When will George W. Bush say, “We were wrong on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction”?

The evidence–or lack of evidence–continues to mount suggesting that Bush and his aides made false statements about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction before the war. Remember all that alarmist rhetoric? In an October 2002 speech, Bush said Iraq had a “massive stockpile” of weapons of mass destruction. Vice President Dick Cheney claimed “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction…that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” In his famous presentation to the United Nations Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared, “Our conservative estimate is that Iraq, today, has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent.”

Conservative estimate? None of these claims have come close to panning out. And it’s not because–as some Bush-backers have suggested–Saddam Hussein was so good at hiding the stuff or because he managed to ship his arsenal to Syria before US troops came knocking. An extensive Washington Post front-page article published on January 7 and written by reporter Barton Gellman (and based on interviews with US weapons hunters and Iraqi weapons scientists and heretofore publicly unavailable Iraqi documentation) details the tremendous gap between the Bush rhetoric and the reality. It’s not that Hussein was not interested in chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. But Gellman found that Iraq’s programs in these areas were either in suspension or far from advanced and that–most important of all–they were not even close to producing actual weapons. The two key paragraphs of his piece read:

“[U.S. weapons] investigators have found no support for the two main fears expressed in London and Washington before the war–that Iraq had a hidden arsenal of old weapons and built advanced programs for new ones. In public statements and unauthorized interviews, investigators said they have discovered no work on former germ-warfare agents….The investigators assess that Iraq did not, as charged in London and Washington, resume production of its most lethal nerve agent, VX, or learned to make it last longer in storage. And they have found the former nuclear weapons program, described as a ‘grave and gathering danger’ by President Bush and a ‘mortal threat’ by Vice President Cheney, in much the same shattered state left by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s.”

“A review of available evidence, including some not known to coalition investigators and some they have not made public, portrays a nonconventional arms establishment that was far less capable than U.S. analysts judged before the war. Leading figures in Iraqi science and industry, supported by observations on the ground, describe factories and institutes that were thoroughly beaten down by twelve years of conflict, arms embargo and strangling economic sanctions. The remnants of Iraq’s biological, chemical and missile infrastructures were riven by internal strife, bled by schemes for personal gain, and handicapped by deceit up and down lines of command. The broad picture emerging from the investigation to date suggests that, whatever its desire, Iraq did not possess the wherewithal to build a forbidden armory on anything like the scale it had before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.”

This is a far cry from the Bush administration’s prewar shout that Hussein was neck-deep in WMDs. And in the months since the fall of Baghdad, White House officials have continued to insist that Hussein had unconventional weapons and that eventually, as Bush put it, “the facts will show the world the truth” about Iraq’s WMDs. The facts keep running against Bush.

On January 8, the Carnegie Endowment on International Piece released a report, WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications that complements Gellman’s article. It notes that Iraq’s nuclear arms program had been suspended for years and that Iraq had focused on preserving a dual-use chemical weapons capability and perhaps a similar capability concerning biological weapons. (Preserving a dual-use capability–worrisome, yes–is much different from amassing a stockpile.) The Carnegie paper also reports that Iraqi nerve agents had lost most of their potency and that Iraq’s large-scale chemical weapons production capabilities had been destroyed by the Persian Gulf War and U.N. inspections.

Perhaps the Carnegie paper can be dismissed as the I-told-you-so product of policy wonks who were opposed to the war and who had favored more intrusive inspections. But the administration’s own actions indicate there isn’t much there there in Iraq. Today The New York Times reports that the administration has withdrawn 400 members of its weapons-hunting team in Iraq–a signal there isn’t that much work for them. And the chief weapons hunter in Iraq, David Kay, has said he may well leave his job soon–another sign that a big score is not anticipated.

Two nights ago, Stuart Cohen, the vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council who supervised the production of a prewar National Intelligence Estimate that concluded Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, went on Nightline to defend the CIA’s work on Iraq’s WMDs. He said he “remained convinced that the work we did was well-grounded.” But he also said “we judged that [Hussein] did not have nuclear weapons–indeed, would not have them until very late in the decade.” That was not how Bush, Cheney and company depicted the supposed nuclear threat from Hussein. Their remarks made it seem as if Hussein had a major program under way. Cohen did add that the CIA analysts worried they might have been underestimating Hussein’s nuclear capabilities (which now seems wrong), but still Bush and his aides turned the analysts’ prudent concern into melodramatic assertions, exclaiming that they did not want a mushroom cloud to be the smoking-gun evidence that Hussein had a nuclear weapons program.

Still, Cohen stuck to the administration line that the WMD hunters need more time in Iraq to pursue those elusive (or illusive?) WMDs of Hussein and that “it’s too soon to close the books on this case.” One wonders how much time the administration will grant itself before reaching a conclusion.

At the end of the show, Nightline host Ted Koppel asked Cohen “how much of a threat” Iraq had posed to the United States. Cohen replied: “We, as I said, indicated that he did not have nuclear weapons. And that while he was in violation of UN resolutions, his missiles could not have reached that far. We were concerned about unmanned aerial vehicles. And at least theoretically, there was a concern at the possibility that unmanned aerial vehicles could be brought within reach of the United States and used. We were also concerned about unconventional delivery of chemical and biological weapons. The ability of Iraqi intelligence agencies to, perhaps, bring something in undetected and use it.” Note that Cohen did not mention that “we” were “concerned” that Hussein would slip a weapon of mass destruction to al Qaeda. That was the heart of Bush’s case for war–yet now Cohen does not even refer to it as a worry. Of course, the CIA should have been “concerned” about the theoretical possibilities Cohen mentioned–although U.S. Air Force intelligence had discounted the threat from unmanned aerial vehicles. But Bush presented a dire, concrete threat assessment to the public, not theoretical concerns.

Koppel closed his interview with Cohen by asking whether the “dangers” that may have existed a year ago were greater or lesser now: “What has happened that would make those dangers any less, if those weapons are still in the hands of people who are not well disposed toward the United States?” Put aside for the moment that there remains no proof “those weapons” even existed. Here’s how Cohen answered: “We worry about what may have happened to those weapons. Theories abound as to what may have happened….But I still worry about when we might first…come across those weapons is when they’re used or when we find them in an arms bazaar some place.”

That sounds as if the chief CIA official on the Iraq WMD issue does not believe that the war in Iraq has made the United States safer or that Bush’s war has done much to protect the nation from the threat it was supposed to eradicate. The war, Cohen suggests, may have even led to the dispersal of “those weapons”–that is, if they existed in the first place. (Note to Howard Dean: start quoting Cohen.)

As of now there is no clear evidence the weapons were there–and no indication Bush is ready to concede he hyped the threat, knowingly or not. The case continues to grow that the Iraqis’ denials about WMDs (as incomplete as they were) were closer to the truth than the assertions of the president of the United States.

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