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Iraq's Weapons Of Mass Distraction? Skeptics eye war's rationale

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By Ken Fireman

May 4, 2003

Washington - On March 17, with war in Iraq just 48 hours away, President George W. Bush laid out in clear and succinct terms the rationale for the military action he was about to unleash.

"Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraqi regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised," the president said in a televised address to the nation from the White House.

"This regime has already used weapons of mass destruction against Iraq's neighbors and against Iraq's people. The regime has a history of reckless aggression in the Middle East. It has a deep hatred of America and our friends. And it has aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of al-Qaida.

"The danger is clear. Using chemical, biological or - one day - nuclear weapons obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people, in our country or any other."

Now, with Saddam Hussein's regime consigned to history and U.S. and British forces in control of Iraq, some observers are looking back at these justifications for the war with a coldly skeptical eye. At least one believes it was either a failure of intelligence or a deliberate attempt to mislead Americans.

No weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq to date, although the hunt continues and Bush said yesterday that it was just "a matter of time" until they were found.

But U.S. officials now acknowledge that Hussein may have destroyed or transferred at least part of his alleged arsenal before the war began. No new evidence has been uncovered on Hussein-al-Qaida links to buttress an administration case that many analysts have long regarded as tenuous. And an Iraqi army that Washington repeatedly portrayed as a major security threat to the region proved to be incapable of defending its own territory, let alone waging offensive operations against a neighbor.

This state of affairs has led some foreign affairs analysts to conclude that the Bush administration had something else in mind when it planned, organized and launched the war: a high-profile demonstration of American military might and the political resolve to use it that would reverberate through the Middle East and beyond, causing governments as near as Syria and Iran and as far away as North Korea to recalibrate their actions.

These observers point to Bush's Feb. 26 speech to a conservative think tank as the key to understanding the underlying motivation for the war. In this address, the president for the first time publicly associated himself with the thinking of a group of neoconservatives within and without his administration who advocated toppling Hussein from power for years. They argued that such a move would not only remove an odious and dangerous dictator but also reorient the politics of the entire region in a pro-western and pro-democratic direction.

"I think the president and other senior officials were captivated by the neoconservative vision of a world transformed by American military power," says Joseph Cirincione, an arms control expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It promised a quick, dramatic improvement in U.S. national security, and control of a critical global resource, that the United States could do completely on its own without bothersome multilateral bodies."

The question, in the minds of Cirincione and other like-minded experts, is whether an administration determined to remove Hussein from power grossly inflated his military capabilities in order to sell its policy to the public.

"It was the only way to get the American people to go to war against Iraq," Cirincione said. "You couldn't get the American people to go to war to free the Iraqi people and overthrow an evil regime, because there are lots of evil regimes in the world. So they cited two reasons: that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and Hussein had operational ties to al-Qaida.

"Neither appears to be true. I think this story is still developing. I think we're on the edge of realizing that this was either a massive intelligence failure - or a deliberate campaign to mislead the American people."

Administration officials strongly deny they hyped the threat posed by Hussein in order to launch a war for ulterior motives. A democratized Iraq and a transformed Middle East would be beneficial by-products of the war, they say, but it was launched for precisely the reason Bush repeatedly stated: because Hussein's regime posed a serious threat to America's national security.

"Heavens, no," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said when asked if administration officials felt any embarrassment over the lack of evidence to date confirming some of the accusations against Hussein. "We continue to have high confidence that the weapons of mass destruction will be found. Iraq is a regime that was a master at hiding it, and there are thousands and thousands of sites where it could be hidden, and they will be pursued as increasing evidence comes along."

White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett says the U.S. intelligence community "was about as unanimous as you will ever find them on the notion of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction" during the months leading up to the war. "And it will take time to unearth it - in some cases maybe literally," he said. "And we will do so. And it's a key objective and it's one that will continue to be pursued."

Asked if the achievement of freeing Iraq from dictatorship has now made the issue of illicit weapons irrelevant, Bartlett rejected that proposition. "The president made very clear that he made his decision based on the security of the American people and of our friends and allies across the world," he said.

As for the threat posed by Iraqi forces in the region, Fleischer said, "they may not have been much of a military threat for our armed forces ... but for the neighborhood they were one powerful military threat, and they proved that by attacking their neighbors multiple times."

Bush, for his part, barely mentioned Hussein's alleged illicit arsenal in his Thursday night speech bringing down the curtain on the war. He asserted, without providing any fresh evidence, that the Iraqi campaign was part of the broader war against terrorism, and offered what might be called a minimalist defense of that proposition: "This much is certain; no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the regime is no more."

British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon offered a new explanation last week for the failure to find any illicit weapons. In an interview with The Times of London, Hoon said the return of United Nations inspectors to Iraq last fall led Hussein to scatter his chemical and biological weapons in order to hide them from the inspectors, and was then unable to reassemble them for use when the conflict began.

When asked by The Times how that explanation squared with his government's assertion last fall in an official dossier on Hussein's illicit weapons that some could be ready for use within 45 minutes of an order to do so, Hoon replied, "I do not recall ever saying that. I specifically did not put a time on it."

Cirincione finds these explanations unconvincing. An illicit weapons program large enough to present the kind of threat Bush talked about could not be hidden, dispersed or destroyed just before the war started, he says. Moreover, the disappearance of such an arsenal would itself pose a huge security threat and trigger an all-out effort by U.S. forces to locate it; yet he says the search now under way for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction seems more "lackadaisical" than urgent.

"If these weapons existed at the levels the president said they did, this should be our number one priority globally, to find those weapons before others get control of them," Cirincione said. "The fact that the administration is not doing that makes me believe that they themselves don't believe the weapons exist in these numbers. They would be desperate to find them, and they're just not."

Leon Fuerth, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University who served as former Vice President Al Gore's national security adviser, says the administration's claim that the Iraqi weapons will be found in time is at odds with its pre-war assertion that it had hard intelligence about their existence. "One has to assume that if they had high-quality intelligence as to the location of these weapons, they would have steered the inspectors or elements of the U.S. military to them," he said. "One ought not to jump to conclusions ... but if the president presented the image that it would be piled high and easy to find, that hasn't happened yet."

Cirincione says the available evidence suggests Iraq once had an ambitious plan to develop weapons of mass destruction, but cut it back in the face of post-Gulf War sanctions and weapons inspections to a bare-bones program involving only a small core of scientists and technicians and small amounts of chemical and biological agents.

The process by which this modest effort was inflated into a major threat to American security, he says, seems to have involved two stages. The first was what he calls the "politicization of the intelligence process," in which U.S. intelligence staffers were encouraged to develop information that supported the administration's preconceived position. In the second stage, he said, administration officials took these already exaggerated estimates and pumped them up even further by always stressing the highest end.

Now, with the war won and Hussein's abuses under a spotlight, Cirincione says the administration does not seem overly concerned about the failure to validate its earlier arguments. "I think the president and his senior officials feel completely vindicated, and the fact that no weapons have been found is just a bothersome detail, because that's not what the war was really about," he said. "It wasn't about weapons of mass destruction; that was just a pretext. But this has happened before. Remember the Maine? Remember Tonkin Gulf?"

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.


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