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– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
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It has been a number of years since Arms Control Today has consistently run letters. With this issue, ACT is rededicating itself to giving you, our readers, a regular voice in the magazine. This letter refers to “What Happened to Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction” by Frank Ronald Cleminson, which appeared in the September ACT. We invite your feedback on other topics—Miles A. Pomper

To the Editor:

In “What Happened to Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction” (September 2003), Frank Ronald Cleminson writes that “UNSCOM had managed to confirm the existence of a biological weapons program after their first inspection at Salman Pak in 1991.” This phrasing is very misleading—and the word “weapons” is absolutely wrong. While the UNSCOM team was at the site, Iraq declared that it had a “biological research program for military purposes.” Afterward, in a private communication to Ambassador Rolf Ekeus, the UNSCOM director, Iraq stated that the research program was “for defensive purposes only.” Some members of the UNSCOM team had their suspicions, but could point to nothing definitive. During that site visit, the Iraqis handed over 10 papers dealing with their work at Salman Pak. But they rewrote all 10 of those papers to remove any phrases that suggested any activity of an offensive nature. Only four years later, after obtaining materials from General Kamel’s “chicken farm” archive in mid-August 1995 (Kamel was Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law and director of Iraq’s illicit weapons programs), including the original, undoctored versions of the same papers, was UNSCOM able to see exactly which lines and phrases had been deleted in the material handed to them in 1991.

My second comment concerns Cleminson’s description of the unsuccessful search by U.S. military forces for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. First, Cleminson fails to make clear that the underlying assumption in both UNSCOM’s final report in January 1999 and UNMOVIC’s analogous 173-page report of March 2003 was that things remained to be found in Iraq. Second, Cleminson writes that the U.S.-led coalition’s “inability to discover hidden caches of unconventional weapons cannot be ascribed to any lack of trying” and goes on to use nothing but superlatives to describe the U.S. process. I would strongly disagree. The effort was unmatched in incompetence, sloppiness, and gaffes that went on for weeks and months and were well reported. And of the “900 specialists” that Cleminson attributes to the U.S. Army Site Survey Teams and the “1,400 specialists” in the Iraq Survey Group, press reports indicated that only about 200 and 250, respectively, deployed in the field were actually hunting for potential WMDs, intermediaries, and components. Central Command headquarters appears to have believed that anything that was to be found would be easily found, and it deliberately junked the suggestions, planning, and personnel who had been recommended by pre-war advisory groups to the Department of Defense—and even by planning programs within the department itself.

 

—Milton Leitenberg
Senior Researcher
Center for International and Security Studies,
University of Maryland


Cleminson Responds:

I am indebted to Milton Leitenberg for the two comments he has offered. If indeed we differ in our approaches to the subject areas he identifies, I think it is more in syntax rather than in substance.

Regarding the first comment, although the word “weapon” in the context of UNSCOM’s first inspection at Salmon Pak may not appear in the report, the comprehensive physical clearance of the site by Iraqi authorities at short notice and before that inspection certainly raised early suspicions. The tell-tale signs of an active biological weapons program were evident and were discussed in some detail during the early autumn of 1991 by UNSCOM’s commissioners, of whom I was one. Despite the “private communication” by Iraqi officials to Rolf Ekeus, few members of the commission believed that activities at that site were solely of a prophylactic nature. Perhaps Graham S. Pearson, former director general of Porton Downs, recorded it best in his extraordinarily detailed and definitive book on chemical and biological weapon (BW) non-proliferation. On page 129, table 5.2, in reference to UNSCOM’s first BW inspection (August 2-8, 1991), he writes “Iraqi officials admitted that Iraq had carried out a program of biological research for military purposes which, it was made clear, could have been used for defensive and offensive purposes.” In my view, reference to “offensive purposes” related directly to the probable existence of a “biological weapons program.” Indeed, that proved to be the case.

In respect to Mr. Leitenberg’s second comment, I was not aware that my description of the U.S. Army’s program to search for WMD could be interpreted as being “in nothing but superlatives” though I must admit that I admired the uniformed personnel’s performance throughout this ordeal under trying circumstances. Clearly, the U.S. Army had been assigned a task not of their choosing and for which it was ill-prepared. I have great respect for those who, on short notice, took up the difficult challenge and, faced with faulty intelligence, media hype, lack of forward planning and a difficult environment, improvised as best they could with the time available to them. If in its Iraqi operations, the United States developed a degree of credibility, it was because of the uniformed personnel who lived up to the code of honour of their respective corps.

Incompetence? Sloppiness? Gaffes? Perhaps, but not surprisingly so. If blame is to be assigned, it should be directed to the pin-striped bureaucrats in the Pentagon, not to the uniformed forces on the ground.

Regarding the Iraq Survey Group, I mentioned in the paper that, in my view, their findings are more likely to be “corroborative” rather than “new.” Mr. Leitenberg may well be correct in his criticism of the ratio of field work to analysis, but certainly substantive and credible analysis was one of the missing ingredients in the earlier process. The analytical work undertaken by UNMOVIC over a two-year period applied to archiving and consolidating the mass of data accumulated by UNSCOM could have contributed a great deal, but it was simply ignored by Washington as it prepared to go to war.

—Frank Ronald Cleminson