When Bush (sans flight suit) delivered a photo-op victory speech to the men and women of the USS Abraham Lincoln, he solemnly noted, "We've begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated." This attempt at assurance was disingenuous and a continuation of one of the Administration's Big Lies of the war on Iraq: We had to invade now to protect you from terrible weapons of mass destruction.
A list of sites that still required investigation weeks after most of the fighting was finished was an indication that Bush had not moved quickly to counter the threat he had claimed existed. On May 7, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone noted that before the war the Pentagon drew up a list of about 600 sites possibly related to weapons of mass destruction. Only seventy had been examined by the military's WMD-hunters, along with another forty sites added to the roster during the war. No unconventional weapons were found. The President didn't mention that on the carrier. Nor did he mention that his Administration had not mounted an all-out WMD search-and-secure mission. And as a series of Washington Post stories show, looters ransacked key nuclear facilities before US units looking for WMDs arrived. Partially enriched uranium and other radioactive material--as well as documents covering nuclear weapons design matters--are presumed missing. Were the plunderers petty thieves or the terrorists Bush claimed were in Iraq in search of WMDs? In any event, the war has been a boon to would-be dirty-bomb makers.
The leisurely pace and less than comprehensive nature of the WMD hunt borders on the criminal. The Pentagon's new, 2,000-person Iraq Survey Team--which will look for WMDs as one of several missions--is not scheduled to hit Iraq until the end of May. (The Bush Administration has not invited the UN to participate in the inspections.) Why was such a force of specialists not assembled before the war and ready to roll when the invasion was launched? At this point, a WMD search may unearth evidence to shore up Bush's claim that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, but it is unlikely to prevent unconventional weaponry and related material from falling into the wrong hands. The time for that sort of mission is long gone.
Bush was fooling the sailors of the Lincoln--and the rest of the nation--when he suggested that the WMD search was only beginning. The Johnny-come-lately Iraq Survey Team is a follow-up to a smaller effort that's mostly a bust. At the war's end, the 75th Exploitation Task Force started looking for WMDs. By mid-May, it was shutting down. Col. Robert Smith, one of its key officers, told the Post the unit's leaders no longer thought that "we're going to find chemical rounds sitting next to a gun.... That's what we came here for, but we're past that." The 75th focused on a short list of nineteen high-priority sites and sixty-eight non-WMD sites that might hold useful clues; it managed to examine seventeen of the former and forty-five of the latter. Its members were disappointed and frustrated. They had expected to find what Secretary of State Colin Powell described during his UN presentation: evidence of a nuclear weapons program, hundreds of tons of chemical and biological agents along with missiles to carry them. They uncovered nothing. Col. Richard McPhee, who commanded the 75th, said, "Do I know where [the WMDs] are? I wish I did...but we will find them. Or not. I don't know. I'm being honest here." More honest than his Commander in Chief.
The Pentagon said recently it had discovered a tractor-trailer its experts believe was a mobile bioweapons lab, perhaps one of several; other experts are uncertain. But even if the Pentagon discovers unconventional weapons or components, that will not undo the Administration's failure to act swiftly to thwart what it described as a clear and present danger. Few official voices have demanded that the White House explain its decision not to launch a massive WMD search. Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, wrote Bush asking him why there was a one-month delay in securing nuclear sites. But are any of the prominent presidential candidates willing to challenge the President on this matter? Are there no independent-minded Republicans interested in holding hearings on it? (Richard Lugar, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this means you.) Bush either misled the nation with his prewar WMDs-are-falling rhetoric, or he failed to move vigorously to counter the threat he himself had proclaimed. In either case, his victory in Iraq is tainted.