"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
The Case of Iraq's "Missing" Weapons
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Daryl G. Kimball

The stated rationale for President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was intelligence indicating the presence of chemical and biological weapons and renewed nuclear weapons work. Turning its back on a UN arms inspections process it never fully supported, the administration embraced pre-emptive war as its preferred method of curtailing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

After scouring Iraq for more than two months, however, the Pentagon has thus far failed to uncover evidence backing up the administration’s prewar claims. The case of the “missing” Iraqi weapons requires that we re-examine the administration’s rush to war in Iraq, as well as the use of intelligence to justify pre-emptive action against other states. It also underscores the enduring technical and political value of international weapons inspections.

To be sure, Iraq has possessed chemical and biological weapons, used chemical weapons, and pursued nuclear weapons in the past. During the 1990s, the first group of UN inspectors destroyed the bulk of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and dismantled its nuclear bomb program, but the Iraqi government failed to cooperate fully. For this very reason, arms control advocates pressed for the prompt return of the UN inspectors with expanded capabilities and authority. After three months of renewed inspections in 2002 and 2003, scant evidence of WMD was uncovered. Still, more time and cooperation was needed to resolve a number of serious questions about unaccounted-for nerve and mustard agents, as well as chemical and biological munitions.

Although the administration now cites several reasons for the war, its chief claim was that UN weapons inspections had failed and that Iraq’s WMD posed an imminent threat. In his February 5 presentation to the United Nations, Secretary of State Colin Powell asserted that “Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons.” A British government report suggested that such weapons could be ready for use within 45 minutes. Vice President Dick Cheney went even further, saying March 16 that Iraq had “reconstituted nuclear weapons.”

Now it is the Bush administration urging patience, as the U.S. “military exploitation teams” that are searching Iraq come up empty-handed. Bush has even suggested that suspected WMD might have been destroyed before or during the invasion. Although it dismissed France’s prewar proposal to boost the number of UN inspectors, the Pentagon has belatedly decided to increase the number of U.S. specialists looking for Iraq’s banned weapons.

Should the absence of dramatic weapons finds be surprising? Not really, given the likelihood that UN inspections had effectively denied Iraq militarily significant WMD capabilities. Neither should it be surprising if the Pentagon finds dual-use technology and documentation about prohibited weapons work in the past—after all, Iraq did have active WMD programs at a time when Hussein was considered an ally by Washington.

What is shocking is the failure of U.S. and British forces to secure known Iraqi nuclear facilities in the final days of the war. The Department of Defense says only 200 personnel were assigned to the task. Reports indicate that widespread looting occurred at the Tuwaitha facility and six other sites in early April. As a result, dangerous nuclear materials might now be in unfriendly hands—one of the dangers Bush said the war would prevent. Not until late last month did the Pentagon agree to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to return to help secure the sites.

The lack of clear evidence of Iraqi WMD makes it all the more apparent that the latest round of tougher UN inspections were successful in stopping Iraq from assembling a militarily significant chemical or biological weapons arsenal and that they blocked further nuclear weapons activities. UN and IAEA inspectors should be allowed to return to Iraq to complete the task of long-term monitoring and disarmament. Unfortunately, the U.S.-drafted Security Council resolution on postwar arrangements effectively denies UN inspectors the opportunity to do so.

The case of Iraq also underscores the limitations of national intelligence as a basis for pre-emptive war. A good deal of the administration’s case against Iraq was built on information from groups with an interest in the overthrow of Hussein, such as the Iraqi National Congress. In a 2002 report, the CIA itself documented the unreliability of such sources.

If, over time, the dire prewar assessments of Iraq’s weapons prove false, it will be harder to win support for efforts to check the proliferation behavior of foes and even friends. In the long run, the United States can ill-afford to undermine international inspection efforts or injure its own credibility by invoking shaky assessments of weapons dangers to fit preconceived political or military objectives.