Where the WMD Went

“Bush lied and people died” is the mindless refrain that substitutes in some quarters for trenchant political analysis. The suggestion is that Bush lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to lead us into war in Iraq. Of course, a lie is not simply an error in fact; it is an act whose intent is to deceive. It is truer to say that the assertion that “Bush lied” is itself a lie, or at least an attempt to obscure the truth.

Before the war, there was broad consensus in the American intelligence community that Iraq possessed some significant quantities of chemical or biological agents as part of a weapons of mass destruction program. This was also the consensus of foreign intelligence services.

William Cohen, President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense was “absolutely convinced that there are weapons… I saw evidence back in 1998 when we would see the inspectors being barred from gaining entry into a warehouse for three hours with trucks rolling up and then moving those trucks out.” Even Senator Edward Kennedy argued, “We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction.” The list of high officials, including former President Bill Clinton himself, who agreed with this assessment, is long.

That was the pre-war belief. Now we know the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) found only a couple of dozen WMD shells. This is consistent only with the sloppy unaccounted residue of a previous larger WMD program. However, the ISG also concluded that Iraq was biding its time and planned to resume it WMD program as soon as sanctions, atrophying by 2003, were lifted. Specifically they wrote: “There is an extensive, yet fragmentary and circumstantial, body of evidence suggesting that Saddam pursued a strategy to maintain a capability to return to WMD after sanctions were lifted by preserving assets and expertise. In addition to preserved capability, we have clear evidence of his intent to resume WMD as soon as sanctions were lifted.”

However, questions remain. If Saddam had no significant quantities of WMD, why did he behave as if he had WMD by continuing to impede the weapons inspectors? Why did he eventually kick the inspectors out of Iraq? If he had simply complied with the UN’s inspection regime, he would not have suffered billions in lost revenue associated with the sanctions. What happened to the stockpiles of anthrax that Saddam’s regime originally claimed? There was no evidence of its destruction and as inspector Hans Blix argued one does not simply loose track of WMD, “Weapons of mass destruction aren’t like marmalade”

After the liberation of Iraq, there were stories that stockpiles of WMD were sent to Syria before the war. These reports were recently buttressed in the book Saddam’s Secrets by General Georges Sada, a former general of the Iraqi air force . Sada claims the that Iraqi civilian airliners were modified and filled with WMD by members of the Republican National Guard, and flown to Syria under the guise of civilian air traffic. Sada’s source for this report was the pilots who flew the flights.

The explanation that Saddam removed his WMD to Syria is not a pleasant development because it arms a cruel regime with powerful weapons. However, it does have the virtue of closing the logical circle. It resolves the pre-war intelligence about WMD with the lack of stockpiles after the war.

By all accounts, Sada retains considerable credibility and he is soon to be briefing some US Senators. Nonetheless, Sada’s story remains a third party account, rather than eyewitness testimony. While persuasive, it cannot alone be considered definitive. However, it is an important piece of evidence that needs to be evaluated in the context of other clues. This is story that begs for investigative reporting that does not seem to be forth coming. People are just too comfortable with the conventional wisdom that there were never where WMD in Iraq.

It is very possible that the Administration is already convinced that WMD managed to find its way to Syria, but has not publicly made the case. It might prefer to endure the political damage and loss of credibility about pre-war intelligence than be forced at the present time to deal directly with Syria.

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