June 26, 2003

The WMD Debate Because of

The WMD Debate

Because of the huge importance of the WMD hunt, especially for people like me who supported going to war on those grounds, I'm going to write a bit more about this today. First, however, I'd like to give people a pretty comprehensive series of links regarding this issue (so there will be not be links in my analysis below, refer back up to these).

On the 'the administration either flat-out lied or greatly exaggerated/embellished the existence of WMD' side of the aisle you need to read this John Judis/Spence Ackerman article in TNR; Josh Marshall here, here and here; and this NYT piece.

On the, 'I'm concerned there may have been some moderate exaggerating/hyping going on in some quarters of the Administration but nothing I've heard to date proves wide-spread deception on the WMD issue' see David Adesnik, Andrew Sullivan and Belgravia Dispatch a few days back. Take a look also at this Weekly Standard piece that attempts to refute the Judis piece.

Also look at this breaking story on Iraq's nuclear program here and on alleged biolabs here. TPM has some reaction on the breaking nuclear program story too. And here is the latest state of play regarding how Dems are handling the issue on the Hill.

O.K., so that's a lot to read. But let's start with the Judis piece as it served to inaugurate the high-brow hunting season on top Administration officials and their handling of the WMD issue in the advent to war. First off, I'm not going to address the verisimilitude of the whole question of whether the Baathist regime had links to al-Qaeda simply because that wasn't why I supported the war. In fact, like others, I got frustrated when the Administration would trot out that argument because I thought that served to distract from the real threat, WMD, which might later be transferred to a terror group.

That leaves the nuclear issue and the chem/bio issue. On the former, the evidence that administration figures like the Veep may have trumped up the nuclear threat is pretty strong. For instance, given that the Iraqi nuclear program appears to have made no significant progress post-1991, Cheney's comment on August 26th 2002 that a Saddam "armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror" who could "directly threaten America's friends throughout the region and subject the U.S. or any other nation to nuclear blackmail" appears a bit hyperbolic.

And yet. Today we hear that Saddam had not disclosed aspects of his nuclear program. Top scientist and former head of Iraq's uranium enrichment program Mahdi Obeidi turned over to U.S. officials several components of a gas centrifuge, a device used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, along with design plans for the machines. One of Saddam's sons had ordered him to bury this under his yard.

Sure, as Josh Marshall points out, this happened before 1991. And, as Marshall points out, the Iraqis didn't rush to restart the program when the UNSCOM inspectors pulled out in 1998. But Saddam certainly didn't mention it in his report to the U.N. that was supposed to be a full and complete "coming clean" per Resolution 1441.

That's "material breach" right there folks. Saddam was keeping his options open. I'll hold on to this stuff so I've got the option to restart my nuclear program down the road. And I won't tell the international community about it. That's deception pure and simple.

Now, this doesn't excuse hyping the aluminum tube intelligence from the spring of 2002. Here's how Judis sees it. Intelligence came out during that time that Iraq was trying to get its hands on a kind of "high-strength aluminum tube." Analysts, plausibly as even Judis concedes, thought that perhaps "those tubes were intended to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapons through the kind of gas centrifuge project Iraq had built before the first Gulf War."

But Judis then, from sources at State's INR and the Department of Energy, claims that the thickness and "particular diameter" of those specific tubes made them a "poor fit" for uranium enrichement. The story, as Judis sees it, is that the "people [who] really know the science and technology of enriching uranium" thought these tubes were "far better suited for artillery rockets."

But the CIA and Defense disagreed with this assessment. Judis has them, in irrational manner, clinging "tenaciously" to the view that the tubes were intended for reactivation of the nuclear program. And, apparently, no "competent, impartial technical" committee umpired the differing analyses as is supposedly standard operating procedure.

But the CIA's analysis was like that of the Pentagon's--not State's INR or DOE. And the CIA is the lead governmental agency tasked with interpreting such information. If you believe Judis, that doesn't carry any weight, because Tenet and Co. got cowed by Dick Cheney and the like peering over their shoulders at Langley. But systemic distortion of C.I.A. Iraq intelligence has not been proven--it remains conjecture despite Judis' article. The bottom line on all this is that we just don't know which version of the analysis of the intelligence was correct and which wasn't--to the extent this was (or is) even knowable in some definitive way.

Judis tries to bolster the State INR/DOE analysis with discussion of Jacques Baute's teams work. Baute headed up the IAEA's Iraq inspections unit and said team also conducted a comprehensive review of the aluminum tube issue. They concluded, according to an unnamed IAEA official, that "all evidence point to that this is for the rockets." Fine, another view. But still not determinative. And still contra Langley and DOD's analysis.

You might say that when senior administration officials went on T.V. and stated that they believed Iraq had "reconsituted nuclear weapons" they should be reprimanded to the extent they hadn't received intelligence that warranted such a comment. But, as the Weekly Standard article points out, this statement was likely an error. What was likely meant was "reconstituted nuclear program." This doesn't excuse the comment. But it's a plausible interpretation. And regardless, to say that any fear that the aluminum tubes might be used, in some way, towards helping along Iraq's nuclear program is not judicious.

It also means, if you follow this to its logical end, that people like Judis or Marshall appear comfortable writing articles that all but beg the conclusion that Administration figures like George Tenet and Colin Powell (as he discussed the aluminum tube claims before the UNSC) are liars or otherwise purposefully misled the international community. I'm not willing to go that far. It is well possible that smart, honest people could be engaged in real and legitimate debates regarding this intelligence and come off on different sides regarding whether it was likely to be used for rockets or to reconstitute a nuclear program.

For the record, that's not the case on the Niger/uranium story. That was crap "intelligence"--and didn't merit the light of day. As Dave Adesnik has written--someone should be potentially reprimanded on that. Such dubious information should not be peddled to the American people by any Adminstration.

On the chem/bio front--neither Judis nor any other intelligent Administration critics are arguing that intelligence was hyped as much as the nuclear angle by senior Administration figures. And as Ken Pollack writes:

"The fact that the sites we suspected of containing hidden weapons before the war turned out to have nothing in them is not very significant. American intelligence agencies never claimed to know exactly where or how the Iraqis were hiding what they had not in 1995, not in 1999 and not six months ago. It is very possible that the "missing" facilities, weaponized agents, precursor materials and even stored munitions all could still be hidden in places we never would have thought to look."

So it's too early to tell what Saddam's capacities on the chem/bio front were. In my mind, this was the key reason to go to war. Saddam, inspired by the huge damage done to the U.S. on 9/11, might have helped contribute to such asymetrical warfare going forward. I was simply not willing to take the risk that he might transfer to some third party anthrax or nerve gas for a terror attack in a major U.S. city (or conduct one through his own intelligence operatives).

Andrew Sullivan makes the point, in defending the Administration on this whole WMD issue, that post 9/11 the preemptive doctrine means that the U.S. (and ostensibly other nation-states?) don't necessarily need air-tight evidence before attacking a prospective foe, ie. the burden is on the party denying they "pose a threat" to international stability. To which Josh Marshall responds, all well and fine, but then why didn't the Adminstration simply say, hey, I'm not sure what Saddam has, but we believe he's got this, and this is why we're going to war. Why all the hype, in other words?

But as I've discussed today, the nuclear issue with the aluminum tubes etc. cannot be definitively viewed as out and out Administration hyperbole with no foundation in legitimacy. And the jury is still out on Saddam's chemical and biological capability. In addition, as today's WaPo story on the buried nuclear technology makes clear, Saddam was still playing hide and seek with parts of his WMD program post-Resolution 1441.

Material breach is not in question. This war was fought on legitimate grounds.

That said, I say, let's have a full Congressional investigation rather than attempt to have a Republican-controlled Congress prevent one. Why make it look like we have something to hide? Clear the air. I think the Administration, by and large, will be vindicated.

But amidst all this controversy and the coming Presidential election; let's keep our eye on the ball on the post-war scene which, like Afghanistan, merits very real, sustained, intelligent attention. And for a long time.

This is where history's verdict will ultimately be delivered on the merits of the Iraq war. Did we, after rightly confronting a threat post by WMD programs in the hands of a reckless leader, keep our pledge to create a viable, democratic, Iraqi polity? Or did we give it a quick go in a half-assed way and then cut out before the job was done leaving behind a resentful region and battered American credibility? My bet is still on the former outcome.

Posted by Gregory at June 26, 2003 09:15 AM
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