David Kay and Lord Hutton.

David Kay and Lord Hutton.

David Kay and Lord Hutton.

A wartime lexicon.
Jan. 30 2004 11:55 AM

A Tale of Two Reports

David Kay and Lord Hutton.

David Kay
David Kay

Those who love the Near East are fond of repeating the legendary anecdotes of one Nasreddin Hodja, a sort of Ottoman Muslim Aesop of the region with a big following among Greeks and Greek Cypriots as well as among Turks, Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, and others. On one occasion, this folkloric wise man went to the hammam, or Turkish steam bath. His undistinguished and modest demeanor did not recommend him to the attendants, who gave him brief and perfunctory attention before hustling him out to make room for more prosperous customers. They were duly astonished when he produced an enormous tip from under his robes, and when he paid a return visit some time later, they were waiting for him with the richest and warmest towels, the longest and most detailed rubdown, the finest oils, the most leisurely service of sherbet, a long soak, and the most obsequious attendants. As he departed, the old man dropped a few meager coppers into their outstretched palms and, when they began to protest, told them: "The last tip was for this time. This tip is for the previous time."

So Saddam Hussein finally got his reward for all the unpunished times. Well, history doesn't move in a straight line, and irony is a dialectical hairpin. But if he really didn't have any stores of unlawful WMD, it was very dumb of him to act as if he still did or perhaps even to believe that he still did. And it seems perfectly idiotic of anybody to complain that we have now found this out (always assuming that we have, and that there's no more disclosure to come). This highly pertinent and useful discovery could only be made by way of regime change. And the knowledge that Iraq can be finally and fully certified as disarmed, and that it won't be able to rearm under a Caligula regime, is surely a piece of knowledge worth having in its own right and for its own sake.

David Kay and his colleagues in the post-1991 inspections met with every possible kind of evasion, deceit, and concealment. Then they had to watch as their most golden inside informers, the Kamel brothers, were lured back to Iraq by their father-in-law on a promise of safe conduct and put to death at once. Who would trust a word uttered by this gang, after that? It has since been established, by the Kay report, that there was a Baath plan to purchase weapons from North Korea, that materials had been hidden in the homes of scientists, and that there was a concealment program run by Qusai Hussein in person. This may look less menacing now that it has been exposed to the daylight, but there was no reason not to take it extremely seriously when it was presented as latent.

How come our intelligence agencies were so easily misled? This is an excellent question, which has lain upon the table ever since they left us defenseless in September 2001. The case for a thorough purge of the CIA would have been easier to make if the antiwar liberals had not gone on parroting the Langley line, which was to underestimate on some things and to overstate on others. The booby prize here goes (again) to Maureen Dowd, who in her column on David Kay on Jan. 29 said that the agency was "probably relying too much on the Arabian Nights tales of Ahmad Chalabi, eager to spread the word of Saddam's imaginary nuclear-tipped weapons juggernaut because it suited his own ambitions—and that of his Pentagon pals." As everyone with the slightest knowledge is well aware, the CIA was smearing and sabotaging Chalabi until the week of the fall of Baghdad and continues to do so. It remains, within the institutions of the U.S. government, the most devout opponent of regime change with the arguable exception of the Department of State.

If you want another free laugh, or another glimpse of the tiny-minded literalism of the neutralists and isolationists, take a look at the other "scandal" that has just been exploded by Lord Hutton's inquiry in London. One of Tony Blair's advisers, Jonathan Powell, changed the wording of a report in the following way. It had originally read: "Saddam Hussein is willing to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat." The Blairite alteration removed the last eight words. Since everything was a threat in Saddam's disordered mind, and since he had used such weapons in the past as weapons of aggression inside and outside his own borders, the only "politicization of intelligence" would have occurred if the eight words had been left in, to give the impression that he would only fight in self-defense. The excised phrase lingers on, as a reminder that the opponents of regime change also believed in the existence of the weapons.

The British government's claim that such weaponry was deployable within "45" minutes is irrelevant from both sides, since if the weapons weren't there they couldn't be used at all, and if they were there they presumably existed in some condition of readiness. Many newspapers in London sold extra copies on the bannered "45 Minutes" headline and have been in a vengeful state ever since over their own credulity. That can't be helped. In this ontological argument, nobody claimed that there was no WMD problem to begin with. (German intelligence reported to Gerhard Schröder that Saddam was within measurable distance of getting a nuke: That didn't deter the chancellor in the least from adopting an utterly complacent approach.)

It's been a few weeks since I have heard any new conspiracy theories about the suicide of Dr. David Kelly, who was himself a firm believer in "regime change" as the precondition for inspections. It has now been established that his identity was given away by Andrew Gilligan, a BBC journalist whose reportorial standards were a byword before he became famous. The most inventive theory I have heard this week is that Lord Hutton is an Ulsterman and that Gilligan is a republican-sounding kind of Irish name, and that this is all a subtext of the age-old struggle between Orange and Green. That'll do fine to keep the conversation going, as this ridiculous and paltry controversy recedes into the past.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.