Bush Hunt for WMD a Flaccid Flop

Why has it taken so long for the Pentagon and the Bush administration to seriously search for weapons of mass destruction?

At a Pentagon press conference last week, Stephen Cambone, under secretary of defense for intelligence, noted that prior to the war the Pentagon had compiled a list of about 600 suspected WMD sites. "As it stands now, we have been to about 70 sites that we were looking to cover," he said, adding that US military teams had also visited another 40 that were not on the original list.

This hardly seems like an anti-WMD blitzkrieg. It's been nearly a month since Baghdad fell, and most potential WMD sites have not been visited. Moreover, Cambone reported that the Pentagon was still at work assembling what it is calling the Iraq Survey Group, which will be sent to Iraq to search for individuals, records and materials related to WMD. This unit will be composed of 1300 experts and 800 support staff. But the hunt for WMD will only be one of its tasks. Its mission will also include uncovering information related to Saddam Hussein's regime, his intelligence services, terrorist outfits that might have had a presence in Iraq, any connections between the regime and terrorist organizations, war crimes and POWs. Cambone emphasized that the Iraq Survey Group's WMD responsibilities will be "only a part" of this "very large undertaking." And this unit will not begin to arrive in Iraq until the end of May.

Before the war, President Bush and his lieutenants repeatedly said that the United States had absolutely no choice but to move quickly against Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from passing WMD to anti-American terrorist groups like al Qaeda. But the Pentagon has not been acting as if it took the threat of WMD transfers seriously. If there were WMD present in Iraq and there were terrorists in Iraq shopping for WMD and Saddam Hussein was an al Qaeda "ally" (as Bush said during his speech on the USS Lincoln), then it would seem that the White House and the Pentagon should have been damn scared that, as a result of the war, these terrorists would have the chance to grab WMD-related material and skedaddle. Certainly, it would have been reasonable to assume that if Saddam Hussein believed his final hour was approaching he would be more likely to greenlight a hand-off of WMD to al Qaeda. Yet the Bush White House and the Pentagon seem not to have planned for such contingencies. They have been geared more toward finding evidence of WMD (which would help Bush justify the war) rather than thwarting the threat supposedly posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Why was the Iraq Survey Team not assembled by the start of the war and ready to rush in as soon as possible in an attempt to locate and secure these items that menaced the United States? The war, after all, came as no surprise. And the news from Iraq has not been encouraging. Looters cleaned out Iraq's nuclear facilities long before US investigators reached them. Were they only scavengers who unknowingly grabbed radioactive material posing health and environmental dangers? Or were some terrorists looking for dirty-bomb material? In either event a fair question, for Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other administration and Pentagon officials is, why didn't you try to secure these sites immediately? On May 4, Barton Gellman in The Washington Post reported that a specially-trained Defense Department team was not dispatched to the Baghdad Nuclear Research facility until May 3, after a month of "official indecision." The unit found the site -- which was the home to the remains of the nuclear reactor bombed by Israel in 1981 and which stored radioactive waste that would be quite attractive to a dirty-bombmaker -- ransacked. The survey conducted by the team, Gellman reported, "appeared to offer fresh evidence that the war has dispersed the country's most dangerous technologies beyond anyone's knowledge or control." Sometime in mid-April, US Central Command had sent a detachment to guard the gate to the facility. But for two weeks -- until the special team arrived -- this security detail allowed Iraqis who claimed to be employees of the research center to come and go. The detachment had no Arabic speaker and could not question those entering and leaving. Nor was it able to handle the looters, who some days numbered in the hundreds. A mile away, the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center, where UN inspectors in years past had found partially-enriched uranium, was also looted.

There have been other signs that the Pentagon's anti-WMD effort has been less than intense. In April, two of the four mobile exploitation teams (known as METs), equipped and trained to assess suspected WMD sites, were reassigned to investigate war crimes. And on May 6, one of the METs that had been searching for WMD spent the day in the bombed-out and flooded secret police headquarters in Baghdad looking for one of the oldest copies of the Talmud in existence. Finding and preserving antiquities is all well and good, but what about those chemical and biological weapons that Bush claimed could be turned over to terrorists at any given moment? Should any of the METs have been diverted from that mission, while at least 500 of the suspected sites were still unexamined?

As this MET searched for the seventh-century Jewish text (which it never found), it was also looking for records related to weapons of mass destruction. And according to The New York Times, it did uncover one such document: a 2001 memo from an Iraqi intelligence officer reporting an offer to sell Iraq uranium and other nuclear material. But the memo said the bid was declined because of the "sanctions situation." Was this evidence that Iraq actually had been to some extent minding the UN sanctions? Who knows for sure?

The discovery of what the Pentagon says might be a bioweapons lab has drawn far more attention. The administration, after weeks, may have finally found one piece of evidence that backs up the UN presentation made by Secretary of State Colin Powell, in which he declared that Iraq -- no doubt -- had WMD. But even if more vestiges of WMD are unearthed, that will not excuse or justify the irresponsible delays in the WMD search-and-secure operations.

Bush has not been forced to explain the slow pace of the WMD search or the lack of prewar planning on this crucial front. Fortunately for him, the Democrats have spent more time howling about his tailhook-enabled photo-op speech on an aircraft carrier (which has caused the news channels to show the Top Gun-ish footage over and over). But at the May 7 White House briefing, press secretary Ari Fleischer was pressed on whether the United States failed to act to prevent weapons of mass destruction (if they existed) from being dispersed. The exchange was illuminating:

Question: Ari, everybody's getting into this trap a little bit about whether WMD will be found, which may not be the issue, because, A, you may not find them, they may have been destroyed, whereas the president said they may have been dispersed, which raises the question that they could have somehow been spirited out of the country by terrorist groups and the like. What information do you have about that eventuality happening? I mean, isn't it presumptuous to presume that the American people are safer when you can't account for whether weapons have been taken out of the country or weapons materials have been taken out of the country?

Fleischer: Well, I think the real threat here came from a nation-state headed by Saddam Hussein and his henchmen who showed they were willing to use weapons of mass destruction before....That's the basis for saying that people are safer. If you're asking the question, on what basis does the president conclude people are safer, that's the answer.

Question: I thought the concern was [weapons of mass destruction would] fall into the hands of Al Qaeda. Wasn't that the rationale?

Fleischer: Well, I'm continuing. The president said that the removal of the regime has diminished the threat and increased our security, and I think that's unquestionable. It was, after all, the regime that used weapons of mass destruction in attacks previously. Of course we always have concerns about any place that has weapons of mass destruction passing them along. But given the routing of the Iraqi regime, it certainly makes that much harder to do....

Question: I know that, but you're making these pronouncements without answering the direct question, which is, what does this administration know about not only what has been found -- you're still checking -- but what weapons materials or actual weapons may have been taken out of the country?

Fleischer: Well, we don't have anything concrete to report on that.

Precisely. And the White House has not had much to report on its efforts to prevent WMD-related material from being given to or snatched by terrorists. The risk identified by the White House before the war was not, as Fleischer suggested, that Saddam Hussein would use WMD against the United States, but that he would slip them to terrorists who would do so. Now Fleischer is saying the danger to the United States is less because the fellows who would arrange a WMD hand-off are out of commission. But can he claim that such transfers have not occurred during or after the war? He definitely could not honestly state that the US military has acted assiduously to prevent this sort of nightmare scenario. In fact, the destruction of the command-and-control structure for whatever WMD material might have been in Iraq only increased the likelihood that this dangerous stuff could end up in the mitts of evildoers.

On April 10, Fleischer remarked, "As I said earlier, we have high confidence that they have weapons of mass destruction. This is what this war was about and is about." Yet the Bush administration woefully under-planned. If only the White House had paid as much attention to the WMD search as it does to photo-ops. Then perhaps the American people would actually have reason to feel safer.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.


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