Joe Conason's Journal

Why did the Bush administration sell a war based on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction? Says an insider: "Because it was the one reason everyone could agree on."

Published May 29, 2003 4:15PM (EDT)

Making Saddam's weapons appear -- and disappear
On Tuesday evening, Donald Rumsfeld floated a new explanation for the failure to find thousands of tons of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. The peppery defense secretary now theorizes that Saddam may have ordered all that nasty junk destroyed before the war began -- presumably to make Bush, Blair and Rummy look bad. To believe that requires a suspension of normal skepticism even greater than is usually accorded Rumsfeld by credulous journalists.

Would such massive operations really have been possible without U.S. intelligence picking up communication of the necessary orders to Iraqi field commanders? Would U.S. satellites have failed to see any of that activity? And wouldn't someone among the officers captured or bribed by our military know the details of that operation?

More credible, and more cynical, is the latest word from Rumsfeld's deputy Paul Wolfowitz in the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair. In a profile by Sam Tanenhaus, Wolfowitz reveals that the emphasis on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction reflected an attempt to reach consensus within the administration. As he put it, "for bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue -- weapons of mass destruction -- because it was the one reason everyone could agree on." In other words, Wolfowitz and the hawks recognized that they had to provide a political fig leaf for Tony Blair and Colin Powell when they appealed to the U.N. Security Council.

For those same reasons, the actual threat from Saddam's weapons had to be greatly exaggerated -- as the BBC now reports was done with a British intelligence dossier last fall. So far, nothing has turned up to validate those exaggerated claims, except perhaps for those trailers that the CIA argues were "probably" mobile bioweapons production facilities. While the agency's analysis isn't entirely unconvincing, there remain several gaping holes to be filled. As William J. Broad reports in today's New York Times:

"The [U.S. intelligence] officials acknowledged that they had discovered neither biological agents nor evidence that the equipment had ever been used to make germ weapons.

"Moreover, they said the trailer's hardware presented no direct evidence of weapons use. The best evidence of that, they said, was the trailers' close resemblance to prewar descriptions of mobile germ plants given by Iraqi sources.

"A technical assessment alone 'would not lead you intuitively and logically to biological warfare,' an official said of the trailers.

"Their gear was rusty, officials said, perhaps from sitting in the rain. And the mobile factories were poorly designed. For instance, one official noted, Iraqi biologists running the plants would have had a hard time getting raw materials into the production gear and removing multiplied colonies of deadly germs."

Besides, how does the existence of these telltale trailers fit in with Rummy's theory? The CIA says that all traces of bioweapons were likely removed with "caustic agents." But if the Iraqis were trying to conceal their WMD program, why wouldn't they have destroyed the trailers entirely? That would have been much simpler, faster and more effective than washing them down, inch by inch, with bleach.
[10:04 a.m. PST, May 29, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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