June 20, 2003

WMD Watch A couple must-reads

WMD Watch

A couple must-reads today. First, Ken Pollack writing in the NYT:

Key grafs:

"The one potentially important discovery made so far by American troops two tractor-trailers found in April and May that fit the descriptions of mobile germ-warfare labs given by Iraqi defectors over the years might well point to a likely explanation for at least part of the mystery: Iraq may have decided to keep only a chemical and biological warfare production capability rather than large stockpiles of the munitions themselves. This would square with the fact that several dozen chemical warfare factories were rebuilt after the first gulf war to produce civilian pharmaceuticals, but were widely believed to be dual-use plants capable of quickly being converted back to chemical warfare production.

In truth, this was always the most likely scenario. Chemical and biological warfare munitions, especially the crude varieties that Iraq developed during the Iran-Iraq War, are dangerous to store and handle and they deteriorate quickly. But they can be manufactured and put in warheads relatively rapidly meaning that there is little reason to have thousands of filled rounds sitting around where they might be found by international inspectors. It would have been logical for Iraq to retain only some means of production, which could be hidden with relative ease and then used to churn out the munitions whenever Saddam Hussein gave the word.

Still, no matter what the trailers turn out to be, the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction in no way invalidates the prewar intelligence data indicating that Iraq had the clandestine capacity to build them. There has long been an extremely strong case based on evidence that largely predates the Bush administration that Iraq maintained programs in weapons of mass destruction. It was this evidence, along with reports showing the clear failure of United Nations efforts to impede Iraq's progress, that led the Clinton administration to declare a policy of "regime change" for Iraq in 1998."

But Pollack also has this to say:

"This latter prospect was not very likely. The Iraqis had been trying to buy fissile material since the 1970's and had never been able to do so. Nevertheless, some Bush administration officials chose to stress the one-to-two-year possibility rather than the more likely four-to-six year scenario. Needless to say, if the public felt Iraq was still several years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon rather than just a matter of months, there probably would have been much less support for war this spring.

Moreover, before the war I heard many complaints from friends still in government that some Bush officials were mounting a ruthless campaign over intelligence estimates. I was told that when government analysts wrote cautious assessments of Iraq's capabilities, they were grilled and forced to go to unusual lengths to defend their judgments, and some were chastized for failing to come to more alarming conclusions. None of this is illegal, but it was perceived as an attempt to browbeat analysts into either changing their estimates or shutting up and ceding the field to their more hawkish colleagues.

More damning than the claims of my former colleagues has been some of the investigative reporting done since the war. Particularly troubling are reports that the administration knew its contention that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Niger was based on forged documents. If true, it would be a serious indictment of the administration's handling of the war."

On the Niger angle (and much more) taking the Administration to task on the WMD intelligence issue see John Judis over at TNR:

"Three months after the invasion, the United States may yet discover the chemical and biological weapons that various governments and the United Nations have long believed Iraq possessed. But it is unlikely to find, as the Bush administration had repeatedly predicted, a reconstituted nuclear weapons program or evidence of joint exercises with Al Qaeda--the two most compelling security arguments for war. Whatever is found, what matters as far as American democracy is concerned is whether the administration gave Americans an honest and accurate account of what it knew. The evidence to date is that it did not, and the cost to U.S. democracy could be felt for years to come."

Some thoughts on all this. Both Pollack and Judis concentrate on the trumped up nuclear capability aspect when criticizing the Bush Administration on its handling of Iraq related intelligence. Fair enough. But I was never one to be overly concerned by the nuclear argument in that I expected nuclear capability in Iraq to be a problem down the road with NoKo and Iran greater threats on that front (and on a more expedited) time schedule.

What I was concerned about was the chemical and biological weapons capability. Not because Saddam had an intercontinental way to deliver said WMD with missiles from Iraq to the U.S.--but because I was just too concerned that a strategic blunderer and anti-U.S. firebrand like him (worse than either of the Iranian clerics or, yes, Kim Jong II) might decide, at some juncture, to funnel anthrax, botulinum toxin, mustard gas etc. to a group willing and able to deliver said WMD in the U.S (whether or not he had links to al-Qaeda, there are other terror groups too).

Nothing that Pollack or Judis have written allows us to conclude this was not a real threat. Again, Pollack:

"But they [chem/bio agents] can be manufactured and put in warheads relatively rapidly meaning that there is little reason to have thousands of filled rounds sitting around where they might be found by international inspectors. It would have been logical for Iraq to retain only some means of production, which could be hidden with relative ease and then used to churn out the munitions whenever Saddam Hussein gave the word."

To recap a bit. When John Judis writes something like this I am obviously unhappy:

"As a result of its failure to anticipate the September 11 attacks, the CIA, and Tenet in particular, were under almost continual attack in the fall of 2001. Congressional leaders, including Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, wanted Tenet to resign. But Bush kept Tenet in his job, and, within the administration, Tenet and the CIA came under an entirely different kind of pressure: Iraq hawks in the Pentagon and in the vice president's office, reinforced by members of the Pentagon's semiofficial Defense Policy Board, mounted a year-long attempt to pressure the CIA to take a harder line against Iraq--whether on its ties with Al Qaeda or on the status of its nuclear program."

I've blogged before on how I think the intelligence gathering should be left to Langley without political interference from other departments like the Pentagon. I think we can likely conclude that a weakened Tenet (resulting from the Agency's failure to alert the President to the 9/11 plot) was pressured somewhat from a very powerful Defense Secretary (with a very intelligent group of senior advisors that are also, by and large, bureaucratic blackbelts) to be "aggressive" on how the intelligence was portrayed.

But, again, I've seen nothing yet that persuades me that Saddam didn't possess WMD stockpiles or capability. Even Judis, in his (somewhat) "gotcha" style piece, writes:

"The most serious institutional casualty of the administration's campaign may have been the intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA. Some of the CIA's intelligence simply appears to have been defective, perhaps innocently so. Durbin says the CIA's classified reports contained extensive maps where chemical or biological weapons could be found."

Putting aside for the moment potential hyperbole on the Iraq nuclear capability front, it appears the President, relying on the C.I.A., would not have been misleading the American people given the intelligence that was getting to his desk like that described above. Fine, no WMD has turned up yet at the sites visited to date. That doesn't mean WMD won't be found later. Or that there aren't sites the CIA never knew existed that will be found in the future. And, again, nothing that Judis or Pollack have written forces a conclusion that, given the post 9/11 strategic framework, Iraq didn't present a clear and present danger to the U.S. in March of 2003 given the chem/bio threat.

Posted by Gregory at June 20, 2003 12:20 PM
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