After over a month of looking, Coalition forces have not come up with the WMD smoking gun yet. There are many possible reasons why. Saddam, after 20 years of practice, has become a master of disbursing and hiding things and it will take some time to root his WMD program out. Alternatively, it is possible that just before we invaded, large portions of Iraq’s WMD program were sent to Syria for safekeeping. The nightmare scenario though, particularly for those who justified the war in terms of finding WMDs, is that WMDs do not exist and have not since the end of Gulf War I. Unfortunately, with every day that passes, that possibility looms larger.
It is likely that if Saddam no longer had a WMD program he did not know it. Why else would he endure over a decade of crippling sanctions? If Saddam had ended his quest for WMDs, it would have been in his best interest to open the doors wide and let the world see. By playing as the model citizen he would have regained control of his oil wealth and quickly been able to make Iraq a regional superpower again.
Instead, his henchmen did everything possible to obfuscate the true WMD picture and to thwart any inspection teams. If they had nothing to hide, they sure worked hard at trying to hide it. What if they were not just hiding a possible WMD program from inspectors, but also hiding from Saddam the fact that no such program existed?
Outlandish? Maybe not. Consider, for instance, that a WMD program is expensive. It has already been proven that the Saddam regime was siphoning off billions of dollars through black-market oil deals and other under-the-table methods. However, there were numerous claims on these funds. Buying the loyalty of the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard did not come cheap. Just trying to keep the military in good enough order to crush internal revolts was already prohibitively expensive. Throw in the cost of presidential palaces, reconstructing Babylon, paying off Bath-party loyalists, and it is not long before you would be scraping for nickels. Iraq was not even able to find money and parts to maintain oil-production levels. The golden goose was dying.
There are already reports that Saddam’s family members had drawn down on the dictator’s overseas wealth to the tune of $6 billion in order to finance palace construction — they would not have done this if there were other alternatives available. Consider, too, the system-wide corruption in Iraq. Saddam and his family may have been the biggest looters of Iraqi wealth, but they were not alone. At every level there were people with their hands out, siphoning off funds for their own private use.
On top of all of this, Saddam was making demands, probably on his sons, that a WMD program remain a top priority. If they loyally followed daddy’s wishes they would have had to overcome a number of serious impediments. First off, they would have had to rebuild the program almost from scratch, after it was destroyed or mostly dismantled after Gulf War I. That would have required overcoming stringent import bans and dealing with a brain drain that witnessed five million of Iraq’s best-educated citizens heading overseas. All of this would have to be done under the watchful eye of the U.S.
What was in it for Saddam’s minions, including his sons, if they were to scrape up the billions of dollars needed to start and maintain a WMD program? All such a program did, from their perspective, is drain off funds they needed for other projects, and draw the unwanted attention of bombers and cruise missiles. In their corrupt minds, a new “love palace” would always be a priority over a WMD site that was likely to be turned into dust as soon as it was discovered. If they shortchanged Saddam on a palace or his Babylon reconstruction there was a strong chance he might notice. However, it would be easy enough to hide that he did not have a WMD program.
Saddam was unlikely to be able to tell the difference between nuclear-grade graphite and pencil lead. What are the chances that the uneducated dictator could tell a centrifuge from a cow-milking machine? By claiming that the program was disbursed at hundreds of different sites, it would ensure that Saddam was never able to visit more then a handful and therefore would not be able to uncover the fraud.
This would explain both why U.S. intelligence reportedly intercepted orders from the top, possibly Saddam himself, authorizing local commanders to use chemical weapons and also why they were not used. Saddam ordered their use because he was convinced he had them to use. However, commanders never fired any because they were not really available.
The recent discovery of two possible mobile bio-labs may be the exception that proves the rule. Of all the WMD programs possible, bio-weapons are by far the cheapest, and it does not come any cheaper than loading a few petri dishes into a trailer and driving them around the desert. Such a lab would have given Saddam’s henchmen something to show their leader that was far above his ability to understand. By being mobile, the labs were unlikely to be targeted and turned into molten steel. But mobility would also allow people to tell Saddam the program was more extensive then it actually was. For all we know Saddam could have thought he had hundreds of such labs. He was unlikely to be able to differentiate one from another, and therefore easy to fool. Mostly though, creating a small stock of biological weapons would not have cost much more than the gold trim in one palace bathroom.
In the event that we do not find the WMD smoking gun this is the only explanation that would make any sense. Saddam wanted the program and was willing to endure crippling sanctions to have it. However, his henchmen were unable to deliver and, unwilling to be on the receiving end of Saddam’s zero-defects program, they faked it. In the process of making Saddam believe he had a functioning program they could easily have sucked U.S. intelligence into the deception. In fact, deceiving U.S. intelligence in this way would have been important to them. It would not have been conducive to a long life if the United States had come to Saddam and told him they had discovered he had no WMD program and all of his most trusted advisers were lying.
— Jim Lacey, a New York-based writer, was a war correspondent for Time magazine embedded with the 101st Airborne Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom.