Hasty, incomplete news reports have suggested that coalition troops found chemical weapons, or even nukes, in Iraq. They haven't -- at least not yet. And the rest of world is watching skeptically.

Published April 16, 2003 10:35PM (EDT)

Responding last June to Iraqi denials that it possessed weapons of mass destruction, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told U.S. troops in Bahrain that Saddam Hussein was "a world-class liar" whose claims were "false, not true, inaccurate and typical." Then came President Bush's Sept. 12, 2002, demand at the United Nations that Iraq "immediately and unconditionally forswear, disclose, and remove or destroy all weapons of mass destruction" and Secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 5, 2003, follow-up presentation to the U.N. of alleged evidence of WMD, as those weapons have come to be known.

For now, everyone is staying on script: We fought the war to get rid of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and we still intend to do so -- as soon as we find them. "There's strong evidence and no question about the fact there are weapons of mass destruction," Powell asserted Sunday on BBC1's "Breakfast With Frost." "We will find weapons of mass destruction." That same day Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command, told Fox News that he has "absolute confidence that there are weapons of mass destruction inside this country." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer noted last week that "we know Saddam Hussein is there, but we haven't found him yet, either."

Weapons of mass destruction are "what this war was about -- and it is about," Fleischer said.

But none have been found yet.

"When we have something to report, it will duly get reported, of course," Fleischer added Tuesday.

The American media has been rife with false alarms -- scary-sounding reports from embedded reporters -- that might give the public the wrong impression that a sarin canister here or a mobile nuclear lab there has been discovered. The rest of the world knows full well that nothing's been found yet -- at least that we know of. International groups, such as the United Nations, have requested access to the country so that its observers can also document any discoveries of such weapons. For now, the Pentagon has essentially said, "Trust us" -- and has not promised any participation in the weapons searches. On Tuesday, Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks, spokesman for Central Command in Qatar, wouldn't say "who might be invited" on the search for WMD. "Right now, our searches are done under military control and it's not appropriate to add anyone to that equation," Brooks said, adding that the military will keep its options open once discoveries are made.

While the United States maintains its focus on restoring order to Baghdad and suppressing what pockets of resistance still remain, questions about WMD simmer. Where are they? Could Saddam have moved them to Syria -- the latest terrorist threat concerning the White House? There is the possibility that we will never find them. But almost as pressing a concern is the possibility that we do find them -- and much of the rest of world doesn't believe us.

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To some observers (almost all supporters of the war) finding WMD seems less important in the wake of the liberation jubilation. On April 5, British Home Secretary David Blunkett told BBC Radio 4's "Today" program that he hoped no weapons of mass destruction were found "because the danger of finding them means there is a danger of them being used, not only against our own forces but also against the Iraqi people, even by accident." While such a situation would propel "an interesting debate," Blunkett said it wouldn't matter to him. "I would rejoice in freeing people from a regime that is at this moment  actually executing and torturing those who would otherwise have already made a deal to capitulate to us." As Lee Feinstein, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy director of Clinton's State Department said, "Looting aside, the fall of Baghdad and the relief that greeted it by an overwhelming number of Iraqis bolsters the legitimacy of this action tremendously."

But it hasn't taken long for those global cynics to start piping up. "Nothing was found, and even at the last moment of their struggle for survival, the Iraqi regime did not use [WMD]," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in St. Petersburg on Friday, after his summit with fellow war opponents German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac. "They either don't have them, or they are in such condition that they could not be used. And this raises the advisability of such an action. What does this mean? What was the war for?" The war is not technically over, of course, so Putin's conclusion is premature. But he's not alone in his criticism. On Monday, Indonesia's foreign ministry spokesperson, Marty Natalegawa, said that "with regard to the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction, so far the U.S. had yet to discover any evidence."

The Pentagon says that its officers have close to a thousand spots to check for evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and its inspection teams are working as fast as they can -- but that the search is yet to be the top priority. "Our assets are still dedicated to fighting the war. Our focus is not on site exploitation," Navy Lt. Cdr. Charles Owens, a spokesman for Central Command in Qatar, tells Salon. Centcom wants to get teams into suspected WMD sites, but that's easier said than done. "We're still fighting a war," he says. "We have to fully secure the area, defeat any pockets of resistance, and establish law and order. After that task is completed we'll be able to get our teams in there see what's actually there."

Owens calls the military's inspection teams "methodical and deliberate," and indeed the Pentagon has tried to be circumspect in its official announcements. Rumsfeld noted on April 7 that the Pentagon doesn't even issue preliminary reports on possible WMD discoveries from the field. "We have to recognize that almost all first reports that we get turn out to be wrong," Rumsfeld said, adding that "literally dozens and dozens and dozens of instances where the first report comes in and -- perfectly good reporting -- but it's wrong. And therefore, we don't do that."

But that policy became irrelevant when the Pentagon decided to embed reporters with troops. While the Pentagon might not have planned on issuing preliminary reports on possible WMD discoveries, that didn't stop soldiers in the field from sharing these almost always erroneous primary field reports with journalists. They may not be official Pentagon pronouncements, but reporters have taken to the airwaves with gripping stories, the phrase "smoking gun" being bandied about. Days later, the reports have generally been shot down. But did readers -- or TV viewers -- really notice?

On Monday, reports came in about the discovery of 11 alleged biological/chemical weapons mobile labs. No evidence of any weaponry has been reported to have been found within the labs, though the media has played up the possibility that these vans constituted evidence of WMD. "The 101st, Wolf, continues to inspect so-called sensitive sites," CNN's Ryan Chilcote reported from the field. "Sensitive sites are places where the U.S. believes the elements of an Iraqi chemical and biological weapons program may be hidden."

Chilcote interviewed Gen. Benjamin Freakly, who told CNN viewers that the "2nd Brigade found about 11 buried conexes" -- a military term for a large metal shipping container -- in the form of "20- by probably 20-foot vans buried in the ground." They "are dual-use chemical labs, biological and chemical," Freakly continued. "About 1,000 pounds of documentation were found in that, and they were close to an artillery ammunition plant." Freakly said that the Iraqi regime had denied "any wrongdoing and yet here's major chemical lab facilities, 11 different large-sized conexes buried in the ground clearly marked so they could be found again, dual-use chemical and biological close to an artillery factory that has empty shells." He noted that nothing had been confirmed -- "We're exploring that further, a little too early to tell," he said. Yet, he concluded, the labs were evidence of "new equipment, a lot of money in the 2000-to-2003 time period have been spent in that camp, probably over a $1 million worth of chemical capability found in these 11 conexes, and we continue to develop that with better expertise."

Centcom spokesman Maj. Brad Bartelt, reached in Qatar, said he would not confirm that report. "You gotta be careful about rushing to judgment," Bartelt cautioned. "We use a process that's methodical and precise, and it does take time." Time that neither Gen. Freakly nor Chilcote were willing to take before going on air.

That has been the pattern.

On March 24, CBS reporter Jim Axelrod, embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, reported on curious objects possessed by captured Iraqi soldiers -- new gas masks, chemical decontamination kits, and the antidote for nerve gas, called atropine. "I will guess that they -- they're planning on using chemical warfare," Sgt. Jennifer Raichle told him. "They may or may not use it, but they're ready for it." The next day, "CAPTURED FOES FOUND WITH CHEM-WAR GEAR," was the New York Post headline. But it didn't seem that big a deal to those who knew a little bit about WMD. "One must ask how old these clothes are. They may have been there for a long time," Hans Blix, executive chairman of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), said to Swedish Radio on March 29. "In any case, they haven't found any weapons yet."

On April 7, Fox News correspondent Mike Tobin at Centcom headquarters in Qatar reported on the discovery of barrels containing gallons of liquids testing positive in the field for chemical agents such as sarin. "The barrels have the potential to hold and store these chemical weapons," Tobin said. "Senior defense officials tell Fox News the presence of sarin, tabun or lewisite are being tested after  preliminary field tests showed they had found some of these weapons out in the field near Karbala. Two of those are nerve agents." Tobin went on to detail the havoc these nerve agents can wreak on the human body, according to the Centers for Disease Control -- convulsions, asphyxiation, death. "Lewisite is an odorless, blistering agent much like mustard," he went on. "It injures people by damaging the skin, kills them by damaging the tissue in their lungs, according, again, to the CDC."

At a Centcom briefing that day, Tobin asked a unnamed senior Centcom official if Gen. Franks had said "anything about these tests done at the sites turning up preliminary results of findings of chemical weapons?" The official immediately downplayed the discovery. "I think where Gen. Franks is on this, he'd be right where the secretary of defense is, which is that we need to get some more testing and look at these things very closely," the official said. "We all realize first reports are wrong."

What did the tests ultimately turn up? Gen. Freakly told CNN on Monday that the barrels held "high-grade pesticides."

Also on April 7, John Burnett of National Public Radio -- embedded with the 1st Marine Division -- reported that "a top military official" told him about "the first solid confirmed existence of chemical weapons by the Iraqi army." In a warehouse outside Baghdad, the official told Burnett, the 101st Airborne found about 20 BM-21 medium-range rockets with warheads containing sarin nerve gas and mustard gas."

"So this is really a major discovery, isn't it?" asked "Morning Edition" host Susan Stamberg. "If it turns out to be true, the commander told us this morning this would be a smoking gun," Burnett replied. "This would indicate the administration's claims that the Iraqis had chemicals all along."

At a Pentagon briefing the next day, Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, deputy director for operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he'd "seen nothing in official reports that would corroborate that."

Last Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that U.S. Marines had secured a city south of Baghdad -- Al-Tuwaitha -- where, underneath a building owned by the Iraqi Atomic Energy Agency, they found underground tunnels, labs and warehouses. The newspaper reported that 14 buildings had high levels of radiation. On April 11, Fox News host Sean Hannity trumpeted the report, announcing, "We may have found these smoking guns -- weapons-grade plutonium, bioweapons labs, all these things."

But Centcom spokesman Owens tells Salon, "I don't have anything to confirm what may or may not have been found there," about the Tribune-Review report. "It's one of a number of spots being checked out and investigated throughout the country." Owens agrees with Rumsfeld's exhortation about preliminary reports from the field and notes how his job differs from the media's. "Our emphasis is not on speed. It's accuracy."

The fact that the Pentagon itself is defusing these stories should bolster its credibility. But if the situation should change and the Pentagon was suddenly confirming, not denying, a story about the discovery of WMD, Rumsfeld's word won't be enough for the rest of the world.

The role of the United Nations, argues the Council on Foreign Relations' Feinstein, is crucial. "Like it or not, right or wrong, a lot of other countries view the U.N. as legitimizing international action and feel that without a U.N. stamp of approval international action isn't legitimate," Feinstein says. The United Nations, he argues, "is a place where the weak powers feel that they have a say." So whether Blix or Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, are brought in personally, their organizations should be there "to witness and document the find and their destruction," Feinstein insists.

This is not only because the groups have diverse compositions, including UNMOVIC commissioners from Muslim nations like Nigeria and Senegal, and skeptics of the United States like France and Germany, and IAEA members such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. It's also because the U.S. argument for the war wasn't particularly convincing to much of this international community. "The presentation of the facts was weak," Feinstein says. "It was sometimes overstated, sometimes based on doctoral theses, and it was thin, when it didn't need to be."

ElBaradei -- a war skeptic -- would bring a certain amount of credibility to any WMD findings. On Sunday, ElBaradei told the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag that "so far, no evidence has been provided that Iraq still has weapons of mass destruction." He stated that it won't suffice for "suspicious substances" to be "tested in U.S. laboratories. The results must be checked by the U.N. weapons inspectors. This is the only way to make credible statements about weapons of mass destruction which possibly still exist." ElBaradei also declared that only the United Nations has the authority to destroy any of these weapons.

The Bush administration's first impulse might be to brush such proclamations aside. Fleischer has said that the Bush administration has "never ruled out the possibility of U.N. inspectors playing some type of role in the future in Iraq." But that is hardly an invitation.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told Australian TV that the "anti-American lobby will argue that the Americans can't be trusted, but the Iraqis have always been required by international law to destroy all these materials, with or without U.N. inspectors. And so, too, will the coalition be able to destroy this material, with or without U.N. inspectors." But "anti-American" or not, ElBaradei clearly has a constituency. "If there are claims by coalition forces about discovering weapons of mass destruction, only international inspectors can make a conclusive assessment of the origin of these weapons," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said to the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian legislature. "No other evaluation and final conclusion can be accepted."

Or, to put it more bluntly: "George W. Bush is going to find those weapons even if they don't exist," an April 11 letter to the editor of the Bangkok Post stated. "After all, what other reason is there to justify the slaughter of so many human beings, friend and foe alike?" The letter goes on to anticipate a scenario where "the horrifying weapons" are "discovered by a few small bands of Americans patrolling previously unexplored terrain," with no one else around -- no British, Australians, or media. "But not to fret, the very resourceful Americans will just happen to have a supply of fully loaded video cameras on hand with which to record their shock and awe at just happening to stumble across this huge threat to their homeland."

An April 9 editorial in the Herald -- of Glasgow, Scotland -- made some less conspiratorial points. "The one constant among all the reasons advanced for going to war was the claim that Iraq possessed WMD," it stated. "If this is not the case, then Saddam would be seen to have been ... hiding ... nothing all along. How could he avert war by handing over what he did not have? At a stroke, Saddam will have achieved the martyrdom he craves and the Muslim world will have its worst fears about western intentions confirmed."

When Robin Cook resigned from the Blair Cabinet as leader of the House of Commons on March 17 to protest the war, he said that "Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term -- namely, a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target." Perhaps with the knowledge of such doubters once in his own Cabinet, on Sunday, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon seemed to agree with the need for international verification, telling reporters that "it is important that we have an objective source of verification." Hoon said he accepted "the principle, which is that we do need to have some extraneous authority to monitor what is happening." On April 9, British Prime Minister Tony Blair also made a move in that direction, saying at the House of Commons that "plainly it would be a good idea from whatever perspective to make sure there is some sort of objective verification of any potential weapons of mass destruction."

Hoon did beg off identifying which authority he would trust for the job. UNMOVIC, he said, "wasn't particularly successful in its time in Iraq." He said the coalition governments were still deciding "whether it should be some other international body or some other country that has a tried and tested reputation for objectivity in this area."

Either way, the British seem to be pushing for the involvement of some international organization of some repute for verification. Will the Bush administration go along with this? "It would be a mistake for the administration to let irritation over the U.N. interfere with what's in our own best interest," Feinstein says. "Not that it's stopped them before."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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