The hyping of Saddam's WMD

Last August, Bush said Saddam merely "desired" weapons of mass destruction. A month later, as he began selling the Iraq war, his tone suddenly changed.

Published June 18, 2003 10:46PM (EDT)

After touring the Andrea Foods pasta factory Monday in Orange, N.J., President Bush spoke to Garden State business owners at the Wyndham Newark Airport Hotel, where he decried the "revisionist historians" who seemed to be questioning whether "Hussein was a threat to America and the free world in '91, in '98, in 2003," the president said.

"He continually ignored the demands of the free world, so the United States and friends and allies acted." One thing was certain, Bush said to applause, "Saddam Hussein is no longer a threat to the United States and our friends and allies."

A nonpartisan analysis of who, exactly, has been a "revisionist" on the subject of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, however, reveals that politicians from both parties have revised their positions -- and often more than once. Both Democrats and Republicans have displayed a constantly shifting rhetorical pattern that makes it impossible to figure out what, if anything, either side ever concretely knew about Saddam's weapons programs.

The one consistency: Their statements, miraculously, always seemed to fit their political agenda.

Though a minority in the United States seems to care if WMD are ever actually discovered -- regardless of the White House's assurance, as spokesman Ari Fleischer declared in April, that WMD were "what this war was about" -- it has greater resonance in the world at large. Most Americans seem pleased enough that a brutal tyrant like Saddam has been toppled, despite much confusion among the public as to what role Saddam played in 9/11, with 44 percent of those polled by Knight Ridder in January stating that "most" or "some" of the 9/11 terrorists were Iraqi. The international community is not of the same opinion, and Bush allies and opponents alike have criticized the administration for overstating the urgency of the threat. Congressional hearings will soon be underway in Washington to examine this question, because there was certainly an escalation in terms of what the administration said that it knew, month by month, throughout 2002. Whether that escalation was based on new and possibly shoddy intelligence data, or the political needs at the time, is a matter for the committees to resolve.

Before the war, though, it wasn't just the Bush administration flogging the WMD menace. "We know that [Saddam] has chemical and biological weapons today, that he's used them in the past, and that he's doing everything he can to build more," presidential aspirant Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., told the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Oct. 7, 2002. "Every day he gets closer to his long-term goal of nuclear capability. We cannot allow Saddam Hussein to have nuclear weapons." There was an urgency to Edwards' call; on the Senate floor on Sept. 12, Edwards said that Saddam's nuclear capability "could be less than a year away."

Edwards at the time was trying to shore up some bona fides, his good looks and Southern demographic appeal already a given. Edwards is always quick to remind listeners of his membership in the Senate Intelligence Committee. But since the fall of Baghdad -- particularly when campaigning for the would-be Iowa primary voters, many of whom opposed the war -- Edwards has been more discreet. Speaking to lefty Democratic activists in Iowa at the end of May, Edwards said, according to the Des Moines Register, that when it comes to the missing WMD, he believes "people in this country are entitled to an explanation. Do we have intelligence information that is inaccurate? Was there a distortion of information?" In an interview with the newspaper he sounded like a rube fresh from the used-car lot, upset about the Pinto he was hoodwinked into buying. "I listened to our intelligence operatives tell us over a long period of time about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," he said.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., has also found himself questioning the Bush administration for taking the same position he himself has long held. In October 1998, Lieberman reported on the "chilling news from Baghdad." With the inspections program "disintegrating," Lieberman said, it would only be three months after inspections ended that Saddam would "begin building missiles to carry the weapons of mass destruction we know he still has, and he will surely restart or finish his nuclear weapons program." Introducing the Iraq War Resolution on Oct. 2, 2002, Lieberman declared that Saddam "has continued, without question, to develop weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them on distant targets."

But a few months later, Lieberman sounded as though he did have a question or two.

Campaigning in Iowa earlier this month, Lieberman asked whether intelligence agencies "had it right or whether the administration was overstating the case" about Iraqi WMD. "Those questions ought to be answered, because America's credibility is on the line," he said.

Down the street, at the White House, the shift in rhetoric has been a mirror image of Lieberman and Edwards' journey from conviction to circumspection. Indeed, the Bush administration's evolution of rhetoric from the beginning to the end of 2002 is nothing short of remarkable.

First, there was a shift from carefully describing what the administration thought Saddam might have, to firm declarations that Saddam had WMD. Then came an arms buildup: The claims of what Saddam allegedly had started with chemical, then went to biological, and then nuclear, weapons.

Ending the regime of Saddam Hussein had been a dream for various hawks in the Bush administration long before Inauguration Day 2001, of course. Indeed, many in the administration of the president's father, George H.W. Bush, thought it a mistake to have refrained from doing so at the conclusion of the Gulf War in 1991. But it wasn't until the horrors of 9/11 that the idea really began to gain serious traction within the administration of George W. Bush, more than a decade later. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon sites were still smoldering when, the day after the attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested attacking Iraq. "Why shouldn't we go against Iraq, not just al-Qaida?" Rumsfeld asked, according to Bob Woodward's "Bush at War."

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, meanwhile, told the president that there was anywhere from a 10 percent to 50 percent chance that Iraq was involved in 9/11. After much internal debate on the matter, Bush decided that the focus needed to be on al-Qaida and Afghanistan.

Bush declared, according to Woodward, "I believe Iraq was involved, but I'm not going to strike them now. I don't have the evidence at this point." In his well-received Sept. 20, 2001, address to the joint session of Congress, Bush's only mention of Iraq was to contrast the pending war on terror and its ambiguities with the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan came and went, and by the time of his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush was laying out a case against Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the "axis of evil." But the case against Saddam that the president laid out that evening was relatively modest. The charges against Iraq were that it flaunted its hostility toward the United States, "support[ed] terror," and had used poison gas against the Kurds more than a decade earlier. Regarding WMD, all Bush said was that the regime had "plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons" -- not that it had them. Bush noted, ominously, that Saddam had kicked out United Nations arms inspectors and thus was "a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world."

Other matters held the president's attention throughout the early part of 2002: corporate scandals, the continued hunt for Osama bin Laden, cracking down on al-Qaida, and the flagging economy. Internal debates may have been waged behind closed doors at the White House and in the Pentagon, but the administration was generally fairly reticent on the matter.

A chronological analysis of Bush administration statements from early 2002 until the war began in March 2003 reveals a stark ramp-up in rhetoric.

March 21, 2002: After Cheney returned from a 10-day swing through the Middle East -- where he tried, but failed, to secure commitments from nine Arab nations to support military action against Iraq -- he told reporters that the leaders were nonetheless "uniformly concerned about the situation in Iraq." The issue of WMD was a primary reason for this concern, he said, but not because Iraq clearly and unequivocally possessed WMD.

Like the United States, Cheney said, the nine Arab nations were concerned because they had seen "the work that [Saddam] has done to develop chemical and biological weapons" as well as "his pursuit of nuclear weapons."

But what Saddam actually possessed was unknown.

Cheney also referred to Saddam's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds prior to the first Gulf War, in 1988. In what must stand as the only time in United States history that a Republican vice president urged reporters to read that week's New Yorker, Cheney referred to writer Jeffrey Goldberg's "devastating piece" on the chemical attacks, which had killed thousands of Kurds.

One day later, at a joint press conference with Mexican President Vicente Fox in Mexico, the president continued with the administration's talking points, saying that Saddam was "a man who refuses to allow us to determine whether he has weapons of mass destruction, which leads me to believe he does."

Three months later the administration's cautious tone changed abruptly.

June 10: On a trip to the Middle East in June 2002, Rumsfeld abandoned the allegation that the Iraqis were merely plotting to develop WMD. "They have them," Rumsfeld declared in Kuwait, "and they continue to develop them, and they have weaponized chemical weapons."

Rumsfeld went on to argue that the Iraqis had "an active program to develop nuclear weapons. It's also clear that they are actively developing biological weapons. I don't know what other kinds of weapons would fall under the rubric of weapons of mass destruction, but if there are more, I suspect they're working on them, as well." Though by then the administration had declared "regime change" to be its goal for Iraq, Rumsfeld wouldn't specifically comment on administration plans. "What might take place prospectively is not ... for me to be talking about," he said.

Behind the scenes, of course, plans for the war were underway. In April, at a Central Intelligence Agency training base in Virginia, Iraqi and Kurdish opposition forces were told by government officials that the decision had been made to topple Saddam's regime. On June 19, the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks, briefed Bush on the war plans to date.

Nonetheless, Bush said very little about Iraq.

June 24: Bush delivered a major address about the Middle East, but he focused almost entirely on issues involving Israel and the citizens of the West Bank and Gaza. His only reference to Iraq came when he stated that "every nation actually committed to peace" must "oppose regimes that promote terror, like Iraq," as well as "block the shipment of Iranian supplies" to terrorist groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.

During that era, it seemed to be up to Rumsfeld to lay out the case for attacking Iraq, which he eagerly did.

July 30: Rumsfeld added a frightening new type of WMD to the list of Iraq's arsenal. "They have chemical weapons and biological weapons," he said, "and they have an appetite for nuclear weapons and have been working on them for a good many years, and there's an awful lot we don't know about their programs."

Throughout the summer, Democratic officials, as well as some Republicans, had been asking myriad questions about the administration's plans; they were met with relative silence, since the official line was that no decisions had yet been made. But in August, war opponents got a boost when high-profile members of Bush's father's administration began denigrating the administration's case for war.

August 15: Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the elder Bush's national security advisor, channeled Cassandra in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, warning that a war against Iraq would lead to catastrophe. "Saddam would be likely to conclude he had nothing left to lose, leading him to unleash whatever weapons of mass destruction he possesses," Scowcroft wrote, among other predictions. Asked about the various criticisms on Aug. 16, while at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, the president said that he was listening carefully to what was being said. "There should be no doubt in anybody's mind," Bush said. But, he said, "America needs to know, I'll be making up my mind based upon the latest intelligence, and how best to protect our own country plus our friends and allies."

And the fact was, he said, Saddam "desires weapons of mass destruction." Desires -- not possesses. Even though Rumsfeld had reiterated a month earlier that Saddam had those weapons, Bush was still being cautious in his diction.

Was this caution because "the latest intelligence" didn't state that Saddam actually possessed WMD? Or that it hadn't gotten from Rumsfeld's desk to the White House yet? Or because it was too early to begin the process of having the president lay out his case? It wasn't clear, though it was around that time that White House chief of staff Andrew Card told the New York Times that the White House hadn't really begun rallying the country to the cause of war against Iraq because "from a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." This campaign would happen, the administration made clear. It was still up in the air whether the president would seek the approval of either the Congress or the United Nations, but as spokesman Ari Fleischer said at the time, "the president knows that in a democracy it's vital to have the support of the public if he reaches any point where he makes decisions about military action."

August 26: In the first major speech from a White House official to declare that Iraq had WMD, Cheney spoke to a friendly crowd at the 103rd national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The convention, nicely enough, was being held in Nashville, Tenn., a state that Bush and Cheney had won even though it was Al Gore's home state. Cheney probably couldn't have dreamt up a more receptive and appropriate audience for the speech he was about to deliver at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, where he would declare unequivocally, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

These were biological and chemical in nature, but they weren't even the greatest threat, Cheney said. "Many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon," he warned. "Just how soon, we cannot really gauge. Intelligence is an uncertain business, even in the best of circumstances." And though he didn't say it, Cheney could have had only so much confidence in the intelligence agencies. Before the Gulf War, intelligence officers told him that Saddam was anywhere from five to 10 years away from having a nuclear weapon. After the war, however, Cheney was told that Saddam might have been within a year of getting a nuke.

With that speech came a clear shift in rhetoric, though it varied depending on the audience.

Sept. 12: Before the U.N. General Assembly, Bush demanded that Iraq "immediately and unconditionally forswear, disclose, and remove or destroy all weapons of mass destruction." He detailed the specific types of WMD: "tens of thousands of liters of anthrax and other deadly biological agents for use with" various delivery systems. U.N. inspectors reported, Bush said, that Iraq "likely maintains stockpiles of VX, mustard and other chemical agents." The nuclear question remained up in the air, Bush told the skeptical international audience, but Saddam "employs capable nuclear scientists and technicians" and the country "retains physical infrastructure needed to build a nuclear weapon."

Oct. 7: Bush traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, to outline the Iraqi threat. No longer were WMD hypothetical. "Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are controlled by a murderous tyrant," Bush declared. "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists" -- mustard gas, sarin gas, VX nerve gas, anything from its "massive stockpile of biological weapons" -- that would "allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints."

To many in the media and international community, however, the evidence behind those claims was still amiss.

Oct. 11: One day after the House of Representatives did the same by a vote of 296-133, the Senate voted 77-23, as CNN reported unflinchingly, "to authorize President Bush to attack Iraq if Saddam Hussein refuses to give up weapons of mass destruction as required by U.N. resolutions." Many members spoke openly about how the prospect of Saddam with nukes was a decisive factor.

Jan. 7, 2003: At a Pentagon briefing, Rumsfeld was asked if the U.S. had "current evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, or is it just a strong suspicion?" Rumsfeld responded, "There's no doubt in my mind but that they currently have chemical and biological weapons." Regarding nuclear weapons, he said, "We do not have evidence that they have nuclear weapons," though the United States did have "evidence that they have had a nuclear program that was robust and that they were very skilled in denial and deception."

Asked if there existed any current evidence behind these claims or if the claims were based on Iraq's possession of some of these weapons in the past, Rumsfeld said he didn't "think that if it were the latter the president would be saying what he's saying or the director of Central Intelligence would be saying what he's saying."

Jan. 23: Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations, Rumsfeld deputy Wolfowitz said "Time is running out" no fewer than four times.

Jan. 28: In his State of the Union address, Bush noted that the International Atomic Energy Agency reported in the 1990s that Saddam "had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb." Bush also repeated one highly disputed piece of intelligence regarding Iraq's nuclear weapons, saying that U.S. intelligence had reported that Saddam had "attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production." The administration had been making the claim for months, though IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei argued that Iraq's explanation that the tubes were for the manufacture of 81-mm rockets was credible.

"While it would be possible to modify such tubes for the manufacture of centrifuges, they are not directly suitable for it," the IAEA report stated. The president also noted that the "British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," a reference to documents that the administration has since acknowledged were forged and should not have been cited.

Irrefutably, there were credible claims made about Saddam's WMD program, and it is entirely possible that there were myriad WMD scattered throughout the country, contrary to international law. Many, if not most, administration claims are entirely believable. What is fascinating, however, is to watch the evolution of the threat assessment, which often had a great deal to do with not only the venue but also the specific administration official making the case.

Feb. 5: Secretary of State Colin Powell's address to the United Nations did not offer startling new evidence of an Iraqi buildup.

March 16: On NBC's "Meet the Press," Cheney told Tim Russert that Saddam "has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."

March 19: The president announced that the war had begun.

The next topic to shift, of course, was no longer which WMD Saddam had but rather where they were -- or if anything at all would ever be found.

March 30 In the second week of the war, Rumsfeld is asked on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" if he was surprised that no WMD had yet been found, being that coalition forces already controlled so much of the country.

"Not at all," Rumsfeld said. Coalition forces controlled substantial portions of the country, but those "happen not to be the area where weapons of mass destruction were dispersed." Don't worry, Rumsfeld conveyed. "We know where they are," he said. "They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat."

In April, President Bush lowered the evidence bar, stating in an interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw that the United States would find not WMD but evidence of WMD programs. By May 4, Rumsfeld was telling "Fox News Sunday's" Tony Snow that the administration "never believed that we'd just tumble over weapons of mass destruction in that country," since Iraq had spent so much time hiding its weapons.

Recent weeks have seen a number of confusing and seemingly contradictory statements from the White House. Speaking to Polish TV on May 30, the president flatly declared that the hunt was over. "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." The president was referring to two trailers that Kurdish forces found in late April near Mosul, ones that the CIA has ruled, "probably" were designed to produce biological weapons, though that claim has been disputed within the CIA.

Since that Polish pronouncement, however, the president has taken great pains to speak precisely about the trailers, telling cheering soldiers in Qatar on June 5 that coalition forces had found "two mobile biological weapons facilities which are capable of producing biological agents," not quite an announcement of the discovery of a smoking gun. Last week, Bush stated precisely that "Iraq had a weapons program; intelligence throughout the decade showed they had a weapons program," and that he is "absolutely convinced with time we'll find out that they did have a weapons program." Asked to explain the shift in rhetoric that transpired as the president hopped from Poland to Qatar, spokesman Fleischer claimed that the president uses the terms "WMD" and "WMD programs" interchangeably and thus there never was any shift at all.

Perhaps the most revealing conversation, however, came on May 27, when Rumsfeld made another sharp rhetorical turn before the Council on Foreign Relations. There he was asked where the disconnect was between the outfitting of tens of thousands of coalition troops with chemical and biological weapon suits and the failure of any of these weapons to be used. Rumsfeld's response didn't seem to indicate that there was much intelligence behind the claims. He reached back to "facts" that preceded the first Gulf War. "We know the Iraqis used chemical weapons against the Iranians," he said. "We had facts. We know they used chemical weapons against their own population and killed tens of thousands with chemical weapons." Second, Rumsfeld said, intelligence agencies picked up "people chatting with each other," saying things like "Don't mention these words" and "Don't say that." Bearing in mind the past chemical weapons programs, the administration concluded that "they were talking about these programs in one way or another."

"Now, what happened?" Rumsfeld asked. "Why weren't [the WMD] used? I don't know." The Iraqis may have "decided that they would destroy them prior to a conflict," he said. "I don't know the answer."

By Jake Tapper

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

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

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