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[casi] Calendar of errors

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

July/August 2003, Volume 59, No. 4, p. 2

Calendar of errors

This one’s for the history books, folks. While it’s always possible that
some Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or WMD—which posed such an immediate
threat to the United States that the Bush administration was compelled to
invade that country—may some day be found, so far the weapons have proved
elusive. Just for the record, (and in case in a few years no one can believe
what happened, or the story becomes confused with the plot of a Marx
Brothers movie), here’s a representative sample of reports from the U.S. and
British news media since the search for Iraq’s WMD began:

April 7: The Washington Post relays the Pentagon announcement that it has
found the “smoking gun”—the 101st Airborne has located a large cache of
chemical weapon-laden missiles southwest of Baghdad; buried “bioweapons
 labs” are also reported found.

April 10: U.S. military commanders announce they have secured the Tuwaitha
nuclear facility.

April 11: U.S. military commanders reveal that before April 10, Tuwaitha, a
site known to contain various radioactive materials, was left unguarded for
days. During that time Iraqi civilians looted the facility, almost certainly
carrying away contaminated materials.

April 12: The Guardian reports that the U.S. and British governments have
rejected the idea that experienced U.N. weapon inspectors should return to
Iraq. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that Saddam Hussein’s science
adviser, Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi has surrendered, but insists Iraq had no

April 13: The Washington Post reports that the “smoking gun” chemical weapon
found on April 7 is some sort of pesticide, probably used to combat
mosquitos; as for the April 7 report that chemical weapons missiles had been
found, the Pentagon “denies any knowledge of this alleged discovery.”

April 15: CNN reports that buried bioweapons labs turn out to be crates of
new, unused laboratory equipment (test tubes and the like).

April 20: The Washington Post says the Pentagon intends to form a 1,000-man
“Iraq Survey Group” to hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile,
Britain’s Independent sums up what has been discovered about Iraqi WMD so
far: The U.S. intelligence report that the nuclear facilities at Tuwaitha
had been rebuilt was a “sham”; a claim that Iraq had bought uranium in Niger
was based on falsified documents; and the aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq
were not for gas centrifuges to produce weapon-grade uranium. The United
States claimed that Iraq was expanding its chemical facilities, but in
reality the chemical site at Al Qaqaa was bombed during the first Gulf War,
and its chemical weapons were then removed and destroyed by the United
Nations. As for the pre-war claim that Iraq was building a dangerous
unmanned aerial vehicle for the purpose of spraying bioweapons into the
atmosphere, a single dismantled drone found by U.N. inspectors was not
reported because it was not a prohibited item. Secretary of State Colin
Powell’s claim at the United Nations in February, that Iraq had weaponized
ricin, was misleading, to say the least. The truth, surely known to U.S.
intelligence, was that Iraq conducted a single test in November 1990, which
failed, after which the ricin project was abandoned. Similarly, no evidence
to date supports Powell’s other claims— that Iraq engaged in research on
smallpox, or that it had any VX, mustard gas, botulin, or anthrax.

April 21: Questions are raised about how seriously the U.S. government
believed its own claims about WMD, considering that, as the New York Times
reports, weapons search teams do not have adequate transport and are having
to rely on borrowed helicopters. On the same day, in the same paper,
reporter Judith Miller declares that an unnamed Iraqi scientist has
identified an unnamed site where, he says, Iraq destroyed unnamed chemical
and biological weapons before the war. Miller calls this the “most important
discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons.”

April 24: The Washington Post reports that the reason U.S. forces waited
three weeks after reaching Tuwaitha before inspecting it was due to an
internal U.S. government dispute about who would be in charge. The BBC
quotes the editor of Jane’s Intelligence Digest, Alex Standish, who says
reports of Iraq’s WMD were “politically driven.”

April 25: President George W. Bush says WMD may not ever be found in Iraq.

April 27: New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman says it doesn’t matter if
no WMD are found. On the other hand, Raymond Whitaker, writing in the
Independent, says the road to war was paved with lies and that intelligence
agencies were at the mercy of political appointees who distorted
intelligence reports to fan the flames. The story about the purchase of
uranium from Niger, based on “crude forgeries,” had been known to be false
for more than a year. As for Scud missiles, not only were none fired, none
were found. The Blair government plagiarized outdated graduate student
papers and called them a dossier on Iraqi weapons. Other questionable
information came from an exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, which was
paid to “come up with” claims. It’s odd, Whitaker concludes, that if U.S.
and British authorities were so concerned about finding WMD that within a
few days they diverted some of the search teams to other tasks. Meanwhile,
the Los Angeles Times reports that David Kay, a pre-war supporter of the
administration’s position, says of the U.S. WMD search: “My impression is
this has been a very low priority so far, and they’ve put very little effort
into it.”

April 28: Associated Press reports that some 55-gallon drums previously
found in northern Iraq and described by U.S. military personnel as
containing “blister agent” contain rocket fuel.

April 29: Surrendered scientist Nassir Hindawi tells CNN he was the only
person in Iraq smart enough to make powdered anthrax (about which, he adds,
he kept quiet). Hindawi describes Rihab Taha, Iraq’s famous “Dr. Germ,” as a
former student of his who lacked practical abilities. British Foreign
Secretary Jack Straw is described by Independent correspondent Ben Russell
as “hinting” that WMD may never be found, although Straw continues to insist
that Iraq “had them recently.”

May 1: President Bush lands on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln
and declares an end to major combat operations in Iraq. On the same day, but
reported in the May 17 Washington Post, U.S. special weapons hunters break
down the doors of “Special Security Organization Al Hayat.” The padlocked
innermost storage room is found to be filled with vacuum cleaners.

May 7: The Associated Press reports that Lt. Gen. William Wallace of the
army’s Fifth Corps says there is “plenty of documentary evidence” of WMD
coming from “lower-tier Iraqis.” Wallace offers no examples.

May 9: The Associated Press reports that Col. Richard McPhee says his teams
have found no chemical or biological weapons so far, and that they might
never be found, but he thinks they will find an “infrastructure.” Or, as
Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence says, a program
for WMD will be found, just no WMD. “How it was configured and how they
intended to use it” is the problem, according to Cambone.

May 11: The Los Angeles Times reports that before the war U.N. teams tracked
down what U.S. intelligence had told them were “decontamination trucks” only
to find they were fire trucks. Other information provided to U.N. inspectors
was also less than helpful: “Sometimes it was amazingly specific. You know,
‘Go into the basement, there’s a door marked 4, go in there, then there’s a
long corridor, then you’ll find a room filled with equipment.’ Except there
never was.”

May 11: The Washington Post reports that the group directing the search for
WMD, the 75th Exploitation Task Force, is planning to leave Iraq.

May 13: The Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson calls pre-war information
“faith-based intelligence.” But Kenneth Timmerman, writing in Insight
magazine, says that only liberals care whether Iraq actually had WMD.

May 13: The New York Times reports that “suspicious trailers,” which could
be mobile bioweapons labs have been found—but they contain no biological

May 17: The Washington Post reports that White House communication director
Dan Bartlett believes there is proof that Iraq had a WMD program because
“the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that confirmed it.”

May 22: Peter Jennings, introducing a story on ABC-TV’s nightly news, summed
up the record. “U.S. intelligence officials say they have concluded that the
two tractor-trailers, which they found in northern Iraq during the war, are
laboratories for making biological weapons. But they have found absolutely
no trace of biological agents in them. Nine weeks after the war began, there
is no tangible evidence of any biological or chemical weapons in Iraq at

Linda Rothstein

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