Now They Tell Us | The Nation


Now They Tell Us

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My fellow Americans, there may be threatening amounts of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There may not be. We're not sure. And if they are there, it may take weeks after military victory before we can launch a major effort to find and secure them. By then, they could be gone--that is, if they were there in the first place--perhaps in the hands of people who mean us harm. And after we defeat Iraq's brutal regime, the people of Iraq will welcome US troops as liberators. Then again, within days, many of them could be shouting, "Yankee, go home" and calling for a new government dominated by fundamentalist religious leaders. We don't know. Nor do we really know the extent of any operational links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda--if such things exist. Still, I believe the potential risk posed by Saddam Hussein is so great that we cannot let what we do not know to stand in the way of decisive action. We cannot afford to guess wrong. With that in mind, I have ordered...

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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With Baghdad conquered, the fog of prewar has started to clear. And it now seems that had the Bush Administration been honest with the American public (and the world), its on-to-war pronouncements would have resembled the imaginary sequence above. Instead, Bush and his national security team--including ex officio members deployed in think tank bunkers and op-ed command centers--declared, without question or pause, that Iraq had dangerous levels of weapons of mass destruction and that it was "urgent," as Bush said, to find and destroy these weapons. They also talked about birthing a democratic government in Iraq without acknowledging obstacles and potential traps. But, it turns out, the Administration was not on the level. Moreover, it was woefully unready to deal with the consequences of military victory.

Though Bush and other war cheerleaders had spoken of liberating Iraq, their main argument concerned the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. The reason he was such an immediate danger, they said, was that he had these awful weapons and could, as Bush breathlessly noted, slip them to anti-American terrorists at any moment. Yet once US troops were in Iraq, the Bush Administration and the Pentagon adopted a rather lackadaisical approach to locating and securing such weapons. Weeks after the April 9 fall of Baghdad, the Pentagon was still in the process of assembling a survey team of 1,000 experts to search for chemical and biological weapons and signs of a nuclear weapons program. Why had this force not been ready to roll at the war's start?

During an April 17 press briefing, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "I don't think we'll discover anything, myself. I think what will happen is we'll discover people who will tell us where to go find it. It is not like a treasure hunt, where you just run around looking everywhere, hoping you find something.... The inspectors didn't find anything, and I doubt that we will." Imagine if Rumsfeld had said that before the war: We're invading another country to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction, but we won't find them unless people there tell us where they are.

Bush had maintained that Saddam Hussein was a danger partly because he was close to possessing nuclear weapons. The US military, though, did not bother to visit Iraq's number-one nuclear site. A Washington Post story noted that before the war the vast Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center held about 4,000 pounds of partially enriched uranium and more than ninety-four tons of natural uranium, as well as radioactive cesium, cobalt and strontium. This is stuff that would be valuable to people seeking to enrich uranium into weapons-grade material or merely interested in constructing a dirty bomb. Yet, the paper reported, "Defense officials acknowledge that the US government has no idea whether any of Tuwaitha's potentially deadly contents have been stolen, because it has not dispatched investigations to appraise the site. What it does know, according to officials at the Pentagon and US Central Command, is that the sprawling campus, 11 miles south of Baghdad, lay unguarded for days and that looters made their way inside."

Most of the facilities suspected of being used to manufacture or store chemical and biological weapons have also gone unexamined. On April 28 British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, "We started off, I think, with around about almost 150 sites [to search] and we were beginning to look at seven of them. Actually, the sites that we have got as the result of information now is closer to 1,000.... We have looked at many of those, but nothing like a majority of them." Days earlier, Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter embedded with one of four specialized military teams looking for WMD, noted (low in the story) that "two of the four mobile teams originally assigned to search for unconventional weapons have since been reassigned to investigate war crimes or sites unrelated to weapons." Sure, war crimes are important. But more so than finding weapons that can kill thousands and that happened to be the basis for the invasion and occupation?

Toward the end of April, Administration officials, speaking off the record, were telling journalists it was possible none of these terrible weapons will be found. Nothing had even been located at the sites the Secretary of State cited in his crucial briefing to the UN Security Council in February. Only about 150 actual WMD-seekers were then even at work within Iraq--and some were complaining they were short on vehicles, radios and encryption systems. Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of allied forces in the Persian Gulf, said the search process would take months and probably involve "several thousand sites."

At any moment, US forces may find convincing evidence of chemical or biological weapons--which undoubtedly will stir rousing cheers of we-told-you-so from war backers. But that won't be enough. War was waged--so Bush and others said--to prevent Iraq's WMD from being transferred to people and groups who would use them against Americans. But the war plan included no schemes to prevent that from occurring. This was a dereliction of duty. Looters beat the United States to Iraq's nuclear facility. If Iraq had WMD, if Al Qaeda types were in Baghdad, and if these terrorists were seeking weapons of mass destruction in Iraq--the fundamental claims made by the Administration--then there is a good chance the nightmare scenario Bush & Co. exploited to win support for their war has already come true.

Why is Richard Perle not screaming about this from the roof of his French vacation house? Blair, for one, practically sounds bored with the topic of WMD. "Our first priority," he recently said, "has got to be to stabilize the country, the second is the humanitarian situation, and the third--and we can take our time about this and so we should--is to make sure that we investigate the weapons of mass destruction." Take our time? Wasn't the point that the United States and Britain could not wait one week longer before invading because it was necessary to neutralize the threat from these weapons?

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