Joe Conason's Journal

We invaded Iraq to seize weapons of mass destruction, but a U.S. Army inspector suggests that the U.S should lower its expectations.

Published April 16, 2003 4:25PM (EDT)

Scooby Doo's non-smoking gun
Don't miss Jake Tapper's excellent review of the elusive evidence (and overwrought media coverage) of Saddam's nuclear, biological and chemical weaponry. Of course, our government has a perfectly good explanation, assuming that no such items are found in Iraq: The stuff is hidden in Syria now. Yeah, that's the ticket!

Meanwhile, there is some macabre amusement to be had in the continuing cycle of false alarms and non-smoking guns. Consider this remarkable exchange yesterday between CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer and Ryan Chilcote, a CNN correspondent embedded with the 101st Airborne, and Chilcote's interview of Chief Monte Gonzales, a top U.S. Army expert and inspector:

Blitzer: Ryan, yesterday you were telling us about these 11 containers, these so-called mobile labs, that could be used for chemical or biological warfare discovered by elements of the 101st Airborne. What's the latest on that score?

Chilcote: Well, Wolf, we are actually at that ammunition plant, as you said, near Karbala where the 101st believed, and as you said -- said on our air yesterday, that they had found chemical dual use chemical and biological laboratories buried under the ground here.

That was, it turns out, not entirely accurate. A team of experts from the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, some of the best experts from the U.S. Army here in country, have been working at this site tirelessly for the last few days. And they have found that there are no chemical and biological laboratories here. Now we actually have a member from the Mobile Exploitation Team alpha with us. He is Chief Monte Gonzales. He's been working at this site the last few days, can really explain some of the confusion. What did you find here?

Gonzales: What we had here [was] just a very vast industrial military complex, based on our assessment of what we've looked at here. We don't find anything that links this facility to any sort of WMD program. It's all conventional weapons production and storage facility.

Gonzales went on to explain that he didn't know why the cargo containers, known in military lingo as "conexes," had been buried. "Figuring this out, it's like a Scooby Doo mystery," he told Chilcote. "And our best assessment is the stuff was covered up for either survivability in anticipation of a coalition attack or to prevent looting, plain and simple."

As for the ongoing search for chemical and biological weapons, Gonzales warned against the inflated expectations stoked by earlier media coverage (and, of course, by Colin Powell and other officials who made extravagant, often false claims about the evidence).

"It's a puzzle," said Gonzales. "We don't expect to find a smoking gun on any site we go to. We're collecting pieces and parts of a larger body of evidence, which at the end will no doubt produce unequivocal evidence that says yes, there was a WMD program in Iraq."

That's setting the standard quite low, since we invaded to seize supposed stockpiles of sarin, tabun, anthrax and botulinum toxins, not to mention those nukes that never get mentioned anymore. But again, the honesty of the Army officers in charge of "exploitation" is refreshing. I suspect that no matter what the brass says, those officers would be glad to see their results verified by independent experts.
[9:29 a.m. PDT, April 16, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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