War Stories

Poisonal Foul

Why did the Washington Post go soft on the Pentagon?

Did the Pentagon really consider poisoning the Afghans’ food supply in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks? The Washington Post unearthed some evidence that it did—and then promptly buried the news deep inside its recent forest-decimating yawnfest on the early days of the administration’s response to 9/11. (Get the short version of the eight-part series from Mickey Kaus’ excellent “Series-Skipper.”) It’s a tale that deserves further examination.

Here’s the key passage served up by reporters Bob Woodward and Dan Balz:

[Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld still wanted the president to have a detailed briefing. Special operations were going to be enormously important, he was sure, so a two-star general was sent from the Special Operations Command to brief the president. [National Security Adviser Condoleezza] Rice and Frank Miller, the senior NSC staffer for defense, went with the president to the Pentagon. Before the briefing, Miller reviewed the classified slide presentation prepared for Bush and got a big surprise. One slide about special operations in Afghanistan said: Thinking Outside the Box—Poisoning Food Supply. Miller was shocked and showed it to Rice. The United States doesn’t know how to do this, Miller reminded her, and we’re not allowed. It would effectively be a chemical or biological attack—clearly banned by treaties that the United States had signed, including the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. Rice took the slide to Rumsfeld. “This slide is not going to be shown to the president of the United States,” she said. Rumsfeld agreed. “You’re right,” he said. Pentagon officials said later that their own internal review had caught the offending slide and that it never would have been shown to the president or to Rumsfeld.

The passage is on point regarding the illegality of poisoning food, but with its talk that this would “effectively” be banned by the 1972 biological weapons treaty, it’s making the issue seem narrower and murkier than it really is. Food poisoning is plainly banned by the keystone international conduct-of-war treaty—The Hague’s Laws and Customs of War on Land, which was ratified by the U.S. in 1902. Its Article 23 states: “it is especially prohibited [t]o employ poison or poisoned arms.” What part of this 10-word passage didn’t the Pentagon planners understand?

And who were they anyway? We know, thanks to the marvels of source-greasing, that once alerted by Miller, Rice and Rumsfeld bravely took a firm stand against the slide. (Although one suspects that if Miller hadn’t made the catch, they might well not have.) But who put the slide there in the first place? At minimum, Woodbalz seem phenomenally incurious about this. Or worse still, maybe they know but decided to protect the malefactor. After all, they never name that “two-star general” dispatched to give the brief. Why not? Presumably the poison suggestion came from him or somebody under his command. Doesn’t the public deserve to know the identity of the knucklehead(s)?