The New York Times report of October 14 should have been bigger news. Big enough to reshape the entire history of the Iraq war that toppled Saddam Hussein at the cost of more than 3,500 American lives and $1 trillion. So far, in the midst of the Ebola crisis, another Iraq war, and so much more, it wasn’t more than a one-day story.
The article reported that contrary to the Democratic narrative, there were chemical weapons found in Iraq. Around 5,000 aviation bombs, artillery warheads, and shells were found over about an eight-year period beginning in 2004. A number of soldiers were injured in handling them.
Maybe, someday, enough information will be declassified so that the full story will be known. I have a small part of the information to relate.
During past wars, reporters had been “embedded” with the troops to get direct information and knowledge of battles. Ernie Pyle’s footsteps were followed by many, as were those who were given inside access to the Pentagon, the White House, and — sometimes — the president. American reporters got used to “embeds” among the troops. Cable news and other networks became used to — even dependent on — daily (and more often) near-the-battlefield briefings by military spokesmen. In about 2004, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tasked his staff to create a group of military analysts who could be brought in for private briefings by him and other top military leaders to get their side of the story. Those who would participate would be those who were often commenting on the war on cable and network news and those writing about the war who were generally in agreement with the war and its goals.
I was asked to join the group in, as I recall, early 2005. (I later joined a much smaller and less formal group that met with National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, which his staff called “the responsible skeptics.”) When I joined the Rumsfeld group, I became aware that some groups of the military analysts were being taken to Iraq, Afghanistan, and even to the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I immediately made it known that I volunteered to go. In about November 2005, I was told I’d been selected for a trip to Iraq.
By early December, I’d been given a date for the trip later that month. At about the same time, I’d seen one or two reports that chemical weapons had been found in Iraq, but those reports disappeared. Why? The Bush administration was, by then, pretty desperate to prove its casus belli for the war, which had already taken many lives. The media were making their lunch every day from the fact that no weapons of mass destruction had been found.
Keep in mind that in December 2005, we didn’t know how bad Iraq would really get. The Samarra mosque bombing, which nearly destroyed the most holy Shiite shrine in Iraq, was three months in the future. The worst fighting between Sunni and Shia was yet to come, as were so many American deaths. It hadn’t become obvious that nation-building would fail.
I was in Iraq for only three days, in a group of about six analysts and shepherded by Defense Department press officers. And in the usual practice of the Pentagon, those days were very full. We were escorted by a squad of shooters, men assigned for the sole purpose of keeping us safe. We flew around the country in an armed Blackhawk helo, accompanied by two Apache gunships. We wore helmets and body armor to go to places such as Fallujah, and we were given access to — entertained by, really —the top generals.
We met with Lt. Gen. J.R. Vines, 18th Corps commander, who told us that the Iranians were manufacturing the then-new “explosively-formed penetrator,” which was taking a rising toll of American lives because the EFP could penetrate the hulls of most armored vehicles and kill the men inside. The Iranians were building the EFPs on their side of the border and smuggling them into Iraq. When asked why he didn’t pursue them across the border and destroy the EFP-making facilities, he said he didn’t have permission to do that. When we met with a Marine three-star general in Fallujah (whose name I don’t recall), I asked how he was dealing with fighters coming across from Syria through the town of al-Qaim. He said he didn’t have a cross-border problem, which I took to mean he’d stopped the flow.
We met with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad who offered that Iran was being helpful, which I knew not to be true from Gen. Vines’s comments and pretty much everything else I knew about Iran. We even had a dinner with Gen. George Casey, the overall commander in Iraq, in his elegant quarters in Baghdad. At our very first briefing we met with the general in charge of intelligence. No one mentioned any finds of chemical weapons.
Soon after our return, a regular meeting of the military analysts was called in January 2006. It was held, as most of them were, in the Secretary of Defense’s main conference room. The room is large, seating about thirty. At this meeting, the featured guest was a four-star Army general. The rules were that the meeting, like most of them, was “on background,” i.e., that no comments were for direct attribution but could be quoted to “senior defense officials,” so I can’t name the man.
I asked him right off about the reports that chemical weapons had been found. Clearly discomfited, the general said that I couldn’t write about that. Not that the reports were untrue, but he had clearly been given orders to not say anything. And without confirmation, there was nothing to report. Any speculation would have been as worthless as speculation always is.
The chemical weapons discovered could have been manufactured by Iraq. We know that Saddam used them in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, which Saddam began. He also used them against Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in about 1987. But why conceal the discovery of these weapons just because they were so old? It makes no sense.
Which led me to conclusions that are still valid today. The reports I asked about in 2006 had to have been true to some extent. Which left very few other possibilities: that we would have somehow been embarrassed by their discovery because they were either American-made or made by an ally we didn’t want to embarrass; that the chemical weapons found were too old to be effective; or that they implicated another nation — such as Syria — with which we weren’t prepared to go to war with.
Given the desperate search for justification of the Iraq invasion, there can be no other reasons for burying the fact that chemical weapons had been found.
The Times report implies that some of the chemical weapons are still active and that some are apparently being used by ISIS. From my research, I gather that the worst of them — we suspected Saddam of hiding nerve gas weapons such as Sarin and VX — can’t be stored for long periods of time before they lose their potency. Mustard gas — the use of which goes back to the Germans’ use of it in World War I — could still be dangerous.
Where all this leads I can’t say. We may find out someday, but by “someday” no one will likely care.