Although the White House is not ready to initiate military action in Iraq just yet, it is poised to move one step closer to that likely eventuality by the end of the week by declaring Iraq to be in “material breach” of its United Nations-imposed obligations. Early reviews of Iraq’s 11,000-plus page accounting of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs have led U.S. officials to believe that the report contains “serious deficiencies,” according to a senior administration official.
Cutting down on the necessary reading time considerably is Iraq’s regurgitation of large swaths of previous UN-mandated reports to fill the current dossier. Out of 2,400 pages detailing the Iraqi nuclear program, for example, some 2,100 pages were an exact copy from a report made four years ago shortly before weapons inspectors pulled out of Iraq in 1998.
Since the documents took time to translate from Arabic and then have experts review, the United States’ official response will take a few days still to prepare—and it will not be terribly long. The U.S. response “will be a fairly definitive readout, but not a blow-by-blow rebuttal” of Iraq’s declaration, notes a senior administration official. The official says to expect a document that will be upwards of a hundred pages, with sparing amounts of classified material.
Administration officials are so worried about compromising methods and sources of intelligence gathering, in fact, that even the other permanent members of the UN Security Council—Britain, China, Russia, and France—will likely only see limited amounts of sensitive information. Intelligence passed on to the elected ten members likely will be even more curtailed.
How the administration proceeds is a matter of fierce debate, and the battle lines are forming along somewhat familiar patterns. Certain elements within the State Department, for example, want to release all U.S. intelligence—and then do nothing. The doves at State are not even willing to declare Iraq in material breach for openly lying in listing his WMD capabilities, preferring instead that the weapons inspectors be allowed to work without “outside interference.” But, perhaps surprisingly, Powell cannot be counted as an ally of the soft-on-Iraq crowd--at least not yet.
Proof of Powell’s current sentiments can perhaps best be judged by his decision to have Undersecretary of State John Bolton—known for his unflinching views of Saddam Hussein—brief the U.N. Security Council in New York on Tuesday. Bolton gave separate briefings to the permanent members and the ten elected members, outlining Iraq’s substantial collection of “dual-use” technologies, items that can be used for military as well as civilian purposes. Unlike other officials at State, Bolton is not the sort to deliver a milquetoast address—and he didn’t.
Bolton’s assignment was to convince the Security Council members to tighten the list of permissible items that Iraq may import. Some of the examples he cited of dual-use materials included nerve agent antidotes, such as atropine injectors, and non-corrosive stainless, which is needed to produce chemical weapons. But some of the “supplies” that Bolton discussed don’t even have a legitimate civilian function (in order to give it a “dual” use), such as GPS jammers and radio intercept/direction-finding equipment, both of which can only be used to mess with weapons inspectors or flights by allied forces over the no-fly zones.
The most frightening item on Bolton’s list—at least that is known publicly—is the large amounts of “growth media” acquired by Hussein, and which in such substantial quantities could only be used as cultures for growing biological agents. Even though Bolton’s briefing was to further restrict the types of things that Iraq can import, it also served to demonstrate capabilities that Hussein almost surely has—but did not come clean about in his dossier.
With the target date for declaring Iraq in “material breach” just days away, a senior administration official cautions that this is part of building the appropriate case against Hussein, “not necessarily a casus belli [Latin for cause for war].”
Bombs may not start dropping right away, but the patience of Pentagon officials is growing thin. Rumsfeld and company are going to be pushing the White House toward a forceful stance “to re-establish moral clarity,” says a senior administration official. With many top officials at State lobbying for a softer tone, though, the White House is likely to settle in somewhere imbetween—but the President’s own tough rhetoric in recent days should leave little doubt about which side he’ll be closer to in his final decision.