U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox says he was misquoted; Salon's Michelle Goldberg responds.

Published February 26, 2005 9:00AM (EST)

[Read "Among the Believers," by Michelle Goldberg.]

To the Editor:

In "Among the believers," the sentence Michelle Goldberg quotes from my speech at CPAC ("We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and facilities to make them inside Iraq, and even more about their intended use") was not a vague, general statement about WMD. Rather, it was immediately followed by two sentences that clearly explained that the biological agent referred to was ricin and the chemical agent was Sarin -- and that these might be packaged in, among other things, perfume containers.

Here is the passage in context (note there is no reference to WMD):

"Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Left persists with the fiction that our efforts in Iraq are a distraction from the war on terrorism. No, this is the war on terrorism. We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and facilities to make them inside Iraq, and even more about their intended use. A plan to disperse Sarin and the lethal poison ricin in the United States and Europe was actively being pursued as late as March 2003. The facility in which the weapons were being made also housed a large inventory of perfume atomizers of various shapes and sizes to mimic the existing brands on the store shelves in the United States. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to understand the implications, but it does take imagination and determination to combat it, which is why it is so important we have an administration that gets it."

What I said came straight from news reports the preceding weekend. That is why, as Goldberg wrote, "most of the hundreds of people in attendance already knew about these remarkable, hitherto-unreported discoveries," and did not gasp when I said it. The following is excerpted from the article "Oil-for-Food a Failure From the Start?" which appeared on FoxNews.com on Sunday, Feb. 13, 2005:

"The Iraqi Survey Group also found that supposed 'humanitarian' imports under Oil-for-Food gave Saddam the ability to restart his biological and chemical warfare programs at a moment's notice. [U.N. weapons inspector Richard] Spertzel said what scared him the most in Iraq was the discovery of secret labs to make deadly weapons like the nerve agent, Sarin, and the biological poison, ricin, in spray form.

"'If that were released in a closed [area], such as Madison Square Garden or, even some, some of your smaller closed malls, shopping malls, it would have a devastating effect  killing hundreds or thousands,' Spertzel said.

"But Spertzel believes Saddam was cooking up an even more sinister plan  putting the poisons on department store shelves across the United States and Europe. He said that plan was 'actively pursued' as late as March 2003. And that plan was at least, in part, funded by Saddam's corrupt Oil-for-Food activities.

"'Some of the photographs that were obtained from this same laboratory had multiple different shapes of glass spray bottles, perfume spray bottles  presumably to mimic different brand names,' Spertzel said. 'Can you imagine somebody going into Macy's department store and spray a little bit of a perfume to see whether they like the scent, only instead of perfume they're getting a face full of Sarin?'

"'That would kill within, within a few minutes. If this were to appear at a couple different locations, imagine the economic impact in the U.S.  people would be afraid to buy anything.'"

Sarin and ricin are ugly terrorist tools, but they are a separate issue from WMD -- and my remarks left no doubt which I was talking about. You may not agree with my political judgment (that it's good we have an administration that "gets it") but I hope you will agree that I have been misquoted.


Christopher Cox, U.S. Representative

Michelle Goldberg responds:

In his letter, Rep. Cox acknowledges that in his speech he said, "We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and facilities to make them inside Iraq," so it's absurd for him to accuse me of misquoting him. His attempt to defend this remark suggests how unwise it is to rely on Fox News for accurate information about our world. In fact, I find it terrifying that someone with as much power as Cox takes Fox seriously -- it's like the Politburo making policy based on Pravda.

Media Matters for America has a good dissection of the Fox report Cox cites.

Read through it and you'll see that Cox is the one guilty of pulling alarming statements out of context. Here is a relevant passage from the Duelfer report, the most comprehensive government report on Iraq's WMD:

"A former IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] officer claimed that the M16 directorate [IIS Directorate of Criminology] had a plan to produce and weaponize nitrogen mustard in rifle grenades, and a plan to bottle Sarin and sulfur mustard in perfume sprayers and medicine bottles which they would ship to the United States and Europe. The source claimed that they could not implement the plan because chemicals to produce the CW [chemical weapons] agents were unavailable."

So yes, I suppose Cox is correct that one source claimed that there were plans to put Sarin in perfume bottles, but he neglected to mention that our inspectors found no capability whatsoever to follow through on this plan, making it more of a malign fantasy than a threat. This "plan" certainly doesn't legitimate the statement he made in his speech.

Similarly, here's the passage from the Duelfer report that seems to be the source for Cox's reference to "the facilities to make" chemical and biological weapons:

"ISG uncovered information that the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) maintained throughout 1991 to 2003 a set of undeclared covert laboratories to research and test various chemicals and poisons, primarily for intelligence operations. The network of laboratories could have provided an ideal, compartmented platform from which to continue CW agent R&D [research and development] or small-scale production efforts, but we have no indications this was planned. ISG has no evidence that IIS Directorate of Criminology (M16) scientists were producing CW or BW [biological weapons] agents in these laboratories."

Cox's letter did clear up one thing for me, though. I always thought that speakers at CPAC were cynically manipulating their audiences. Apparently, though, some of them are just as deluded as the rank and file.

By Salon Staff

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