of Credibility and Corroboration
If any weapons were to be found by the US teams criss-crossing Iraq, would the international community, already very suspicious of US and British motives for the invasion, believe the news? Given the US and British track record of faulty findings before the war, there are widespread concerns that the Bush administration may manipulate evidence to redress its sagging credibility. Empty-handed after conducting site searches, US defense officials are now reported as saying that they are counting on captured Iraqis to point them in the right direction. According to the Associated Press, the US Central Command, which ran the war and is now supervising post-war Iraq, has caught “several alleged weapons scientists.” Senior regime figures in US custody, like former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz and former liaison to the UN inspectors Gen. Amir al-Saadi, are also supposed to lead Central Command to Saddam Hussein’s illegal arsenals.
Are scientists likely to provide accurate information to their captors? Before the war, the White House repeatedly urged Hans Blix to conduct interviews with Iraq scientists outside Iraq in order to protect them from repression and retaliation. The Bush administration is now threatening these scientists with imprisonment, and trial that could lead to execution, if they fail to cough up useful information on where the putative weapons of mass destruction programs may be hidden.
The US-led military inspections effort ostensibly draws its rationale from the need to enforce UN disarmament resolutions, especially 687, 1284 and 1441. But the mandate of the inspections body produced by Resolution 1284, UNMOVIC, applies to all governments of Iraq, including the present “military administration” led by Central Command and retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner. The fact also remains that substantial amounts of the chemical and biological agents produced by Iraq were accounted for and destroyed by Iraq and UN inspectors during the 1990s. Given this record of accomplishment, the Security Council should retain its authority and UNMOVIC should be authorized to reenter Iraq to complete its mandate. Even British Secretary of Defense Geoff Hoon recently agreed, “it’s important that there should be an independent element in verification,” lest the world disbelieve the results of the Pentagon’s inspections.
The UN stands at the ready to certify that the requirements of the disarmament resolutions have been met. In a letter to the UN Security Council on March 19, UNMOVIC chairman Hans Blix reminded the Council “that it has in UNMOVIC staff a unique body of international experts who owe their allegiance to the United Nations, and who are trained as inspectors in the field of weapons of mass destruction. While the International Atomic Energy Agency has a large department of skilled nuclear inspectors and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has a large staff of skilled chemical weapons inspectors, no other international organizations have trained inspectors in the field of biological weapons and missiles.” IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has recently made it clear that the IAEA “is the sole body with legal authority to verify Iraq’s nuclear disarmament…Our operation is interrupted because of hostilities. We expect to go back with full authority after the cessation of hostilities, to resume our inspection activities in Iraq.” According to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, “the work of the inspectors has merely been suspended. If and when they can resume their work, they should go back to Iraq. If anything were to be found, they should go back to test it. I hope the time will come when they will be able to do that.” Aside from the legal basis for the return of inspectors and the obvious role they would play by corroborating and providing independent verification of any weapons of mass destruction that may be found by the US, UN inspections are vital to future monitoring efforts.
Bush has called for economic sanctions on Iraq to be lifted quickly so the country’s oil revenue can be used to finance reconstruction. The French and the Russians, with varying degrees of pique, reply that the Security Council alone has the authority to suspend sanctions on Iraq. Both nations urged that sanctions not be lifted until UN inspectors verify that Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have been destroyed, along with the long-range missiles to deliver them. Snubbing the UN in favor of a US team may reprise the problems faced in the mid-1990s, when revelations of illegal US covert operations in Iraq helped to erode international consensus on sanctions, with France and Russia arguing for lifting the punitive measures and the US and Britain adamant that they should stay. This time, the players would exchange roles, but the cost to Iraqi civilian life would be the same.
But the imperatives of verifying Iraq’s disarmament and lifting sanctions may be eclipsed by the prospect that failure to produce weapons in Iraq will highlight a failure of US intelligence. Before the invasion of Iraq, a BBC interviewer confronted Blix with the observation that “the British government seems pretty sure that Saddam Hussein still has chemical and biological weapons, has produced more recently and is trying to get a nuclear bomb.” Blix responded, “Well, we are asked to provide facts to the Security Council and the best way of doing that is through inspections, what we see…I read the intelligence reports, but frequently they simply state that intelligence tells us this, or intelligence shows that. Fine, it may all be true…But simply saying that ‘intelligence shows…’ is not evidence.”
A transcript detailing the 1995 debriefing of a senior Iraqi scientist, Hussein Kamel, by officials from the IAEA and UNSCOM was leaked to Newsweek and reprinted in early March 2003. Kamel, who was Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, told the inspectors eight years ago that he had overseen and covered up the destruction of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programs. The claim was corroborated by a military aide who defected with Kamel. Newsweek reported that the CIA and its British equivalent MI6 were subsequently informed of the debriefing. As specialized military units working with intelligence officers come up empty in post-war Iraq, it is increasingly apparent that the intelligence community did not have the actionable information—the “bulletproof” evidence—that the White House continually cited while making its case for a preemptive strike. According to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, quoted in Newsday on April 28, “You either have the data or you don’t. That’s the problem here, that we don’t really have the data…At a minimum, the situation raises questions about both the quality of US intelligence on Iraqi weapons and the assertions of administration officials in the runup to the war.”
During 12 years of sanctions on Iraq, the US and Britain blocked billions of dollars in Iraqi purchase orders on the grounds that the sought-after goods could have “dual uses,” one entirely innocent and the other military. Today, it appears that the most obvious evidence of dual-use material can be found in US and British arguments attempting to justify the invasion of Iraq.