Once again, a major story gets top billing in a mainstream paper—and is printed upside down. "Looting at Weapons Plants Was Systematic, Iraqi Says." This was how the New York Times led its front page on Sunday. According to the supporting story, Dr. Sami al-Araji, the deputy minister of industry, says that after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, "looters systematically dismantled and removed tons of machinery from Saddam Hussein's most important weapons installations, including some with high-precision equipment capable of making parts for nuclear arms."
As printed, the implication of the story was not dissimilar from the Al-Qaqaa disclosures, which featured so much in the closing days of the presidential election last fall. In that case, a huge stock of conventional high-explosives had been allowed to go missing and was presumably in the hands of those who were massacring Iraqi civilians and killing coalition troops. At least one comment from the Bush campaign surrogate appeared to blame this negligence on the troops themselves. Followed to one possible conclusion, the implication was clear: The invasion of Iraq had made the world a more dangerous place by randomly scattering all sorts of weaponry, including mass-destruction weaponry, to destinations unknown.
It was eye-rubbing to read of the scale of this potential new nightmare. There in cold print was the Al Hatteen "munitions production plant that international inspectors called a complete potential nuclear weapons laboratory." And what of the Al Adwan facility, which "produced equipment used for uranium enrichment, necessary to make some kinds of nuclear weapons"? The overall pattern of the plundered sites was summarized thus, by reporters James Glanz and William J. Broad:
The kinds of machinery at the various sites included equipment that could be used to make missile parts, chemical weapons or centrifuges essential for enriching uranium for atom bombs.
My first question is this: How can it be that, on every page of every other edition for months now, the New York Times has been stating categorically that Iraq harbored no weapons of mass destruction? And there can hardly be a comedy-club third-rater or MoveOn.org activist in the entire country who hasn't stated with sarcastic certainty that the whole WMD fuss was a way of lying the American people into war. So now what? Maybe we should have taken Saddam's propaganda seriously, when his newspaper proudly described Iraq's physicists as "our nuclear mujahideen."
My second question is: What's all this about "looting"? The word is used throughout the long report, but here's what it's used to describe. "In four weeks from mid-April to mid-May of 2003 … teams with flatbed trucks and other heavy equipment moved systematically from site to site. … 'The first wave came for the machines,' Dr Araji said. 'The second wave, cables and cranes.' " Perhaps hedging the bet, the Times authors at this point refer to "organized looting."
But obviously, what we are reading about is a carefully planned military operation. The participants were not panicked or greedy civilians helping themselves—which is the customary definition of a "looter," especially in wartime. They were mechanized and mobile and under orders, and acting in a concerted fashion. Thus, if the story is factually correct—which we have no reason at all to doubt—then Saddam's Iraq was a fairly highly-evolved WMD state, with a contingency plan for further concealment and distribution of the weaponry in case of attack or discovery.
Before the war began, several of the administration's critics argued that an intervention would be too dangerous, either because Saddam Hussein would actually unleash his arsenal of WMD, or because he would divert it to third parties. That case at least had the merit of being serious (though I would want to argue that a regime capable of doing either thing was a regime that urgently needed to be removed). Since then, however, the scene has dissolved into one long taunt and jeer: "There were no WMD in Iraq. Liar, liar, pants on fire."
The U.N. inspectors, who are solemnly quoted by Glanz and Broad as having "monitored" the alarming developments at Al Hatteen and elsewhere, don't come out looking too professional, either. If by scanning satellite pictures now they can tell us that potentially thermonuclear stuff is on the loose, how come they couldn't come up with this important data when they were supposedly "on the ground"?
Even in the worst interpretation, it seems unlikely that the material is more dangerous now than it was two years ago. Some of the elements—centrifuges, for example, and chemical mixtures—require stable and controlled conditions for effectiveness. They can't simply be transferred to some kitchen or tent. They are less risky than they were in early 2003, in other words. If they went to a neighboring state, though … Some chemical vats have apparently turned up on a scrap heap in Jordan, even if this does argue more for a panicky concealment than a plan of transfer. But anyway, this only returns us to the main point: If Saddam's people could have made such a transfer after his fall, then they could have made it much more easily during his reign. (We know, for example, that the Baathists were discussing the acquisition of long-range missiles from North Korea as late as March 2003, and at that time, the nuclear Wal-Mart of the A.Q. Khan network was still in business. Iraq would have had plenty to trade in this WMD underworld.)
Supporters of the overdue disarmament and liberation of Iraq, all the same, can't be complacent about this story. It seems flabbergasting that any of these sites were unsecured after the occupation, let alone for so long. Did the CIA yet again lack "human intelligence" as well as every other kind? The Bush administration staked the reputation of the United States on the matter. It won't do to say that "mistakes were made."