Who Needs WMD When You’ve Got Saddam?

With former president Saddam Hussein in the bag, the administration of President George W. Bush appears determined to make U.S. voters forget Washington invaded Iraq on the pretext that its apparently nonexistent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) posed a direct threat to the United States and its allies.

The effort so far has taken two forms: the suggestion by administration officials, including Bush himself, that ousting and capturing Saddam were ample justifications for going to war; and the quiet dissolution of the nearly billion-dollar effort to find WMD in Iraq.

In a nationally televised interview earlier this week, Bush appeared to dismiss the relevance of whether Iraq actually had WMD and the possibility that Saddam might eventually move to acquire them.

"So what’s the difference?" asked Bush, who later added that he was persuaded Saddam constituted "a gathering threat, after 9/11 … that needed to be dealt with."

"And so we got rid of him, and there’s no doubt the world is a safer, freer place as a result of Saddam being gone," he went on.

At the same time, the reported decision by David Kay, director of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), to step down as early as next month appeared to confirm that US intelligence agencies have concluded there are no WMD to be found in Iraq.

Indeed, the timing of the still-unconfirmed report by the ‘Washington Post’ about Kay’s decision – while the US media are still celebrating Saddam’s capture – suggests the administration wants to wind down the effort while US lawmakers, who have been pressing for evidence of a WMD threat, are out of session and thus less able to ask embarrassing questions about what the president knew and when.

"In my many years on (Capitol Hill)," one veteran congressional staffer told IPS, "I don’t know that I’ve seen anything quite as cynical as this. They’re clearly hoping that Congress and the American public will just forget that they waged war because of a threat that never existed but that they hyped to kingdom come."

Several analysts said they believed Kay’s decision, which was reportedly communicated to White House officials and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which oversees the 1,400-member ISG, was an implicit admission by the former U.N. inspector – who had called for Saddam’s ouster as early as the mid-1990s – that he did not believe WMD would be found.

"The departure of Kay, who supported the administration’s prewar WMD claims, is an indicator that the he does not expect to unearth any of the weapons of mass destruction that had previously been cited by the administration as a threat that required US intervention," said Charles Peña, head of defense studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

He and others said Kay’s departure should renew questions about the basis for the administration’s prewar claims, the subject already of investigations by congressional intelligence committees that, however, will not reconvene until mid-January.

When the administration began seriously gearing up for war against Iraq some 16 months ago, it argued that the threats posed by Baghdad were essentially twofold: that the regime had failed to dismantle and destroy large stocks of WMD and the missiles to deliver them; and that it had operational links with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that were already, in effect, waging war against the United States.

While Washington’s claims about Iraq’s WMD stockpiles were largely accepted – many of the same claims were made by the former Clinton administration, a point that Bush officials have been making with increasing defensiveness over the past several months – Saddam’s links to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda met with skepticism on the part of counter-terrorism experts and virtually all of Washington’s foreign allies.

Although Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, in particular, never entirely dropped charges of a Baghdad-bin Laden link, they stressed the WMD threat increasingly in the run-up to the war.

Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld even declared to reporters Mar. 30, or 10 days into the invasion, "We know where (the WMD) are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat."

Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were particularly insistent that Saddam was well on the way to building a nuclear device, a point suggested in a passage in Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union Address, when he charged that Iraq had bought many tons of uranium "yellowcake" from an African country, later identified as Niger.

But the prewar hype began to fall apart once US troops secured most of Iraq, including the area described by Rumsfeld, and rounded up key scientists alleged to have worked on WMD programs in the past.

In July, former US ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had gone to Niger at the CIA’s behest to check out the yellowcake story in early 2002, charged that the administration, particularly Cheney’s office, must have known the charge was bogus.

At the same time, Kay, who had long charged Saddam with holding vast supplies of WMD, was hired by the CIA to head a massive, nearly billion-dollar, interagency effort to find the goods.

Kay filed an initial report in early October that conceded not only that no weapons had been found, but also that Iraq showed on traces of a chemical weapons program since 1991. But he stressed that the ISG had found "laboratories" that could be used to develop WMD.

But administration officials appeared already to be distancing themselves from the importance of Kay’s work, and in the following months as resistance to the U.S.-led occupation intensified, hundreds of ISG members were redeployed to the counterinsurgency effort.

"I think David Kay is at the end of his tether and that if he thought there was a job to be done, he would stay and do it," Scott Ritter, a former UN arms inspector, told IPS.

"I think the CIA and the White House have concluded that there are no WMD to be found and that’s Kay’s continued presence is itself a distraction," added Ritter, who was among the very few experts who argued before the war that Bush’s WMD claims were not credible.

Imad Khadduri, a 30-year veteran of Iraq’s atomic energy program who emigrated to Canada before the first Gulf War and has long insisted the administration’s claims were a hoax, also claimed Kay’s reported decision to leave as vindication.

”His departure suggests that he has been lying and that now he knows it," Khadduri told IPS. "Since 1994, (Kay) was obsessed by the idea of knocking over Saddam, no matter what.”

Ritter, whose prewar skepticism about the administration’s WMD claims often provoked virulent attacks and even insinuations that he was working for Saddam, charged the administration is using his capture "to divert attention from the WMD issue. The test will be whether Congress and the American people will stand for that," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.