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The WMD Mystery

Clifford D. May (archive)

October 2, 2003 | Print | Send

The question is not whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The mystery is: What did he do with them?

We should have some insights soon: David Kay and his Iraq Survey Group – 1,400 US and British scientists and military intelligence experts -- are due to release a preliminary report on WMD in Iraq in the coming days and a final report is scheduled for release before the end of the month. So it would be prudent to sit tight and wait -- but let’s not. Instead, let’s consider the possibilities and take a stab at what, based on the information available, we think is the true story of Saddam and the WMD.

First, as noted, rule out the possibility – often misleadingly implied by the anti-war/pro-appeasement crowd – that Saddam never had WMD.

He not only had chemical weapons – he used them to slaughter thousands of Kurdish men, women and children. Saddam’s son-in-law dropped a dime on him for brewing biological weapons. (Said son-in-law was later executed.) As for nukes, Saddam would have had them in the 1980s had Israel not bombed his reactor; he would have had them in the 1990s if not for the Gulf War, Part One. And remember: After Saddam’s 1991 defeat, we learned that his nuclear weapons development program was much further along than our best intelligence analysts had believed.

Now, what’s the chance that, after 1991, Saddam said to himself: “That’s it. I’m not playing around with these dangerous toys any more. All I want now is to create the best darn health care system in the Middle East. And I certainly wouldn’t want to get those prickly Americans angry at me again.â€

No, had Saddam seen the world in that light he would not have spent the next few years slaughtering Kurds and Shias, ethnically cleansing Marsh Arabs, attempting to assassinate former President George W. Bush, enduring economic sanctions that cost him billions of dollars and playing hide-and-seek with the UN weapons inspectors.

What’s more, every reputable intelligence service in the world – including the French --believed Saddam’s WMD programs were on-going in this period. So what did happen over the last dozen years?

One possibility is that sometime before the Gulf War, Part Two, he transferred his stockpiles – to Syria, Lebanon or elsewhere. A number of knowledgeable analysts believe this frightening scenario. Let’s hope it isn’t.

Time magazine has explored a scenario right out of a John LeCarre novel: According to some Iraqis interviewed by Time, Saddam believed he had a vast arsenal of WMD, but his scientists and technicians deceived him, diverting billions of dollars to other uses. If so, that would be an example of corruption. Or, it could be an example of idealism -- maybe Saddam’s scientists didn’t want to help create a war machine for a despot. Or maybe it was a little of both.

Finally, there is this storyline: UN weapons inspector Richard Spertzel has said his team was “developing pretty good evidence of a continuing program in ’97 and’98.†Then, in 1998, the inspectors were forced out, causing many analysts to conclude that Saddam would then be accelerating his programs. Perhaps Saddam decided to do just the opposite. Perhaps some time after that Saddam decided to destroy his stockpiles of WMD, while retaining the plans and expertise to re-start the programs up again after a strategic pause during which he hoped to (1) rid himself of the feckless but pesky weapons inspectors and (2) give his bon ami, Jacque Chirac, time to get the sanctions lifted from his shoulders.

But if that’s the case, why would Saddam not have done so transparently and convincingly -- as he was obligated to do under the various accords and UN Security Council resolutions to which he agreed in exchange for the 1991 ceasefire?

Possible answer: Because to do that would have made him look weak in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim masses. It was a point of honor, image and public relations for Saddam to be seen as defying the Great Satan, as not backing down, not even temporarily.

In other words, Saddam may have metaphorically wrapped his gun in a baggie and buried it in his back yard – and then walked out into the street waving a toy pistol at the world.

No matter. Such a gesture is still threatening. The use of lethal force was still a justified response. And whether Saddam had WMD last April or had divested himself of those weapons in what he thought was a clever strategic retreat, the fact remains that he was still a threat to America and to the Middle East – as well as a genocidal monster.

He should have been toppled in 1991, after his rape of Kuwait. But the “international community†couldn’t stomach such decisiveness. The consequence was that the US was saddled with a policy of containment, which meant sanctions on the Iraqi people and US troops indefinitely stationed on Saudi soil. It was those measures, you’ll remember, that Osama bin Laden called unpardonable insults to Islam, and used as his primary justifications to the Muslim world for the attacks of 9/11. As usual, the US enforced the will of the international community – and paid a heavy price for it.

Perhaps weapons inspector David Kay will find another plot in the miles of documents he is now reading. But I’d be willing to wager at least a beer or two that this last story line is not far from what will turn out to be the truth.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and a Townhall.com member group. This column originally ran on the Scripps-Howard wire.

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Kay: No weapons yet, but evidence of intent

Thursday, October 2, 2003 Posted: 5:49 PM EDT (2149 GMT)

Kay: "We have found a great deal, much of which was not declared to the United Nations."

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Weapons inspectors in Iraq have found evidence of a biological weapons program and more substantial activity in the production of missiles than Iraq had disclosed to the United Nations, but no weapons of mass destruction yet, former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay said at a news briefing Thursday afternoon after he met with congressional intelligence committees.

Kay said he needed more time before conclusions could be reached. He urged patience.

"Believe me, we're working as hard as we can. I know the importance attached to this work. There's a lot more work to do before we can declare we're at the end of this road rather than at the beginning.

"We have found a great deal, much of which was not declared to the United Nations," Kay said.

Members of House and Senate intelligence committees were expected to ask him some hard questions about the joint CIA-Pentagon Iraq Survey Group during two closed-door hearings.

"My first question is, 'What have you found and if you haven't found very much, what were the problems with our intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq?'" Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, said it is "simply going to take a long time" to determine what happened to the weapons programs the Bush administration said required a U.S.-led invasion that deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in April.

"I don't expect any smoking gun today, but this is another interim report in the process," Chambliss said.

In a letter sent to committee leaders Wednesday, CIA Director George Tenet disagreed with congressional complaints that the pre-war intelligence on Iraq was inadequate.

Harman and the House Intelligence Committee's chairman, Florida Republican Porter Goss, had criticized the CIA's pre-war intelligence on Iraq in a letter to agency chief George Tenet last week. Sources said the letter described the information pointing to Iraq's weapons programs as "circumstantial" and "fragmentary." The CIA disputed that judgment, calling it "premature and wrong."

"The suggestion by the committee that we did not challenge long-standing judgments and assessments is simply wrong," Tenet wrote in a letter to Harman and Goss.

"I emphatically disagree with the committee's view that intelligence reports on Iraq's ties to al Qaeda should have been 'screened out by a more rigorous vetting process' because they were provided to analysts," Tenet wrote. "Providing analysts less information on Iraq's connections to terrorists makes no sense to me."

In the letter, Tenet also complains about the timing of the complaints from the Hill, saying it is premature, since Kay, the CIA's man in charge of the weapons search in Iraq, has much more work to do.

Tenet called the intelligence prior to the war in Iraq "honest and professional," and complained that the lawmakers publicized their complaints before giving the intelligence community a chance to respond.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Thursday also said that it is too early to reach conclusions about whether there were unconventional weapons in Iraq before the U.S. invasion.

"They have a lot of work left to do, they have a lot of people left to interrogate, they had a lot of leads still to worry through, they have a number of suspect sites that they have not yet visited," he said. "It's quite low at this stage, but there are still a few, and I don't think the administration is having trouble coming to conclusions."

Human intelligence lacking

Chambliss said Saddam has admitted to having weapons of mass destruction, and used them against the Kurds in 1988, but has had years to hide or destroy them.

"Since 1998, we have had no one inside of Iraq to monitor what's been going on with his weapons of mass destruction program," Chambliss said. "So it's very difficult for us to say, and he may have destroyed them. They may have given them away, buried them, we don't know."

Because of a lack of spies inside the country, "it may turn out, when we roll this back, that a lot of what we thought was true about WMD in Iraq was false," Harman said.

A U.S.-led force invaded Iraq in March and deposed Saddam, with the accusation that Baghdad violated U.N. resolutions by maintaining stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, long-range missiles and supporting efforts to develop a nuclear bomb. None was used against advancing allied troops, and none has turned up since Saddam's government collapsed in April.

In July, Kay told Congress that investigators, including the Iraq Survey Group, were making "solid progress."

Kay told reporters that investigators had uncovered useful documents about Iraq's WMD programs and was getting increased cooperation from Iraqis.

"I think the American people should be prepared for surprises," said Kay. "I think it's very likely that we will discover remarkable surprises in this enterprise."

But he cautioned that Saddam had engaged in an "amazing" active deception program that would be difficult to unravel.

"It's going to take time. The Iraqis had over two decades to develop these weapons, and hiding them was an essential part of their program," Kay said.

Ex-inspector: U.S. may need to review search methods

Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector before the invasion, said last month that Iraq may have destroyed its banned weapons after the Persian Gulf War, as it claimed.

Former weapons inspector Garth Whitty said Kay's team may need to revisit some sites linked to Iraq's weapons programs and review its search methods.

"There must be a great deal of information," Whitty said. "The most powerful intelligence agencies in the world have been arrayed against Iraq for a long time, and they've got to go back over everything and make sure they're not missing things.

"The other surprise, I think, is that none of the key Iraqis involved in the program have given information that is of value, and I think that has to be revisited as well," he said. (CNN Access: Garth Whitty)

Former weapons inspector Charles Duelfer said the U.S. military's heavy-handed approach to Iraqi scientists like Mahdi Obeidi, who turned over centrifuge parts from Iraq's pre-1991 nuclear weapons programs after Saddam's fall, may have made Kay's work harder. Obeidi was arrested by troops in front of his family even after offering to tell the CIA what he knew.

"Many of the potential people who could cooperate, I think, have probably been scared off," he said.

CNN National Security Correspondent David Ensor contributed to this report.

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