War Stories

Vanishing Agents

Did Iraq really have weapons of mass destruction?

On a cold trail

Enough already. Where are the weapons of mass destruction?

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations last Tuesday and, during the question-answer period, made the usual excuses for why his team of biochem-weapon hunters hasn’t yet found any. “We’ve only been there seven weeks,” he exclaimed. “It’s a country the size of California—it’s not as though we’ve managed to look everywhere,” he added.

His point has some validity but less with each day. The size of Iraq was a pertinent obstacle before the war, when U.N. inspectors had few options beyond random drop-ins on suspect sites. But now we own the place. The Pentagon’s WMD-hunters can operate unhampered by Baath Party minders and sovereign niceties, so square-footage becomes almost irrelevant. Today’s inspectors are like heavily armed detectives. When detectives go looking for something, they don’t scour aimlessly; they follow tips, offer bribes, exert intimidation.

Let’s look at those 26 former Iraqi officials—out of the 55 most-wanted playing cards—who have surrendered or been captured, and have certainly been interrogated, since the war’s end. They include the vice president, the deputy prime minister, the secretary general of the Republican Guard, the army chief of staff, the minister of military industrialization, Saddam’s science adviser, the head of the national monitoring directorate (who served as liaison with the U.N. inspectors), and the minister of oil (who was believed to be in charge of facilities that weaponized anthrax and other toxins).

If Iraq had been developing biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons, several—perhaps all—of these officials would have known about it. They could have told the U.S. interrogators where to look. Yet, it seems, they haven’t muttered a clue. Is there not a single cad among them who would trade his loyalty to Saddam for a slice of Andalucian beach property? (Spain might as well donate something for its “coalition” status.)

Or could it be—big gulp—that they haven’t given up the goods because there are no goods to give up?

Much has been made this week of two trailers, found in northern Iraq near Mosul, that the CIA says are “mobile biological-weapon production plants.” In a May 28 report, considered so significant that the administration released it to the public, the agency goes so far as to call the trailers “the strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological-warfare program.”

The report notes that the trailers contain a fermenter, water-supply tanks, an air compressor, a water-chiller, a device for collecting exhaust gases—just the right components for an “ingeniously simple, self-contained bioprocessing system.” The trailers are also “strikingly similar” to descriptions of mobile-bioweapons plants provided by Iraqi exiles who claim to have worked in them or witnessed others who did. Secretary of State Colin Powell displayed drawings, based on these descriptions, during his Feb. 5 “smoking-gun” briefing to the U.N. Security Council.

Read closely, though, the CIA report reveals considerable ambiguity about the nature of these vehicles. For example, it notes that Iraqi officials—presumably those currently being interrogated—say the trailers were used to produce hydrogen for artillery weather-balloons. (Many Army units float balloons to monitor the accuracy of artillery fire.) In response to this claim, the report states:

Some of the features of the trailer—a gas-collection system and the presence of caustic—are consistent with both bioproduction and hydrogen production. The plant’s design possibly could be used to produce hydrogen using a chemical reaction, but it would be inefficient. The capacity of this trailer is larger than the typical units for hydrogen production for weather balloons.

One could ask: Since when was Saddam’s Iraq considered a model of efficiency?

The report concedes that U.S. officials found no traces of any bioweapons agent inside the trailers. “We suspect,” it states, “that the Iraqis thoroughly decontaminated the vehicle to remove evidence.” That’s possible.

The report also notes that, in order to produce biological weapons, each trailer would have to be accompanied by a second and possibly a third trailer, specially designed to grow, process, sterilize, and dry the bacteria. Such trailers would “have equipment such as mixing tanks, centrifuges, and spray dryers”—none of which were spotted in the trailers that were found. The problem, the CIA acknowledges, is that “we have not yet found” these post-production trailers. Question: Is it that they haven’t been found—or that they don’t exist?

It could well be that the CIA is right about its inferences. Either way, these trailers—simply by being capable of producing biotoxins—constituted violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions barring such technology. However, we’re beyond U.N. resolutions at this point. We’re looking for evidence that Iraq actually did produce such weapons. From what we know so far, the trailers constitute less than airtight proof.

At his Council on Foreign Relations appearance, Rumsfeld expressed confidence that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction and that we’ll find the solid evidence someday. But he did seem perplexed about where they all went. “Now what happened?” he asked. “Why weren’t they used? I don’t know.”

He mused about “several possible reasons.” First, he reminded his audience how quickly the U.S. ground troops advanced through the Iraqi desert. “Now,” he said, “if the speed and the way that [war] plan was executed surprised [the Iraqis], it may very well be that they didn’t have time to … use chemical weapons.”

This hypothesis seems exceedingly unlikely. Surely they knew that war was coming; they had, as Rumsfeld admits, “strategic warning” of the invasion (even if they lacked “tactical warning” of just when, say, the 3rd Infantry Division would reach Baghdad airport). If they had planned to use—or even contemplate using—chemical or biological weapons, there would have been plenty of time to place them on alert.

“It is also possible,” Rumsfeld added, “that they decided that they would destroy [the weapons] prior to a conflict.”

If this turns out to be true, it has profound implications. Under this scenario, Saddam would most likely have destroyed the weapons sometime during the Security Council’s deliberations, to prevent the U.N. inspectorate from finding them and thus to keep the council from declaring Iraq in “material breach” of U.N. resolutions and, as a result, declaring war. In other words, he would have been disarming in order to avert a war. Such covert disarmament would have been foolish, clumsy, and in itself a violation. (The resolutions required Iraq to declare its weapons and all steps taken to destroy them.) Still, if this is what Saddam was doing, it might have been evidence—however stupidly kept hidden—that the inspections were working, that war was not necessary to disarm Iraq. (Of course, if the American WMD-hunters eventually do find the goods, it would confirm the view that the U.N. inspectors—with all the limitations placed upon them—never would have.)

All this speculation, of course, assumes that Saddam, who certainly had such weapons as late as 1995 (his son-in-law told us where they were, whereupon the U.N. inspectors of the day went and destroyed them), still had them in March 2003. Maybe he did, and maybe we will find out he did, but the case has yet to be made.

To some, this does not matter. In the latest Vanity Fair, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, long the most vociferous advocate of ousting Saddam by force, is quoted as saying there were many issues that justified going to war. “For bureaucratic reasons,” he says, “we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”

In one sense, Wolfowitz is right. Like most public events, wars, even premeditated wars, rarely have a single rationale. But a powerful rejoinder comes from Tony Blair, the British prime minister. “I have absolutely no doubt at all about the existence of weapons of mass destruction,” Blair told reporters on Thursday. Asked if it matters whether they exist, Blair replied [Correction, June 3, 2002: Robin Cook, the former British foreign secretary, said this], “It matters immensely because the basis on which the war was sold to the British House of Commons, to the British people, was that Saddam represented a serious threat.”

It was, of course, sold on that basis to the Congress and to the American people, too.

[Correction, June 3, 2002: Robin Cook, the former British foreign secretary, said, “It matters immensely because the basis on which the war was sold to the British House of Commons, to the British people, was that Saddam represented a serious threat”; not Tony Blair.]