Posted on November 26, 2014
Gone With The WMD
Recalling the fleeting facts about Iraq
The Ocober 14th New York Times story revealing a stockpile of 5,000 chemical weapons in Iraq was not news. That’s why baffled conservatives like National Review’s Deroy Murdock are mistaken when they wonder why George W. Bush would “cover up” this information. The bulk of these pre-1991 weapons were stored at Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons facility in al-Muthanna, and had actually been declared to the United Nations at the end of that conflict. The existence of al-Muthanna’s chemical weapons stockpile had been revealed in the Duelfer Report (a.k.a., the Iraqi Survey Group Report) back in 2004. The Times and other major media could easily have related the substance of the Dulfer Report to their readers, if only they’d wanted it to. If there’s been any cover-up, it’s been theirs.
For those who require an explanation as to why President Bush hadn’t trumpeted this discovery, there are at least three very good reasons. First, the al-Muthanna facility had been turned over to the UN, so its contents were not among the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam had hidden, moved, destroyed, or otherwise failed to declare. Second, the media and other opponents of the war had long ago established the “those old things” rationale for dismissing any of Saddam’s weapons that had been manufactured before the ’91 Gulf War. If any WMDs that are arguably degraded to any degree are officially considered to be nothing, then nothing times 5,000 is still nothing.
Third, Bush knows that his acknowledgment of something is the surest way for the liberal media to declare it to be untrue. Remember the “16 words” scandal from his 2003 State of the Union Address, in which he said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The Brits stand by that claim, which leaves no basis on which to dispute Bush’s statement, yet the media have thoroughly denounced it as a lie.
The revelation that should be taken from the Times story is not simply that a stockpile of Saddam’s weapons exists, but that it exists in spite of having been officially “destroyed.” If it became more widely understood that the accepted conclusions about Saddam’s WMDs have been drawn in willful contradiction of the truth, the 2003 invasion of Iraq would be unambiguously vindicated.
We’re told that all of the al-Muthanna weapons are too badly degraded to pose a threat, but nobody really knows that. Because the UN inspectors detected leakage at the site, they decided it was too dangerous to inspect, so they sealed it off, tagged it, and deemed its contents “destroyed.” If there were still salvageable weapons and materials there, Saddam could have recovered them after banishing the inspectors in 1998. In fact, ISIS raided that same facility early this year, and we have no way of knowing if they found anything of value. We can only comfort ourselves with the thought that whatever they took does not officially exist.
In addition to those weapons Saddam had declared, hundreds of his undeclared WMDs have been found scattered throughout the country in small numbers. Supposedly, these do not count as WMDs, because every single one of them is old and degraded. How seriously can we take that explanation, in light of al-Muthanna? Have we really examined all the sarin and mustard rounds that have been recovered, and found every single one to be inert, or was it simply predetermined that they be classified as such?
Regardless of the weapons’ condition, Saddam’s failure to declare them constituted a material breach of UN Resolution 1441, which is what the inspectors had originally been tasked to look for. Only when Hans Blix introduced the “smoking gun” standard did the inspections turn into a cat-and-mouse game, in which success was defined as nothing short of finding huge stockpiles of recently produced WMDs, and having their existence verified by people who behaved as if they were doing pro bono legal work for Saddam’s government.
It’s not that no WMDs created since 1991 have been found, it’s just that they’ve been in small enough numbers that the Duelfer Report found them not to be “militarily significant” – a dubious distinction, since our primary concern was that they be used for terrorism, and not in a conventional military setting. Among the report’s many WMD revelations was the fact that Saddam’s government had admitted to producing 3.9 tons of VX. Experts say that 10 milligrams of VX is enough to kill a person, yet 3.9 tons was deemed not to qualify as “large scale production,” and therefore was not “militarily significant.” Under the accepted ground rules, that means it never existed at all.
One section of the Duelfer Report details an Iraqi Intelligence Service project in which Saddam operated a ring of clandestine chemical and biological laboratories during the 90s, often relocating them to elude UN inspectors. The information in this section backs up what it says an IIS officer had confessed to, which is that, “Iraq dismantled its capability to mass produce CW [chemical weapons] agent in favor of retaining the ability to produce smaller, batch scales of agent at covert labs.
That assessment is corroborated by a 2004 report from the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Committee on 58 missile sites where the inspectors had found dual-use equipment that could be used to produce chemical or biological weapons. UNMOVIC reported to the UN Security Council that all of these sites were swiftly dismantled before and during the 2003 invasion. Saddam never discontinued his WMD program; he only made it leaner, and easier to conceal.
UNMOVIC spokesman Ewan Buchanan presented before-and-after pictures of one of these sites, where the inspectors had found fermenters, a reactor vessel and a freeze drier, in addition to missile components. In explaining the significance of one dual-use item, he said, “You can make all kinds of pharmaceutical and medicinal products with a fermenter. You can also use it to breed anthrax.” Which conclusion must we have drawn, to have taken the report as anything short of irrefutable proof that Saddam had an active WMD program?
The Duelfer report goes on to discuss research that was done at one of the IIS facilities, in which deadly chemicals were tested on animals, and studied to see if they altered the smell and appearance of certain foods and beverages. If the media were at all interested in connecting the dots, they would have recalled this in 2006, when several of Saddam’s secret recordings were released. In one of them, he daydreams about a WMD attack by terrorists against the USA or England. One of his aides speculates about how easy it would be to taint a water supply with a biological agent, and argues that because this could be done by an individual, it would be easy for a government to deny culpability.
One IIS laboratory produced what the Duelfer Report dismisses as “no greater than a few kilograms” of ricin, which doesn’t sound like much as long as it’s preceded by the words “no greater than.” That is, until you realize that two milligrams is usually enough to kill a person. The site was dismantled and moved at some point in the mid-90s, and we have no idea how much more ricin was produced at its new location. Not that it matters. According to the established WMD calculus, an unknown quantity of ricin is nothing, and an “insignificant” few kilograms is nothing, so together, they equal nothing.
Another method that’s consistently been used to dismiss WMD finds is to define WMDs in such a way that the chemical and biological agents themselves do not qualify. At most, they may be considered “WMD components,” to only graduate to full-fledged WMDs once they are loaded into bombs or warheads. The Times story accused Bush of covering up the fact that soldiers have been exposed to deadly chemical agents, but this, like al-Muthanna, is not news. Repeatedly during the postwar search, soldiers had been treated for exposure to barrels of chemicals that were found in camouflaged ammo dumps.
Again, we’ve been remarkably generous in our assumptions about dual-use materials. These concealed chemicals are precursors to nerve agents, but they can also be used in the production of pesticides. Naturally, the official conclusion has been that they were meant for the latter of these purposes. Presumably, they had to be disguised as military supplies in order to prevent the insects from becoming suspicious.
Even if none of the officially nonexistent WMDs had actually been discovered, the documentary evidence of their existence would be enough to justify the invasion. Chief inspector David Kay came home frustrated that he hadn’t found the large stockpiles he’d expected to, but that does nothing to discredit the paper trail he told Tom Brokaw about in 2004. In that interview, Kay said he had seen purchase orders for WMD components from other countries, progress reports on the development of WMDs, and evidence of rewards paid out by Saddam for breakthroughs in WMD production.
A popular but logically incomprehensible excuse for dismissing this evidence is that Saddam was only bluffing, as a show of strength to his Iranian enemies. Supposedly, he had to make the Iraqis believe it themselves, in order to be really convincing. Therefore, he produced massive amounts of falsified documentation to support his claims, even though it would never be read by the Iraqi people, to whom he was not accountable anyway.
Try this for a more plausible theory. Saddam had all the WMDs that the documents suggest he did, but because he did not cooperate with the inspectors, we didn’t find all of them.
Still unconvinced? Take it from Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, who was in charge of Iraq’s WMD programs, and who had claimed in 1995 to have destroyed all the WMDs after the Gulf War. In another of Saddam’s secret tapes, estimated to also be from 1995, Kamel gloats about having deceived the inspectors. “We did not reveal all that we have,” he says. “Not the type of weapons, not the volume of the materials we imported, not the volume of the production we told them about, not the volume of use. None of this was correct. They don’t know any of this.” Which do you believe, Kamel’s public statement meant for Western media consumption, or his secretly recorded boasting about how totally they were fooling us?
Decades from now, historians who have no political stake in the Iraq War are going to conclude that we were the most oblivious people who ever lived, to have concluded in spite of all the evidence that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. The facts that have supported the invasion have been reported only fleetingly, however, never again to be treated as relevant by the same media where they had originally appeared. When UNMOVIC reported on Saddam’s disappearing missile sites, for example, the Times actually ran the story, but try finding any mention of it in the countless WMD-related reports or “Was the Iraq War worth it” retrospectives that the paper has published since that time.
Whenever the subject of Saddam’s WMDs comes up, conservatives in the media should take the opportunity to put all these forgotten fragments together, so that the American people can get an idea what the picture really looks like. Instead, they’re only helping liberals confuse the issue, by blaming President Bush for covering up facts that are available to whoever wants to find them.
The Shinbone: The Frontier of the Free Press