On the evening of February 1, two dozen American officials gathered in a spacious conference room at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va. The time had come to make the public case for war against Iraq. For six hours that Saturday, the men and women of the Bush administration argued about what Secretary of State Colin Powell should—and should not—say at the United Nations Security Council four days later. Not all the secret intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s misdeeds, they found, stood up to close scrutiny. At one point during the rehearsal, Powell tossed several pages in the air. “I’m not reading this,” he declared. “This is bullshit.”
Today, the mystery is what happened to Iraq’s terror weapons. “Everyone believed they would find it,” says a senior official. “I have never seen intelligence agencies in this government and other governments so united on one subject.”
Were they right? Powell and Tenet were convinced that chemical agents had been deployed to field units. None have been found. War planners used the intelligence when targeting suspected weapons of mass destruction sites. Yet bomb-damage assessments found that none of the targets contained chemical or biological weapons. “What we don’t know at this point,” says an Air Force war planner, “is what was bad intelligence, what was bad timing, what was bad luck.”
Senior administration officials say they remain convinced that weapons of mass destruction will turn up. The CIA and the Pentagon reported last week that two trucks seized in Iraq were apparently used as mobile biological weapons labs, though no biological agents were found.
Condoleezza Rice was smart enough to attempt her U-turn weeks ago. According to the US National Security Adviser, WMD bombs, missiles and drones are out. Dual-use technology and just-in-time manufacturing are in. Find a pesticide factory, for instance, and you find a chemical warfare facility. And don’t be concerned about looters. The more the place is trashed, the more difficult will be any dispute about the evidence. More recently, the US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, has said publicly that Iraq may have destroyed its WMDs prior to the war.
This is not to say that Iraq was of no concern or that some WMD-related materials will never be found in Iraq. Iraq had what’s known in the business as a breakout WMD capability in its many dual-use facilities. The Fallujah III castor oil production plant near Baghdad, for example, was, like similar plants elsewhere in the world, suitable for conversion to a ricin toxin factory.
And Iraq, again like many countries including Australia, probably still has stockpiles of potential WMD ingredients – the chlorine needed for clean water, for example, can also be used to make deadly chemical agents.
Moreover, Iraq almost certainly had other WMD-related materials. US claims about mobile biological warfare facilities could yet prove true, though the implication that Iraq’s biological weapons program relied on a handful of trailers tends to confirm the program was limited.
The trailers, and any other finds, will remain irrelevant until scrutinised by independent officials. The same goes for the interrogation reports of former Iraqi scientists, including those now detained in Morocco. With so much at stake, the possibility can’t be ruled out that a zealous coalition official might attempt to tamper with the evidence.
Claims by Iraqis in custody that the WMD program was dismantled before the war could be true, especially if Saddam thought he could survive the war and achieve some sort of moral victory. But that would mean the program must have been much smaller than US assessments. Just as elusive is hard evidence of active co-operation with al-Qaeda. This was always an extraordinary proposition, not least because Saddam was a secular dictator intent on eradicating Islamic fundamentalism.
One of the major concerns about the war now is the way it will encourage the proliferation of WMDs. America’s adversaries are being encouraged to acquire WMDs to deter US aggression.