Alan Reynolds

Some of my favorite conservative commentators appear dismayed that the White House and press paid little attention to news that "Coalition forces have recovered approximately 500 weapons munitions (in Iraq) which contain degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent."

That item came from a one-page memo by John D. Negroponte, director of national intelligence, sent to placate Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, chairman of the House intelligence committee. Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also got involved. Along with many Republican enthusiasts, they believe the president should stand up and shout: "See, I told you so! Saddam really did have weapons of mass destruction!"

L. Brent Bozell, the persuasive president of the Media Research Center, complained that major newspapers buried this story. Yet the media could not possibly have done that if the administration had trumpeted the news. Bozell suspects that "Team Bush" has been silenced "out of intimidation by the media." Not likely.

First of all, finding those 500 artillery shells was not much of a surprise. My column last November, "No Intelligence," critiqued the 2002 CIA report about WMD in Iraq. Among few concrete facts within that otherwise slippery report, I remarked, was that "Iraq has not accounted for ... about 550 artillery shells filled with mustard agent."

That information came from the vilified U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). I did not doubt such artillery shells might be left over from the 1991 Iraq War. But, I asked, how anyone could "actually imagine that terrorists could simply ... fire artillery shells from cannons on U.S. streets?"

Heavy artillery shells are battlefield weapons -- not something easily hidden in terrorist suitcases. A 155-millimeter shell is over six inches in diameter and requires a cannon about 10 feet to 12 feet long. A mere tank will not suffice to launch such shells. A 155-millimeter German howitzer weighs 55 tons.

The Negroponte memo concerns "Iraq's filled and unfilled pre-Gulf War chemical munitions." This refers to "sarin- and mustard-filled projectiles," meaning 155-millimeter artillery shells. "While agents degrade over time," the memo continues, "chemical warfare agents remain hazardous and potentially lethal."

Most chemicals are hazardous waste. But "potentially lethal" could mean anything, including swallowing a pound of the stuff. The nerve gas sarin can certainly be lethal if it is fresh and nearby. Sarin was used in a 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 and in a 1994 attack that killed seven in Matsumoto, Japan.

Alan Reynolds

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