Special Report

Mystery of the WMDs

The latest story is that Saddam Hussein pretended to have them to scare off Iran. So why did he try for several years to convince the world otherwise?

By 1.28.08

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George Piro, a personable and handsome FBI agent, appeared on 60 Minutes Sunday to tell us Saddam Hussein's secrets. The 36-year-old Lebanese-American was Saddam's interrogator. In addition to whatever the show disclosed about Saddam, it also revealed a lot about how the U.S. media and bureaucracies have handled and stoked the controversies over Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) -- basically, afflicted by chronic Alzheimer's. The events relevant to understanding OIF go back nearly 18 years -- to Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Few people worked on Iraq all those years. Still, those doing so now ought to know that history. Neither 60 Minutes nor the FBI do.

Piro explained that when he finally asked Saddam about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Saddam replied that most were destroyed by U.N. inspectors (UNSCOM) and the rest were destroyed by Iraq. After their destruction, however, Saddam tricked the world into believing Iraq still had them. "That was what kept him...in power. That capability kept the Iranians away," Piro affirmed.

Yet in the first four years following the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq sought to do the opposite. It worked mightily to demonstrate that all its banned weapons had been destroyed and economic sanctions should be lifted. Baghdad was successful to a very significant extent. By March 1995, considerable pressure existed in the U.N. Security Council to reward the Iraqis for their cooperation and lift sanctions. Congressional leaders complained the Clinton administration was weak on Saddam, and the White House publicly promised to veto any attempt to end sanctions.

Yet the U.S. never had to use that veto. Although Iraq's chemical, nuclear and missile programs were thought to have been neutralized, one issue remained outstanding -- Iraq's biological program. UNSCOM began to address it in July, and as UNSCOM did so, Saddam prepared to toss the inspectors out (which he actually did three years later). In that context, Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamil, who had overseen Iraq's unconventional weapons programs, defected. The regime panicked, fearing what Kamil might tell UNSCOM. It wanted to control the flow of information, and it then acknowledged that all its proscribed programs had been much larger and more sophisticated than it had previously disclosed.

Baghdad relinquished no further proscribed material. It claimed to have unilaterally destroyed what it had just admitted once having and provided no coherent account of the destruction of that material. UNSCOM concluded that the unilateral destruction -- in violation of the U.N. resolution which called for UNSCOM to supervise that activity -- had been a shell-game to conceal the retention of some of the supposedly destroyed material.

In particular, Iraq's biological program remained a "black hole," as UNSCOM chairman, Ambassador Richard Butler, repeatedly complained. In early 1998, editors and reporters of the New York Times met with Butler, who warned that Iraq had "enough biological material like anthrax or botulin toxin to 'blow away Tel Aviv.'" Days before, President Bill Clinton had warned similarly, "Think how many can be killed by just a tiny bit of anthrax, and think about how it's not just that Saddam Hussein might put it on a Scud missile an anthrax head, and send it on to some city he wants to destroy. Think about all the other terrorists and other bad actors who could just parade through Baghdad and pick up their stores."

EVEN IF WE ACCEPT that Saddam tricked UNSCOM, two successive U.S. administrations, indeed, pretty much the entire world, into believing that he retained dangerous proscribed weapons when they no longer existed, this still leaves a major problem. It fails to explain the first four years after the 1991 war -- when Iraq did the exact opposite, working to convince the world that its banned weapons programs had been destroyed and nearly succeeding in doing so.

Other explanations exist. One member of UNSCOM told this author that in April 2003, shortly after Baghdad fell to U.S. forces, an Iraqi biological scientist called to tell him that part of Iraq's biological program had been moved out of the country and part of it had been destroyed shortly before OIF began. Indeed, James R. Clapper Jr. headed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is now Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and the Director of Defense Intelligence. In October 2003, Clapper told reporters that "satellite imagery showing a heavy flow of traffic from Iraq into Syria, just before the American invasion in March, led him to believe that illicit weapons material 'unquestionably' had been moved out of Iraq," as the New York Times reported.

The Iraq Survey Group learned that Iraqi intelligence operated five biological laboratories until the start of OIF. In 2004, the Pentagon debated whether to release a cache of captured Iraqi documents. Individuals familiar with those papers say they justified the war. Then Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, Stephen Cambone, however, argued against publicly releasing them, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sided with Cambone. Subsequently, a handful of those documents were leaked to a small on-line news service.

Among the leaked Iraqi papers is one detailing the production of small amounts of anthrax and another detailing the production of small amounts of mustard gas. Such quantities could be used for terrorism.

Ronald Kessler also interviewed Piro, and Kessler's latest book, The Terrorist Watch, includes three important points absent from the 60 Minutes interview. First, "Saddam was very smart -- a lot smarter than we gave him credit for in the West," Piro told Kessler. Second, "after Desert Storm [the 1991 war], Saddam considered himself to be at war with the United States," Piro explained. Finally, Saddam's foremost concern was his legacy. Before OIF began, Saddam was offered a comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia, but Saddam told Piro "he cared more about what people would think of him in five hundred or a thousand years than they did that day."

These observations knock down two views embraced by Middle East experts after the 1991 war that helped buttress Bill Clinton's do-nothing policy toward Iraq -- that Saddam was "stupid" and that his foremost concern was his own survival and the survival of his regime. Taken together, Piro's three observations suggest that sometime in the future, when Operation Iraqi Freedom is no longer a political football, Americans will likely learn that Saddam was indeed a major threat and that he was not idle in the 12 years between the end of the 1991 war and the start of the second war.

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About the Author

Laurie Ann Mylroie, Ph.D., most recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where she provided cultural advice to the U.S. military. She is now an adjunct Senior Fellow with Frontiers of Freedom and Editorial Fellow with the Canadian technology and data company, RIWI.