Weapons of mass disintegration

Scott Laderman

It is worth remembering that this was a war launched in the name of security. Of course, to those in possession of their critical faculties the claim was always risible. Even the Central Intelligence Agency disputed the notion that Iraq posed a threat to the United States. But with all of the delusional talk of “liberation” in recent days, we must not forget, if the George W. Bush administration was to be believed, this was first and foremost a crusade to disarm Saddam Hussein of his regime’s chemical and biological weapons.

This point is important because – with the United States now occupying most of Iraq – not a single such armament has been found. While in theory it is still conceivable some evidence of a covert weapons program might emerge, the possibility seems less and less likely. The failure of the armed forces to thus far substantiate Bush’s statements about the United Nations’ failures should hardly be surprising. To those who bothered to check, the administration’s prewar claims often strained credulity.

Tragically, most American reporters were not among the skeptics. It is a sad testament to the corruption of the mainstream press that Iraq’s possession of outlawed weapons was almost universally treated as an established fact rather than an unsupported allegation. With a few notable exceptions, American journalists covering the Iraq crisis looked a lot more like stenographers to power than public watchdogs obligated to question it.

On an empirical level, tenacious fact-checking by the media would not have been difficult. Instances of administration deceit were overwhelming. Little of the prewar “evidence” cited by U.S. officials – Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, et al. – withstood the critical scrutiny of either the United Nations or independent experts.

Remember the uranium Iraq was said to have sought in Africa? The charge was leveled on numerous occasions, including by Bush in his State of the Union Address on Jan. 28. It seems, however, that not only was the administration’s claim based on fabricated documents, but U.S. intelligence reportedly told U.S. officials the documents were not credible in late 2001. This was shortly after the CIA revealed their existence to the White House. Yet for more than a year after the agency disowned them, the administration cited the documents as evidence of Iraq’s malevolent designs.

Only slightly less shameful was the repeated U.S. assertion, which the International Atomic Energy Agency explicitly debunked, that Iraq had acquired aluminum tubes for purposes of nuclear weapons production. In this case, as in others, the administration masterfully recognized its initial claims would receive far more media attention than any challenges by analysts which might follow. Needless to say the strategy worked. Even the most hawkish members of the White House, however, must have been stunned by the extent of the media’s subservience. The press almost completely rolled over.

Of all the distortions of U.S. officials, the one most damning of the media’s performance had to be the saga of Hussein Kamel. A son-in-law of Saddam Hussein and for 10 years the chief of Iraq’s weapons programs, Kamel fled his country in 1995 and provided an intelligence bonanza to the U.N. inspectors, the CIA and MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. He returned to Iraq in 1996 and was killed shortly afterward.

To underline the importance of his contribution, the United Nations characterized its inspections regime as having two phases: pre-Kamel and post-Kamel. His testimony and the documents in his possession were hailed on numerous occasions by U.S. officials – including by Colin Powell in his Feb. 5 presentation to the Security Council – as constituting a substantial portion of the U.S. case for Iraq’s continued weapons program.

The Kamel story might have ended there were it not for a remarkable development in the weeks before the war that, with a media actually as hostile to U.S. power as its most irrational detractors maintain, arguably should have appeared on the front page of every newspaper in the United States. In February, Newsweek obtained the notes of Kamel’s 1995 interview with a trio of U.N. inspectors, including the team’s chief, Rolf Ekeus. A transcript of the interview was made public a short while later. While Kamel confirmed Iraq had developed an arsenal of chemical and biological arms during the 1980s, he told the inspectors the Iraqi government, while retaining the technical know-how, had actually destroyed its secret weapons stocks after the Persian Gulf war.

Another defector, a military aide who accompanied him out of Iraq, seconded his claims. According to Newsweek, Kamel provided the CIA and MI6 with the same information. In other words, the claims from the former head of the Iraqi weapons program – repeatedly treated as an unimpeachable source by Bush administration officials – were consistent with the regime’s assertions in recent months that it earlier destroyed its stocks of chemical and biological arms.

To date the administration has repeatedly placed Kamel’s testimony confirming Iraq’s weapons programs from the 1980s and early 1990s at the center of its case; not once, however, did it acknowledge his other claim, which was not publicly known until the Newsweek article appeared, that Iraq actually destroyed these arms. The U.N. inspectors were reported to have maintained silence about Kamel’s revelation because they hoped the Iraqi government, which did not know what Kamel had told them, would disclose additional information.

While none of this precludes the possibility that Iraq still possessed such arms, it should have raised troubling questions about the Bush administration’s as assertions and its failure to disclose the fact that the individual touted as its most important defector claimed precisely the opposite of what officials had repeatedly told the U.S. public. Yet, according to an April 14 search of the Nexis database, not a single U.S. television or radio network reported the Kamel revelations, and only two major U.S. newspapers – The Boston Globe and The Washington Post – followed up on the Newsweek story.

Already Rumsfeld and his ilk seem to be preparing the United States for a new tale about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons. According to several administration figures – who have provided not a shred of evidence to support the allegation – Iraq’s outlawed arms have been transferred to Syria. The beauty of this charge is twofold. First, it provides an explanation should no banned weapons be uncovered in Iraq, which seems increasingly likely. And second, it lays the foundation for continuing U.S. aggression.

In fact, on Sunday Bush boldly stated that “there are chemical weapons in Syria,” which a senior official said was an allusion to the country’s indigenous weapons program. Such a charge moves the debate even beyond any alleged assistance by Damascus to the crumbling Iraqi regime.

For those who think the administration’s script looks familiar, it should. It was recently used in Iraq, and might soon be given an encore – with different actors – in a second “rogue state.” The cheerleaders for endless war must be ecstatic.

Scott Laderman’s columns appear alternate Tuesdays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]