Lowered WMD expectations

Before the war, the Bush administration said the weapons existed and we would find them. Now, it's saying maybe we won't find them after all -- and the rest of the world smells a rat.

Published April 30, 2003 10:52PM (EDT)

In his NBC interview last Thursday, President Bush set off critics by citing what appeared to be a new standard of proof for Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction.

No longer was the U.S. necessarily on the hunt for the actual weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, the president said. Rather, the investigation of suspect sites in Iraq by coalition forces would prove that Saddam Hussein "had a weapons of mass destruction program." The same day as the interview, at an Abrams Army Tank plant in Lima, Ohio, Bush noted that "whether he destroyed them, moved them or hid them, we're going to find out the truth."

This, of course, follows months of reassuring Americans that WMD would be found. Earlier this month, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer called the weapons "what this war was about"; and just Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that with the help of captured Iraqi leaders, the WMD "will be found." But now the administration seems to be preparing the country for news of evidence that WMD once existed in Iraq -- with no actual WMD -- and calling it a victory.

Part of this might be because, of the 55 Iraqi leaders Central Command has deemed "most wanted," 14 have been captured and, according to a report in the Associated Press, each -- including Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and chemical and biological weapons chieftain Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi -- is denying that Iraq had any WMD before the war.

The new talking points continued to proliferate following the interview with NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, with both official pronouncements and well-placed leaks. This may ultimately work in the United States, where many Americans are pleased with the toppling of Saddam's regime and hopes for a free and democratic Iraq. But the MIA WMD are not escaping notice in the rest of the world, nor is the shift in rhetoric. And it is all further damaging U.S. credibility and fanning the flames of anti-American sentiment.

Faced with questions about this shift on Friday, Fleischer explained that "the president has always said they had [WMD] right up to the war." In the Brokaw interview, Fleischer said, the president was merely explaining that the failure to discover them so far is assuredly due to the fact that "they may have hid some of them, they may have destroyed some of them, they may have dispersed some of them." This seemed even more of a retreat from definitive proclamations that the weapons will be found.

But Fleischer's protestations to the contrary, there clearly has been a shift in rhetoric. "It's a story that nobody really wants to touch because people are afraid of saying that the stuff isn't there and then later on being proven wrong," observes Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Lee Feinstein, who was the deputy director of the State Department policy planning staff during the Clinton administration. "So in some instances, the administration is getting a free pass on this."

It is getting a pass not only from the media, but from the opposition political organization known as the Democratic Party. Asked on Tuesday about the lack of WMD discoveries so far, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said it was "highly premature to make any final conclusion" about the lack of WMD, since "it's entirely possible that there are weapons. And if those weapons exist, we ought to continue to persist until we find them."

In Feinstein's opinion, the failure to find WMD "doesn't change the rightness of the war. But clearly when you have the secretary of state making presentations to the [United Nations] Security Council live on international television with visual aids" -- ones supposedly proving the presence of WMD posing an imminent threat to the world -- "you've got a lot of credibility on the line."

This is not necessarily the case in the U.S., however. On Sunday, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that evidence of Saddam's barbarism has convinced him that "we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war." And no questions were asked of Fleischer about the WMD hunt during his Tuesday briefing. Furthermore, two stories in the Sunday Times, which is, after all, the American paper of record, featured leaks that help prepare the public for an Easter egg hunt that turns up nothing but straw.

"People are realizing that Saddam Hussein may not have stored the weapons themselves, in part because when you put chemical or biological agents into weapons, they deteriorate very rapidly," one administration official told the Times' Steven R. Weisman. Said another official: "There may be weapons, and there may not be. But it will be clear that they were pursuing WMD actively." On that same day, the newspaper reported on exclusive interviews given to germ warfare reporter Judith Miller on Friday and Saturday in Baghdad by Nissar Hindawi. Freshly released from a Baghdad prison, Hindawi, "a leading figure in Iraq's biological warfare program in the 1980s," told Miller that Iraq produced liquid anthrax and botulinum toxin but there "were orders to destroy it."

None of this is to say that the WMD won't turn up; only 90 sites out of hundreds have been searched, and this shift in talking points comes in tandem with the deployment of 1,000 additional military and scientific personnel to help search for WMD. In Qatar on Tuesday, Central Command spokesman Navy Cmdr. Charles Owens told Salon that there have been no changes in "the way we do business" in the hunt for WMD; he referred questions about policy changes to the White House or the Pentagon. Asked if there had been any new discoveries of possible WMD in the field, Owens said, "No, not at all."

Some senior officials of the "coalition of the willing," however, are taking this backpedaling even further. On Monday, while British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that he remained confident that they will be found, his foreign secretary, Jack Straw, sounded a slightly different tune, saying that Iraq "had" WMD "recently." In case anyone missed the point, Straw's spokesman noted to reporters that "he used his words very carefully. The point he is avoiding making is that the war is justified only if we find weapons of mass destruction." The spokesman went on to describe the discovery of chemical or biological weapons as a "bonus."

In response, Labour M.P. Tam Dalyell, the father of the House of Commons, erupted, saying that the U.K. had been "told again and again the reason for going to war was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that they could be used within 45 minutes. Now it's clear that the Iraqis have had no weapons for some time and that Parliament was given a completely false impression."

Many throughout the world community seemed similarly dismayed, and are not as easily swayed as the Times' Friedman. After a Tuesday meeting with Blair, Russian President Vladimir Putin remained skeptical, saying that "the world community must put period to the surmising on whether or not Iraq had the WMD," according to the Russian news agency TASS. Displaying remarkable pessimism that the word of coalition forces would suffice should weapons be found and destroyed, Putin called for U.N. arms inspectors to be sent "to Iraq if something is found there; let's not show empty barrels on TV."

The absence of WMD is also emboldening antiwar voices. In a Monday interview with Der Spiegel, the demand for U.N. arms inspectors by Heidemarie Wieczorak, the German minister of economic cooperation and development, was so strongly argued, the reporter said it sounded like she was "attempt(ing) to determine whether the US motive for the war was a lie." Wieczorak's response was hardly reassuring. "I have steered clear of speculation about whether or not those weapons exist," she said, "because that could not be determined from the outside. But the fact that this war was waged without the consent of the UN Security Council cannot be denied after the fact."

The left-wing London Independent blurbed a Sunday story, "How the Road to War Was Paved With Lies," by noting that the "legal basis for the war was to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. The war is as unjustified in retrospect as it seemed in advance." In a Sunday Op-Ed in the Japan Times, Ramesh Thakur, vice rector of United Nations University in Tokyo, wrote that "the U.N. was right" since "Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did not possess usable weapons of mass destruction, and therefore he did not pose a threat to regional, U.S. or world security of an urgency and gravity that required instant war to topple him."

Of course these suspicions are amplified in the Arab world. An editorial in the Syrian newspaper Teshreen, translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, said, "Isn't it natural to ask: Where are these weapons, which are the only pretext for the invasion of Iraq?" In Tehran, a Monday editorial in the daily newspaper Jomhuri-ye Eslami attributed the vanished WMD to the skills of shadowy American officials who armed Saddam to begin with. "They did not want any evidence or clue left behind to hint at the existence of 'accomplices' of Saddam, and they wanted all the documents and evidence in this regard to be completely destroyed and vanished," said the newspaper, translated from the Persian by the BBC.

Intriguingly, it is one of the administration's pre-war nemeses, International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei, who is emerging as one less doubtful about the possible presence of WMD -- though he is voicing that belief in the name of insisting that U.N. arms inspectors should be admitted into the country. ElBaradei told CNN on Sunday that with the regime toppled he and the IAEA will better be able to finish their work, since "one of the difficulties we were facing [was] interviewing people freely." ElBaradei said that his team needs to be deployed not merely to check for weapons but to perhaps destroy them. "The fact that there is no Saddam in Iraq anymore does not mean that a new regime will automatically reject weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, meanwhile, has given mixed signals. In March he said there were serious questions about Iraq's arms program, including unaccounted-for stocks of VX nerve gas, anthrax, and other biological and chemical weapons. Right before the war began Blix told reporters he was "curious" to see whether coalition forces would turn up any WMD. A few weeks into the war, however, he told the BBC that he had "never maintained or asserted that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, whether anthrax or nerve gas. What we have said is that their reporting on it demonstrated great lacunae in the accounting. But having something unaccounted for is not the same thing as saying it does exist." They could have been destroyed or sold, for example.

Indeed, an emerging Catch-22 criticism of coalition forces is, according to Feinstein, that their "efforts to find WMD have been halfhearted, raising concerns that whatever weapons might be there could fall into the wrong hands." Feinstein predicted that several Democratic elected officials would be making that argument in the coming days.

By Jake Tapper

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

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