Did Iraq really have weapons of mass destruction?

Military analysis.
May 30 2003 2:01 PM

Vanishing Agents

Did Iraq really have weapons of mass destruction?

On a cold trail
On a cold trail

Enough already. Where are the weapons of mass destruction?

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations last Tuesday and, during the question-answer period, made the usual excuses for why his team of biochem-weapon hunters hasn't yet found any. "We've only been there seven weeks," he exclaimed. "It's a country the size of California—it's not as though we've managed to look everywhere," he added.

His point has some validity but less with each day. The size of Iraq was a pertinent obstacle before the war, when U.N. inspectors had few options beyond random drop-ins on suspect sites. But now we own the place. The Pentagon's WMD-hunters can operate unhampered by Baath Party minders and sovereign niceties, so square-footage becomes almost irrelevant. Today's inspectors are like heavily armed detectives. When detectives go looking for something, they don't scour aimlessly; they follow tips, offer bribes, exert intimidation.

Let's look at those 26 former Iraqi officials—out of the 55 most-wanted playing cards—who have surrendered or been captured, and have certainly been interrogated, since the war's end. They include the vice president, the deputy prime minister, the secretary general of the Republican Guard, the army chief of staff, the minister of military industrialization, Saddam's science adviser, the head of the national monitoring directorate (who served as liaison with the U.N. inspectors), and the minister of oil (who was believed to be in charge of facilities that weaponized anthrax and other toxins).

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If Iraq had been developing biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons, several—perhaps all—of these officials would have known about it. They could have told the U.S. interrogators where to look. Yet, it seems, they haven't muttered a clue. Is there not a single cad among them who would trade his loyalty to Saddam for a slice of Andalucian beach property? (Spain might as well donate something for its "coalition" status.)

Or could it be—big gulp—that they haven't given up the goods because there are no goods to give up?

Much has been made this week of two trailers, found in northern Iraq near Mosul, that the CIA says are "mobile biological-weapon production plants." In a May 28 report, considered so significant that the administration released it to the public, the agency goes so far as to call the trailers "the strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological-warfare program."

The report notes that the trailers contain a fermenter, water-supply tanks, an air compressor, a water-chiller, a device for collecting exhaust gases—just the right components for an "ingeniously simple, self-contained bioprocessing system." The trailers are also "strikingly similar" to descriptions of mobile-bioweapons plants provided by Iraqi exiles who claim to have worked in them or witnessed others who did. Secretary of State Colin Powell displayed drawings, based on these descriptions, during his Feb. 5 "smoking-gun" briefing to the U.N. Security Council.

Read closely, though, the CIA report reveals considerable ambiguity about the nature of these vehicles. For example, it notes that Iraqi officials—presumably those currently being interrogated—say the trailers were used to produce hydrogen for artillery weather-balloons. (Many Army units float balloons to monitor the accuracy of artillery fire.) In response to this claim, the report states:

Some of the features of the trailer—a gas-collection system and the presence of caustic—are consistent with both bioproduction and hydrogen production. The plant's design possibly could be used to produce hydrogen using a chemical reaction, but it would be inefficient. The capacity of this trailer is larger than the typical units for hydrogen production for weather balloons.