What the definition of "WMD" is

The White House helpfully explains what the president meant when he claimed weapons of mass destruction had already been found.

Published June 11, 2003 11:19PM (EDT)

When President George W. Bush says "cow," does he really mean "milk"? Does he use the terms "light bulb factory" and "light bulb" interchangeably? According to White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, when the president declared two weeks ago Friday that "weapons of mass destruction" had indeed been found in Iraq, he was merely using a term -- as he has on myriad occasions -- that he wields as a synonym for weapons of mass destruction programs as well.

This was a most remarkable Fleischerian pronouncement, if for no other reason than it's been clear that the president, since making the May 30 declaration on Polish television that WMD had been found, has been quite exact in not repeating the claim in his subsequent statements about WMD. Last week he told cheering soldiers in Qatar, with painstaking precision, that coalition forces had found "two mobile biological weapons facilities which are capable of producing biological agents," a distinctly ambiguous proclamation. On Monday, Bush stated with single-minded clarity that "Iraq had a weapons program; intelligence throughout the decade showed they had a weapons program," and he is "absolutely convinced with time we'll find out that they did have a weapons program."

Fleischer's explanation comes at a time of mounting criticism at home and abroad for the president, who urgently and credibly sold the war in Iraq as a necessary task in the face of an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein's biological, chemical and possibly even nuclear weapons -- ones it was imperative the U.S. not allow to be used or given to terrorists. "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised," Bush said on March 17.

In the weeks since, administration officials have grown increasingly nonplused at the lack of credible evidence so far that Iraq had WMD at the ready. In this context, Fleischer's remarks appear to be not only an attempt to explain away a presidential misstatement, but perhaps more than that: a way to argue that the president never meant that there were WMD pointed at the U.S., just WMD programs. Asked about the clear shift in rhetoric on Tuesday, Fleischer offered an interesting explanation of what his boss meant when speaking to Polish TV. "As you know from listening to the president on this issue repeatedly, when the president talked about weapons programs, he includes weapons of mass destruction in that," Fleischer said. Apparently, when President Bush uses the term "weapons of mass destruction" he also means programs to create WMD.

On its face this doesn't seem to fit with the president's interview with Polish TV, where it seemed pretty clear that Bush was specifically discussing weapons of mass destruction, and it appears to be a significant backing off from his May 30 pronouncement. "We found the weapons of mass destruction," Bush said. "For those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, we found them."

Regardless, this is the White House's explanation. Asked why the president was so precise on Monday, saying "weapons programs" three times in a row, Fleischer said, "I don't think you should make anything of it, because I know what the president meant. When he said 'weapons programs,' he includes weapons of mass destruction, as you heard him say on numerous occasions."

But the White House reporter apparently hadn't heard the president use the non-synonyms as synonyms "on numerous occasions." Seeming incredulous, the reporter tried to clarify: The president used "WMD" and "WMD programs" "interchangeably"?

"That's correct," Fleischer said. "He did" so on Monday, he added.

This nifty new definition of WMD would apparently include the two trailers Kurdish forces found in late April near Mosul, ones that the CIA says "probably are designed to produce" biological weapons, though that claim is disputed within the CIA. Still, if one accepts that the trailers are the real deal, and one accepts Fleischer's Tuesday explanation, then it's clear that the trailers constitute not only evidence of a WMD program but the WMD themselves. Problem solved. While of little apparent concern to the American people, the issue of whether the U.S. casus belli was based on erroneous or twisted intelligence information about Iraq's weapons stockpiles has emerged as an international issue for the White House and the nation at large.

President Bush did use the term "weapons of mass destruction program" in his April interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw, but that seemed to mark a time when the president was setting the bar lower in terms of the standard of proof he was demanding. The investigation of suspect sites in Iraq by coalition forces would prove that Saddam Hussein "had a weapons of mass destruction program," he said to Brokaw. 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." The shift back in April was seen in other administration pronouncements as well as in well-timed leaks to the New York Times of officials saying that the WMD may have been destroyed before the war.

On Fox News Sunday, William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said that "people like me, who were hawks, said the war was both just, prudent and urgent." The war, in Kristol's estimation, was still just and prudent. "But it is fair to say that if we don't find serious weapons of mass destruction capabilities, the case for urgency, which Bush and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair certainly articulated, is going to be undercut to some degree."

That, of course, depends on what your definition of "WMD" is.

By Jake Tapper

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

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

British Election George W. Bush Iraq War