What a difference a decade makes! When it was first reported in May 2004 that Saddam-era chemical weapons shells had injured U.S. troops, the editors of the New York Times dismissed that, “Finding some residual weapons that had escaped a large-scale destruction program would be no great surprise and if the chemicals had degraded, no major threat.” Now, a major New York Times report on the issue has been followed by an editorial warning of “A Deadly Legacy in Iraq”: some 5,000 chemical shells have been discovered over the years in Iraq by U.S. or U.S.-trained Iraqi forces. Many more such munitions litter the wreckage of an old Iraqi weapons facility northwest of Baghdad, which the Islamic State captured in June.
It is widely believed that Saddam Hussein maintained no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) after the 1991 Gulf War. That was the conclusion of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), which issued its final report on the subject a decade ago—in September 2004. The ISG claimed that already in the summer of 1991, just months after the war, Iraq unilaterally destroyed its prohibited WMD. The new Times report suggests that is false.
Indeed, those who had long followed the issue knew that the ISG’s conclusion couldn’t possibly be true—because the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) destroyed tons of proscribed Iraqi material in the years after the war. UNSCOM was the first U.N. weapons inspection body and worked in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. Saddam ended UNSCOM’s troublesome presence by engineering a series of crises, which culminated in its departure shortly before the start of Operation Desert Fox, Bill Clinton’s four-day December 1998 bombing campaign. (UNSCOM was later replaced by a much weaker body that did not even enter Iraq until late 2002.)
Incredibly, the ISG pretty much ignored UNSCOM’s work. UNSCOM’s findings were publicly available. But intelligence analysts often disregard open-source information, although it may be more accurate and relevant than the highly classified material in their own data bases, as former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden has complained. Rather than build on UNSCOM’s work, the ISG started from scratch.
ISG personnel were not particularly qualified. Managers regularly sent themselves to Iraq, rather than those with more expertise, because they wanted the extra hazard pay. True knowledge of Iraq’s WMD programs lay with UNSCOM, yet UNSCOM personnel were not included in the ISG in its first iteration. David Kay, an Iraq inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1991 to 1992, was the ISG’s first head. As the reports about Iraqi chemical munitions emerged, Kay dismissed them, saying that experts were in “almost 100 percent agreement” that the material was degraded and no longer dangerous.
The ISG included over 1,000 people, but only “five to ten” could really be considered “genuine experts,” one official complained to this author in late 2003. In early 2004, before much work could have been done, Kay resigned, ostentatiously asserting, “We were all wrong.” Charles Duelfer, formerly UNSCOM’s Deputy Chairman, replaced Kay, but Kay’s brief tenure left enduring problems. It established a party line, which, absent some major and improbable find, was difficult to change. Procedures were flawed. Particularly as interviews with former regime officials and scientists were the ISG’s primary source of information, it was crucial that every effort be made to ensure the accuracy of that information. Under UNSCOM, the chairman personally interviewed key figures. The ISG, however, did not conduct its own interviews. Rather, it provided written questions which were posed to the Iraqi detainees by their handlers, either military police or the FBI. Experienced UNSCOM officials criticized Duelfer for not doing more to correct the ISG’s problems.
Indeed, senior officials in the U.S. and other governments, with no less access to critical information than the ISG, reached a very different conclusion about Iraq’s proscribed weapons: they were moved to Syria, on the eve of the war. Director of National Intelligence, Gen. James Clapper headed the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). In October 2003, Clapper met a group of journalists, telling them 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,” the New York Times reported then.
Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s Defense Minister, was Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Force during OIF. Gen. Ya’alon subsequently said much the same as Gen. Clapper: on the war’s eve, Saddam “transferred the chemical agents from Iraq to Syria. No one went to Syria to find it.” That view was echoed by Iraqi general Georges Sada, former Deputy Chief of Saddam’s Air Force.
But the White House responded with thunderous silence, as senior figures expressed these views. The late Joseph Shattan, an author, journalist, and speechwriter, including for the Bush White House, was one of those unique individuals who genuinely spoke truth to power—and did so with rare good humor. Some four years ago, Shattan published “The Man Who Elected Barack Obama,” in this magazine, holding Karl Rove responsible for the Bush administration’s crucial failure to respond to the Democratic assault on OIF. On Thursday, the Daily Beast echoed his complaint: Rove judged the issue a political loser and thought it best forgotten—without understanding that such a fundamental matter could never be forgotten, as Shattan wrote.
Last Sunday, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Islamic State appears to have used mustard gas in July against Kurdish fighters in Syria. (Defense One subsequently published a similar report.) In June, the Islamic State overran Muthanna, 35 miles northwest of Baghdad, where Saddam’s regime manufactured chemical agents and filled chemical munitions. The Obama administration dismissed the significance of Muthanna’s capture. However, the area, repeatedly bombed, is littered with partially destroyed, rusty, leaking munitions. Potentially, many dangerous chemical shells are now in the hands of the Islamic State.
The Times’ long exposé on Iraq’s chemical munitions, welcome in many respects, is, however, not quite the news the Old Gray Lady seems to think. Already in June 2006, Republican Congressmen pressed the Army to release information on chemical shells found in Iraq. The Army reported that some 500 munitions, containing mustard or sarin nerve agent, had been discovered since May 2004 (the Times’ figure is ten times larger.) The Army report added that such agents, while degrading over time, “remain hazardous and potentially lethal.” The Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, responded, “Duelfer after 18 months was not able to find this stuff…What does this say about all of the other issues that continue to be raised [such as] stuff transported to Syria?”
Indeed, that is an excellent question, and one for which U.S. authorities have provided no real answer. But the least they can do now is set the political catfights aside. Acknowledge that dangerous material remains in Iraq. Those now confronting the Islamic State need to understand that and take appropriate precautions to minimize the risk to U.S. forces, U.S. allies, and innocent civilians.