WMD: Intelligence without brains

Posted: Jun 12, 2003 12:00 AM

The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating whether intelligence assessments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were full of honest or dishonest mistakes, or whether temperate CIA reports were hyped by administration officials to gain support for the war.

I wrote about WMD in February, citing an October 2002 CIA report on "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction" that is readily available at www.cia.gov. This report contains no top secrets, but it illustrates very well the sorts of evidence later cited by Secretary of State Colin Powell, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and others.

The opening summary stated that "Baghdad has begun renewed production of chemical warfare agents." Later, this turns out to mean "Iraq has the ability of produce chemical warfare (CW) agents" and "gaps in Iraqi accounting and current production capabilities strongly suggest that Iraq maintains stockpiles of chemical agents." The report also said, "Chlorine and phenol ... have legitimate civilian uses but also are raw materials for the synthesis of precursor chemicals used to produce blister and nerve gas."

The report repeatedly relies on things "unaccounted for" such as chemical precursors and "about 550 artillery shells filled with mustard agent." But precursors are not weapons and artillery shells are of no use to terrorists -- particularly if filled with useless mustard gas left over from the war with Iran.

Iraq and Iran both used gas against each other from 1983 to 1988, but even information from that period is murky. The CIA wrote, "Although precise information is lacking, human rights organizations have received plausible accounts from Kurdish villagers of even more Iraqi chemical attacks against civilians ... in areas close to the Iranian and Turkish borders." Approximate casualties from the infamous gas attack on "his own people" at Halabjah in March 1988 are listed as "hundreds" in the CIA report and included Iranians, not just Kurds.

What about biological weapons (BW)? The summary said "Iraq has some lethal and incapacitating BW agents and is capable of quickly producing and weaponizing a variety of such agents, including anthrax, for delivery by bombs, missiles (and) aerial sprayers ..." As with CW, to be capable of making BW is not the same as having a stockpile anybody will ever find. What Iraq had, the report explains later, is "the capability to convert quickly legitimate vaccine and biopesticide plants to biological warfare (BW) and it may have already done so." Any country producing chlorine, pesticides or castor oil could thus be accused of plotting to produce precursors for WMD.

Even if Iraq actually had "some" BW, packing such living organisms into bombs or missiles would be an excellent way of killing the biological agents and little else. Besides, Iraq had only "a small force of extended-range Scud-type missiles and an undetermined number of launchers and warhead." So the CIA had to come up with some hypothetical "aerial sprayers" to dispense the hypothetical biological weapons Iraq was "capable of" producing.

"Before the Gulf war," said the CIA, "the Iraqis successfully experimented with aircraft-mounted spray tanks capable of releasing up to 2,000 liters of anthrax simulant over a target area." To be capable of releasing simulated anthrax is not the same as being capable of killing anyone that way. Most biological agents can't survive exposure to sunlight. Anthrax sprayed from aircraft would have to be mixed with water, which evaporates quickly, and only particles of an extremely precise size stand a chance of being inhaled in lethal quantities even at close range (like an envelope), much less after floating around in the wind.

"Before the Gulf War," said the CIA, "Baghdad attempted to convert a MiG-21 into an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)." One attempt, and it failed. In the summary, however, the CIA reported that "Iraq maintains ... several development programs, including for a UAV that most analysts believe probably is intended to deliver biological warfare agents."

That doesn't say Iraq has a UAV, only a program. In the opening summary, however, the report said, "Baghdad's UAV's ... could threaten ... the United States if brought close to, or into, the U.S. Homeland." This was as close as the report (and Powell) ever came to making Iraq appear to be a clear and present danger to the U.S. homeland. Yet the CIA did not really claim to have evidence that Iraq had even a single UAV. Little wonder we didn't find one.

The frequent claim that suspect weapons are too tiny to find does not work for UAVs or for entire factories that were supposedly producing germs and gas. The notion of mobile labs just came from one defecting Iraqi scientist who "admitted to U.N. inspectors that Iraq was trying to move in the direction of mobile BW production." The CIA report showed aerial photos of factories and named a few. The 150 most suspicious sites were surely among the first 300 that have been inspected. We are now playing the longshots.

Writing in the LA Times, Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations ponders why Hussein was so uncooperative "in light of the postwar failure to find any WMD stockpiles." He offers just two explanations: Either Saddam "destroyed his stockpile" or "we'll still find it."

A third explanation is that some weapons that were supposed to make Iraq a formidable military threat never existed, such as UAVs or missile warheads loaded with biological agents. Others, such as capacity to produce biological and chemical precursors, were never weapons. The rest, as the CIA put it, was based on "limited insight into activities since 1998," including speculations from private analysts (Tony Blair's dossier reportedly relied heavily on Jane's Intelligence Report). "All intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons," wrote the CIA. But seeking is not having, and intelligence experts are not necessarily intelligent.

I see no value in Senate committees "investigating" the WMD rationale for the Iraq war. The senators should have read the CIA report last October, and not just the summary. What remains vitally important today, however, is to understand that the hyping of WMD by the CIA and others has been dangerous to homeland security.

On Oct. 2, 2001, The Washington Post ran an important story by Joby Warrick and Joe Stephens, "Before Attack, U.S. Expected Different Hit." They said, "elaborate multi-agency planning exercises with flashy names such as ‘Red Ex' and ‘Dark Winter' focused overwhelmingly on biological and chemical threats, while experts urging preparations for a simpler, more conventional attack found it difficult to be heard. ... Lots of money poured into research on chemical and biological threats. Entire research institutes were created for it."

We are still focusing far too much on wildly implausible scenarios of biological and chemical terrorism, and too little on bombs and bullets and arson. That high-level WMD obsession is still just as threatening to homeland security as it was before Sept. 11.

Rather than wasting time on the easy task of debunking the CIA report on WMD in Iraq, the Senate should be investigating the whole concept of WMD. Everyone has been hyping WMD, not just the CIA. It reminds me of the folks who tried to sell my parents bomb shelters in the '50s. And I'm not buying this time, either.