When a WMD isn't a WMD

The Justice Department indicts three men for conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction in the United States. But what's a WMD?

Published April 15, 2005 4:22PM (EDT)

Watch for the announcement any day now: WMDs found in Iraq!

Never mind that the Iraq Survey Group and others searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have consistently come up empty. The Bush administration has ways to deal with that problem: Just change the definition of WMD.

That seemed to be happening this week, as Bush's Justice Department announced that it had indicted three men who allegedly cased financial buildings in the United States in a conspiracy to launch a terrorist attack. The indictment says that the men conspired to use "weapons of mass destruction."

Now, up until now, "weapons of mass destruction" has generally been taken to mean more than just hand grenades and roadside bombs; in the popular lexicon, the phrase usually applies to biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. But, as the Los Angeles Times reports, when reporters asked Deputy Attorney General James Comey whether the Justice Department believed that the men were conspiring to use biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, he said: "We have not alleged that. But . . . a weapon of mass destruction in our world goes beyond that and includes improvised explosive devices."

Improvised explosive device? A weapon of destruction, yes. But mass destruction? Not necessarily or even usually so. But nothing grabs headlines and amps up the fear factor like WMDs -- who can care about gas prices when terrorists are going to blow us all up? -- so WMDs it is, whether there's actually an M there or not.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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