Where Have All the WMD-Hunters Gone?


The obvious question is, where are the weapons of mass destruction that supposedly prompted the Bush - Cheney - Rumsfeld - Wolfowitz quartet to invade Iraq?

The less obvious one is, where's the massive search-and-secure operation that should be scouring Iraq to locate and control those stocks of chemical and biological weapons and WMD-related materials, technology and records?

The US military certainly has been looking for chemical and biological weapons as well as evidence of a nuclear bomb program (Iraq was never said to be in possession of nuclear weapons). But what is surprising -- if not scandalous -- is that two weeks after US troops moved into Baghdad the Bush Pentagon has not yet mounted a full sweep of Iraq for WMD, or even dispatched a sufficient amount of trained troops and specialists to conduct such a mission. It's as if the Bush administration and the Pentagon had not bothered to listen to their own rhetoric about Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction while planning the invasion and occupation. Shouldn't a mess of these units have been scrambling across Iraq -- using all that prewar intelligence that allowed administration officials to declare without pause that Saddam Hussein controlled enough of these dangerous weapons to be a direct threat to the United States -- within days, if not hours, of the collapse of Hussein's murderous regime? Perhaps they should even have been among the forward-deployed troops. Yet while some US WMD-hunters are hard at work, the Pentagon acknowledges that nothing close to a full detachment has been sent to Iraq. As The Los Angeles Times reported on April 20, the Defense Department is still preparing to send "hundreds of additional investigators to speed up the search" for WMD and remains in the process of "assembling a 'survey group' with more than 1,000 experts to interrogate Iraqi scientists and sift through recovered documents to broaden the search for weapons of mass destruction."

Is it dumb to ask, why wasn't all this ready to go when the war started?

It's not as if the invasion came as a shock. The Pentagon had months -- actually, over a year -- to ready WMD teams for Iraq. As early as November 2001, Bush warned Hussein that trouble would be coming unless he opened up Iraq to international weapons inspectors. That was two months before he designated Iraq an original member of his axis of evil. With so much lead time, why did the Pentagon not arrange for a force of specialists who could immediately be dropped into Iraq to find and control the weapons that were the reason for the war?

On March 20, the day after the bombing began, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted, "We have a serious task before us, and it is to remove that regime and find the weapons of mass destruction." The following day, he identified several "specific objectives." Number one was smashing the regime and its military. The second item on his to-do list was, "to identify, isolate and eventually eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, production, capabilities, and distribution networks." (After that came driving out terrorists, delivering humanitarian relief, securing oil fields, creating conditions that would allow a transition to a new, representative government.) He noted that "we will...ensure their weapons of mass destruction will not fall into the hands of terrorists." Days later, he remarked, "we're there to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction in that country."

But the available public evidence suggests Rumsfeld had no plan for quickly and fully acting on this priority. Or for preventing that much-discussed nightmare scenario: In the chaos caused by war, chemical and biological weapons and WMD-related materials (if any did exist in Iraq) are grabbed by terrorists, crooks, former officials, or whomever, and spirited out of Iraq. At a press conference on April 9 -- the day US forces took Baghdad -- Rumsfeld said, "We are in the process of trying to liberate that country. And at the moment where the war ends and the coalition forces occupy the areas where those capabilities -- chemical and biological weapons -- are likely to be, to the extent they haven't been moved out of the country, it obviously is important to find them."

To the extent they haven't been moved out of the country? Was the Pentagon not taking deliberate action to try to stop that from occurring? Two days later, Rumsfeld again made it seem as if dealing with possible WMD was a secondary mission: "When there happens to be a weapon of mass destruction suspect site in an area that we occupy and if people have time, they'll look at it." If people have time? Indeed, the task of military units is to win the battle of the moment. But the Marines could have been accompanied by the WMD-seekers assigned to examine suspected sites.

The point of this war was to make sure Hussein could not hand off nuclear, chemical or biological weapons to terrorists who would use them against the United States. (It was uncertain whether Hussein had such weaponry, whether -- if he did -- he had the inclination to share them with terrorist groups, and whether he maintained any operational links to such outfits.) And before the war, an obvious possibility loomed: A US invasion would cause the collapse of the central government, which presumably would lead to a breakdown of the command and control system in charge of Iraq's purported WMD arsenal. All that dangerous stuff would then be up for grabs. As Rumsfeld said on April 9, "the thought that as part of this process, some of that -- those materials could leave the country and in the hands of terrorists networks would be a very unhappy prospect. So it is important to us to see that that doesn't happen." Yet this "unhappy prospect" was most likely to occur during the turmoil of war or in the first chaotic days and weeks following its conclusion. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon offered no indication they had prepared thoroughly for that contingency.

On April 17, Rumsfeld noted that the Pentagon's WMD teams "for the first time in the last few days" had been able to start looking at suspected sites. But, he added, "I don't think we'll discover anything, myself. I think what will happen is we'll discover people who will tell us where to go find it. It is not like a treasure hunt where you just run around looking everywhere hoping you find something. I just don't think that's going to happen. The inspectors didn't find anything, and I doubt that we will. What we will do is find the people who will tell us."

Imagine if Rumsfeld had said that before the war: We're invading another country to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction, but I doubt we'll find them unless people there tell us where they are.

As of this writing, there have been no confirmed sightings of WMD in Iraq. On Monday, The New York Times, in a story reviewed by military censors, reported that an American military squad hunting for WMD -- the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha -- had found an Iraqi scientist who claimed to have worked in a chemical weapons program. He reportedly told his American handlers that Hussein's government destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment days prior to the US invasion. This scientist, according to MET Alpha, led the Americans to a spot where illegal weapons-related material had been buried. (Judith Miller, the Times reporter embedded with this MET, was not allowed to interview the scientist.) The day the story ran, Rumsfeld refused to comment on it.

Perhaps the MET Alpha discovery will be the WMD prize the Bush administration has been seeking. But until now the WMD indicators have not been encouraging for the White House. A front-page story in today's Washington Post begins, "With little to show after 30 days, the Bush administration is losing confidence in its prewar belief that it had strong clues pointing to the whereabouts of weapons of mass destruction concealed in Iraq, according to planners and participants in the hunt. After testing some -- though by no means all -- of their best leads, analysts here and in Washington are increasingly doubtful that they will find what they are looking for in the places described on a five-tiered target list drawn up before the fighting began. Their strategy is shifting from the rapid 'exploitation' of known suspect sites to a vast survey that will rely on unexpected discoveries and leads."

In other words, oops! Or would that be, never mind? More the former -- if the Bushies were right and there were WMD in Iraq before the war. As the Post noted, "If such weapons or the means of making them have been removed from the centralized control of former Iraqi officials, high-ranking US officials acknowledged, then the war may prove to aggravate the proliferation threat that President Bush said he fought to forestall." And as of April 21, the Pentagon had yet to examine tens of the 100 or so top-priority targets.

It could be that tomorrow incriminating weaponry is discovered or the MET Alpha find turns out to be the WMD equivalent of King Tut's tomb. But in the Post piece, one can discern the rapid construction of a fallback position. Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, raised the possibility that some of the postwar looting was conducted by Iraqi insiders who swiped files, electronic data, and equipment from WMD programs to conceal their involvement or make off with technology and information they can sell. Consequently, the US WMD-hunters have had a tougher time.

It's worth remembering that the Bush administration, in its go-to-war push, did not say that Hussein -- who was not cooperating fully with inspections -- might possess biological and chemical weapons and a program to develop nuclear weapons. They maintained there was no question he had awful weapons and a nuclear program. "If there are no weapons of mass destruction, I'll be mad as hell," David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector told The Los Angeles Times. "I certainly accepted the administration claims on chemical and biological weapons. I figured they were telling the truth. If there is no [WMD program], I will feel taken, because they asserted these things with such assurance."

Whether biological and chemical weapons and the remnants of an active nuclear program are found or not, Bush and his national security team have already violated their prewar commitment to the United States and the world. They claimed that finding and eliminating WMD in Iraq was the prime reason for the war. Yet they -- of all people -- do not seem to have taken the threat seriously, for they failed to draw up adequate plans to deal with it. Even if the MET teams and the come-lately reinforcements uncover WMD caches, they will likely never know what they missed -- and where and with whom it might be today.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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