Did Iraq really have weapons of mass destruction?
One could ask: Since when was Saddam's Iraq considered a model of efficiency?
The report concedes that U.S. officials found no traces of any bioweapons agent inside the trailers. "We suspect," it states, "that the Iraqis thoroughly decontaminated the vehicle to remove evidence." That's possible.
The report also notes that, in order to produce biological weapons, each trailer would have to be accompanied by a second and possibly a third trailer, specially designed to grow, process, sterilize, and dry the bacteria. Such trailers would "have equipment such as mixing tanks, centrifuges, and spray dryers"—none of which were spotted in the trailers that were found. The problem, the CIA acknowledges, is that "we have not yet found" these post-production trailers. Question: Is it that they haven't been found—or that they don't exist?
It could well be that the CIA is right about its inferences. Either way, these trailers—simply by being capable of producing biotoxins—constituted violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions barring such technology. However, we're beyond U.N. resolutions at this point. We're looking for evidence that Iraq actually did produce such weapons. From what we know so far, the trailers constitute less than airtight proof.
At his Council on Foreign Relations appearance, Rumsfeld expressed confidence that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction and that we'll find the solid evidence someday. But he did seem perplexed about where they all went. "Now what happened?" he asked. "Why weren't they used? I don't know."
He mused about "several possible reasons." First, he reminded his audience how quickly the U.S. ground troops advanced through the Iraqi desert. "Now," he said, "if the speed and the way that [war] plan was executed surprised [the Iraqis], it may very well be that they didn't have time to … use chemical weapons."
This hypothesis seems exceedingly unlikely. Surely they knew that war was coming; they had, as Rumsfeld admits, "strategic warning" of the invasion (even if they lacked "tactical warning" of just when, say, the 3rd Infantry Division would reach Baghdad airport). If they had planned to use—or even contemplate using—chemical or biological weapons, there would have been plenty of time to place them on alert.
"It is also possible," Rumsfeld added, "that they decided that they would destroy [the weapons] prior to a conflict."
If this turns out to be true, it has profound implications. Under this scenario, Saddam would most likely have destroyed the weapons sometime during the Security Council's deliberations, to prevent the U.N. inspectorate from finding them and thus to keep the council from declaring Iraq in "material breach" of U.N. resolutions and, as a result, declaring war. In other words, he would have been disarming in order to avert a war. Such covert disarmament would have been foolish, clumsy, and in itself a violation. (The resolutions required Iraq to declare its weapons and all steps taken to destroy them.) Still, if this is what Saddam was doing, it might have been evidence—however stupidly kept hidden—that the inspections were working, that war was not necessary to disarm Iraq. (Of course, if the American WMD-hunters eventually do find the goods, it would confirm the view that the U.N. inspectors—with all the limitations placed upon them—never would have.)
All this speculation, of course, assumes that Saddam, who certainly had such weapons as late as 1995 (his son-in-law told us where they were, whereupon the U.N. inspectors of the day went and destroyed them), still had them in March 2003. Maybe he did, and maybe we will find out he did, but the case has yet to be made.
To some, this does not matter. In the latest Vanity Fair, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, long the most vociferous advocate of ousting Saddam by force, is quoted as saying there were many issues that justified going to war. "For bureaucratic reasons," he says, "we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on."
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of serviceman looking for evidence of bioweapons by Robert Woodward/US Army/Reuters.