Racing the Truth to War
As the debate rages over pre-war intelligence, the work of UNMOVIC, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection team that carried out WMD inspections and reviewed the 12,000 page "Iraq Declaration," is rarely discussed. December 7, 2005 marks the third anniversary of the declaration, and its submission is central to the discussion about how the Bush administration led the country to invade Iraq.
Critics are unearthing, almost on a daily basis, evidence of pre-war intelligence that challenged the existence of WMDs hidden by the administration. But in the months leading up to the war, UNMOVIC was publicly providing daily reports and regular briefings on WMD inspections -- information that was neither fixed nor hidden. The White House Iraq Group (WHIG) that included Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and Mary Matalin read these reports and at first shifted their claims to emphasize mobile chemical labs and underground facilities. But as each day passed, and their rationale for war became less and less plausible, the WHIGs realized they were racing the truth to war.
Led by Hans Blix, UNMOVIC was given 45 days after the adoption of Resolution 1441 on November 8, 2002 to resume inspections, but quickly completed their first inspection in 19 days. Hans Blix, an old hand at WMD inspections in Iraq, had a team at the ready. His first stop in Baghdad, after a four year absence, was the Canal Hotel, where he re-opened the dusty offices belonging to UNSCOM United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that had been sealed awaiting the resumption of inspections in 1998.
Resolution 1441 was meant to give Iraq a "final opportunity" to comply with the disarmament foreseen in Resolution 687 in 1991 and Resolution 1284 in 1999. Resolution 1441 called for "immediate, active and unconditional cooperation" and included the ability to make inspections anytime, anywhere, without announcement -- including presidential palaces. The resolution gave UNMOVIC the right to "request names of personnel currently or formerly associated with Iraq's programme for WMD and missiles" and remove them and their families from Iraq for interviews, if necessary.
Their first preliminary assessment of Iraq's 12,000-page Declaration came in a briefing on December 19th to the Security Council. Reaction was mixed. I spoke with Hans Blix in preparation for this article about the 12,000 page declaration and he recounted how the Iraqis complained about "disproving the negative." In retrospect, he suggested 30 days was not nearly enough time for Iraq to fully describe their entire petrol-chemical and industrial infrastructure.
But Hans Blix also had no illusions. As he reported "during the period 1991-98, Iraq submitted many declarations called full, final and complete. Regrettably, much in these declarations proved inaccurate or incomplete or was unsupported or contradicted by evidence." Blix found much of the document a rehash and re-submission of previous materials and lacking the supportive evidence that he and UNMOVIC considered essential to support Iraq declarations that no WMD's existed. While the Iraqis had become fully cooperative with regard to prompt and immediate access to sites -- anywhere at anytime, they were still playing a game of cat and mouse with respect to supporting documents -- the budgets, destruction records, transportation notes and personnel lists that could answer open questions about anthrax programs, VX and other weapons.
The December 19 report to the Security Council mentions an allocation of $32 million. Hans Blix was quick to point out that UNMOVIC had limitless funds, "hundreds of millions if necessary," and was just getting up to speed. Part of the resolution included a seven percent share of funds from the now discredited Oil for Food funds. Biologists, chemists and other inspectors were taking refresher courses and engaging in mock inspections. Airplanes were on the tarmac, and UNMOVIC was ready to hit the ground running.
After 60 days, in the January 27, 2003 briefing to the Security Council, Hans Blix reported that "Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance -- not even today -- of the disarmament that was demanded of it." There were still major issues -- from an accounting discrepancy of 6,500 chemical bombs, to the discovery of 122mm chemical rockets, to the lack of convincing evidence for the destruction of 8,500 liters of anthrax, to a refurbished missile production infrastructure, to the slow release of personnel lists.
But there was good news. The UNMOVIC staff now had 260 members from 60 countries and an "inspection apparatus that permits us to send multiple inspection teams every day all over Iraq, by road or air," Blix affirmed. Three hundred inspections of over 230 sites were completed, eight helicopters in use, and advanced chemical and biological analytical facilities were recently installed in Baghdad. The German government was sending unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles and experts to run them. New Zealand was contributing medical and communication teams. New experts were being trained in Vienna.
The WHIGs couldn't have been pleased. Dick Cheney, Mary Matalin and Karl Rove are nothing if not shrewd. And the thought of a UN sponsored, internationally staffed, technologically advanced inspection team in place throughout Iraq was a bane to conservatives and not their vision of foreign policy. It could threaten their ultimate goal of regime change. As each day passed, the chances of finding huge stockpiles and weapons facilities diminished. Their argument for invasion would disappear. The clock was working against them.
On February 14th, UNMOVIC reported to the UN that 200 chemical and 100 biological samples had been analyzed and concluded that "the results to date have been consistent with Iraq's declaration." Inspections were conducted without notice and full cooperation -- "industrial sites, ammunition depots, research centers, universities, presidential sites, mobile laboratories, private houses, missile production facilities, military camps and agricultural sites .... At certain sites, ground-penetrating radar was used to look for underground structures or buried equipment." In a word -- thorough.
For the first time, Hans Blix included a section on "intelligence" in his briefing, discussing the role of foreign intelligence on the inspection process and Colin Powell's now infamous speech of February 5, 2003 to the United Nations. Hans Blix politely acknowledged intelligence agencies must protect sources and methods, and be assured information provided will be handled in the strictest confidence. He stated, "UNMOVIC had achieved good working relations with intelligence agencies and the amount of information provided has been gradually increasing."
Gradually increasing? The world was preparing to go to war and countries were holding intelligence back? Hans Blix explained in a follow up interview last week that foreign intelligence was only provided to Dimitri Perricos, his successor at UNMOVIC, and the deputy in charge of inspections at the time, along with another senior executive at the agency. Blix estimated "all in all about 100 sites suggested from all intelligence agencies together and that some three dozen actually were visited in the months we were present in Iraq." Blix referred me to the Butler Report, which closely examined the role of British intelligence. The British had given UNMOVIC 30 pieces of intelligence, which related 19 different sites. The report states UNMOVIC visited seven sites and found Volga engines (long-range missile components) at one, nuclear scientific documents at another and conventional ammo at a third. In Blix's recollection, UNMOVIC only made findings at three sites provided by intelligence, "the conclusion from Butler would be that all three were British and none was from the US."
I followed up with Dimitri Perricos last week, who confirmed that UNMOVIC was only able to follow-up on 40% of the sites provided by intelligence before the war began, but emphasized these searches were not random, and as logic would dictate, focused on credible and high-priority sites first. He would not reveal what percentage of the intel sites were provided by the US government.
Ninety days into the inspection process in 2003, and troops had started amassing at the Iraqi border. Was the threat of war working to improve the Iraqis cooperation with Blix's inspection process? Absolutely. But going from threat to war is a huge step. One has to assume the administration was feeding UNMOVIC every morsel of intelligence they had as the war got closer.
If Donald Rumsfeld knew "exactly" where the weapons of mass destruction were located, he would want them unearthed before an invasion. It would be immoral and insane to leave known weapons of mass destruction in Saddam's hands and then attack, putting the troops at risk. Why hold any intelligence back if it could reveal a site and confirm the argument for war?
There is only one possible explanation. The WHIGs knew the intelligence was coming up empty, had no more intelligence to provide UNMOVIC and needed to act. To this day Hans Blix says he does not know whether there were other weapons sites he was not told about.
After 90 days and hundreds of inspections, what would the "conservative" approach have been? In early March French Mirage aircraft were scheduled to join the inspection effort and German drones were ready to go. Millions of dollars in equipment was arriving in Cyprus and the Russians were offering an Antonov aircraft with night vision capabilities. As Blix reported, UNMOVIC was "still expanding its capabilities" with new experts "from 22 countries, including Arab countries" ready to join the effort.
On March 7, 2003, UNMOVIC gave the last briefing before the start of the war. Hans Blix continued to complain about the lack of supporting documents provided by Iraq. UNMOVIC had investigated US claims of mobile biological trucks and underground facilities, found no evidence of their existence and were ready to double the search effort with their unlimited budget. Disposal sites of VX missiles were being re-excavated; private interviews were finally beginning in earnest. Hans Blix stated in the briefing, "Even with a proactive Iraqi attitude, induced by continued outside pressure, it would still take some time to verify sites and items, analyze documents, interview relevant persons, and draw conclusions. It would not take years, nor weeks, but months." A "work programme" was scheduled to be delivered on March 18th 2003 that would outline UNMOVIC's "proposed list of key remaining disarmament tasks." UNMOVIC was evacuated on the day the document was delivered. The war started the very next day.
Forget Joe Wilson, Colin Powell, Ahmad Chalabi and Curveball. Simply look, as they say, at the facts on the ground. After 700 go-anytime inspections at over 500 go-anywhere sites, many actually suggested by US intelligence sources, it's proof positive that the WHIGS were not interested in reality as they made their case for war.
As Hans Blix told me, "The results should have told them the intelligence was not that good." He was being kind. No, Cheney and the WHIGs knew their intel was bad, WMDs and huge weapons programs a distant memory and their publicly stated reason for going to war, fading fast. Before the inspection team could reach full strength, before offices in Basra could be opened, before hundreds of Iraq-personnel interviews could take place, before Russian night-vision aircraft could arrive, before a work program could be delivered, before the 12,000 page Iraq Declaration could be fully vetted, before a mere 100 days of inspections could be completed, the plug was pulled and the best solution for dealing with Iraq's WMD threat ended.