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 yesterday, 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.