Accusing the Bush administration of lying (or exaggerating) about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq can be a risky business. The next day’s news might bring word of a significant WMD discovery, undermining significant parts of the case against the administration. That appears to have happened Wednesday, when NBC and CNN reported that an Iraqi scientist named Mahdi Obeidi has led American officials to plans and parts for a uranium-enrichment system — a key component of a nuclear-weapons program.
Obeidi says that Saddam Hussein’s son Qusay ordered him to bury the materials in his garden 12 years ago, around the time international weapons inspectors discovered (with help from an Iraqi defector) that Saddam had an aggressive nuclear-weapons program. Former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright told CNN, “What it is that Obeidi was ordered to keep was all the information and some centrifuge components, so that if he was given the order, he could restart the centrifuge program.” Albright said Obeidi had not been ordered to restart the program.
U.S. officials told the networks that the discovery was not a “smoking gun” proving the existence of an active Iraqi nuclear-weapons program, but it was evidence that Iraq hid nuclear-weapons plans and materials. Sources agreed that Obeidi’s revelations might lead other Iraqi scientists to reveal other information about Iraqi weapons programs.
In addition, NBC reported that in the last week, “U.S. investigators [have] found two shipping containers filled with millions of much more recent documents relating to chemical and biological weapons.” The network said American officials have also found documents related to the concealment of such weapons from U.N. weapons inspectors.
It’s too early to say how important the newest discoveries will prove to be. But it safe to say that at the very least they do not strengthen the argument that the Bush administration hyped Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs.
The news comes shortly after the publication of the most extensive critique yet of the administration’s case for war. In “The First Casualty,” a 7,700-word article published in The New Republic magazine, authors John Judis and Spencer Ackerman write that the Bush administration “engaged in a pattern of deception” about Iraq, exaggerating the threat of weapons of mass destruction and “depriv[ing] Congress of its ability to make an informed decision about whether or not to take the country to war.”
Although its conclusion is far-reaching, the article is in fact narrowly focused. Some parts of the administration’s case for war receive close scrutiny while others are virtually conceded. For example, Judis and Ackerman write that, “Three months after the invasion, the United States may yet discover the chemical and biological weapons that various governments and the United Nations have long believed Iraq possessed.” Although Judis and Ackerman would likely be loath to admit it, if that proves to be the case, a very substantial number of the administration’s prewar claims will be substantiated. In addition, the fact that governments and the U.N. “have long believed” Iraq possessed such weapons weakens the case for deception. Whatever the reason, Judis and Ackerman chose not to make chemical and biological weapons the centerpiece of their argument.
Instead, they base their case against the administration on the premise that the United States “is unlikely to find, as the Bush administration had repeatedly predicted, a reconstituted nuclear weapons program or evidence of joint exercises with Al Qaeda — the two most compelling security arguments for war.” In that neatly worded phrase, Judis and Ackerman selected two elements of the administration’s broad case against Iraq, declared them to be the “most compelling,” and then found them wanting.
But that is simply not an accurate representation of the administration’s wide-ranging case against Iraq. Just look at what is generally thought to be the administration’s best argument for war, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5 presentation to the United Nations.
Powell’s speech ran to more than 10,000 words. While parts of it were devoted to the issue of weapons of mass destruction in general, Powell devoted substantial attention to each element of the threat. He spent about 900 words discussing the nuclear threat. He spent about 1,400 words on the chemical-weapons threat. And he spent about 1,400 words on the biological-weapons threat. Reading the text, it is not possible to conclude, as Judis and Ackerman appear to do, that the chemical and biological arguments were somehow less compelling than the passages devoted to nuclear weapons. Why would Powell — and the Bush administration, for which he spoke — devote so much time to secondary issues and place them at the heart of the argument against Iraq?
Nor is it possible to conclude that Powell believed Iraq and al Qaeda conducted “joint exercises.” It is a phrase — and an idea — that Powell never used in his presentation. The secretary of state did discuss revelations from an informer who said that an al Qaeda associate “had been sent to Iraq several times between 1997 and 2000 for help in acquiring poisons and gases,” but that hardly seems to justify the characterization “joint exercises.”
On the nuclear issue, Judis and Ackerman write that Powell “rehashed” the “much-disputed” report that Iraq tried to purchase aluminum tubes that could be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. The authors cite experts who call the tubes evidence “unpersuasive” and who “made quick work” of discrediting the claim. Judis and Ackerman do this to argue that the administration, which clearly knew there was a dispute about the tubes’ purpose, lied to the American people by claiming definitively that the tubes were intended for use in a nuclear-weapons program.
But in fact Powell was quite cautious in his U.N. speech. He acknowledged that there was a controversy about the tubes and considered the argument that they were in fact intended for another use, as artillery rockets. Here is the portion of Powell’s speech dealing with the issue:
Saddam Hussein is determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb. He is so determined that he has made repeated covert attempts to acquire high-specification aluminum tubes from 11 different countries, even after inspections resumed.
These tubes are controlled by the Nuclear Suppliers Group precisely because they can be used as centrifuges for enriching uranium. By now, just about everyone has heard of these tubes, and we all know that there are differences of opinion. There is controversy about what these tubes are for.
Most U.S. experts think they are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Other experts, and the Iraqis themselves, argue that they are really to produce the rocket bodies for a conventional weapon, a multiple rocket launcher.
Let me tell you what is not controversial about these tubes. First, all the experts who have analyzed the tubes in our possession agree that they can be adapted for centrifuge use. Second, Iraq had no business buying them for any purpose. They are banned for Iraq.
I am no expert on centrifuge tubes, but just as an old Army trooper, I can tell you a couple of things: First, it strikes me as quite odd that these tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that far exceeds U.S. requirements for comparable rockets. Maybe Iraqis just manufacture their conventional weapons to a higher standard than we do, but I don’t think so.
Second, we actually have examined tubes from several different batches that were seized clandestinely before they reached Baghdad. What we notice in these different batches is a progression to higher and higher levels of specification, including, in the latest batch, an anodized coating on extremely smooth inner and outer surfaces. Why would they continue refining the specifications, go to all that trouble for something that, if it was a rocket, would soon be blown into shrapnel when it went off?
Given the care with which Powell spoke, and given his — and the administration’s — recognition of competing arguments, it is simply impossible to argue that the presentation constituted a deception of the American people and the world.
Powell was similarly circumspect about other aspects of the Iraqi arms issue. In his conclusion, he said the Iraqi regime “harbors ambitions for regional domination, hides weapons of mass destruction and provides haven and active support for terrorists.” Powell concluded: “Given Saddam Hussein’s history of aggression, given what we know of his grandiose plans, given what we know of his terrorist associations and given his determination to exact revenge on those who oppose him, should we take the risk that he will not someday use these weapons at a time and the place and in the manner of his choosing at a time when the world is in a much weaker position to respond?”
It is of course true that the president and top officials in his administration made many statements about Iraq. But it should be remembered that the Powell speech, which received a tremendous build-up in the press, was widely viewed at the time as the administration’s most definitive case for war. It would seem that any indictment of the administration’s prewar claims would have to offer convincing evidence that Powell lied or exaggerated in that presentation. And that is a tough job; even Judis and Ackerman concede that Powell’s presentation was “by far the most impressive the administration would make.”
At the time, one of the authors went even farther. An article on The New Republic’s website, written by Spencer Ackerman, described the Powell presentation as “devastating.” Now, however, Ackerman, along with Judis, contends that it was part of a “pattern of deception.”
In the Iraqi weapons case, the administration’s critics are hard at work rewriting history. Some of them are even rewriting themselves.