If you thought Democrats and Republicans were politically divided over the war in Iraq, you haven’t seen anything yet. The real political battle apparently is being waged under the radar between the White House, the intelligence community and Congress.
At the center of the current skirmish is a newly unclassified document released Wednesday that seems to confirm evidence of WMD in Saddam’s Iraq, including both degraded and possibly lethal chemical agents.
According to the document, coalition forces have recovered some 500 weapons munitions since 2003 that contain degraded mustard or sarin nerve agents. Other key points are that these chemical agents could be used outside Iraq and that “most likely munitions remaining are sarin- and mustard-filled projectiles.”
Which is to say, we don’t know what other stores may remain, or where they are, or who else may know about them.
Most significant, perhaps, is the assertion that while agents degrade over time, “chemical warfare agents remain hazardous and potentially lethal,” according to the released document.
In other words, the word “degraded” doesn’t necessarily mean “nothing to worry about.” Moreover, Wednesday’s document is but a small piece of a much larger document that remains classified and that Republican insiders consider “very significant.”
The unclassified document was released Wednesday by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., to thin fanfare and much speculation. Why are we hearing about these findings only now? Why is the White House so quiet about them?
Those questions have had congressional offices buzzing the past couple of days, while theories have offered little comfort or clarity.
To answer the first question, we might not be hearing about the document at all if not for the persistent hammering by Santorum, who has spent more than two months hounding intelligence officials to declassify them.
Santorum heard about the documents from an unnamed source and sought the help of Hoekstra, who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
One would imagine that, given the importance of WMD, the White House would be happy to spread the news. Instead, all has been relatively quiet on the presidential front. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley commented Thursday only that the document “is what it is.”
“It’s really all we can say about it. And I think people are going to have to draw their own conclusions. But the bottom line is, 500 chemical munitions in Iraq, and obviously we’re concerned about the potential threat they pose to Iraqis and to our forces.”
Later in the day, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed during a press conference that the reports are accurate. “They are weapons of mass destruction ... and it shows Saddam Hussein did not declare all his weapons,” he said.
Santorum and Hoekstra promise to keep pushing for more details from this document, as well as other captured Iraqi data, media and maps from Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The document that Santorum and Hoekstra circulated makes clear that these are pre-Gulf War munitions. Thus, they were not necessarily part of an ongoing WMD program. On the other hand, old chemical programs can be reinstituted relatively easily where remnants remain.
If the White House and the Republican congressional leaders can’t agree on what constitutes evidence of WMD, what’s a divided America to think? Conventional wisdom on the Republican side of the Hill is that something isn’t quite kosher at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The White House response — companion to “staying the course” — is that the president “never looks back.” He is, they say, “forward-looking.”
Translated, President George W. Bush doesn’t have to explain himself, especially if new evidence suggests he was right all along. Other theories tilt toward the CYA school of thought — that American intelligence would prefer to keep such documents under wraps to hide yet more intelligence failures.
In a June 5 letter to John D. Negroponte, director of national intelligence, Santorum urged that these materials be released and hinted that territorial politics seemed to be taking precedence over national security. He wrote:
“While some of this information had been defined as ‘For Official Use Only,’ my staff has learned that many of the captured Iraqi documents have been reclassified and are not to be released until each classified section ‘owned’ by an Agency has been reviewed and cleared for release.”
Only a few with security clearance, Santorum among them, know what is in these various documents. Given the importance of what is suggested here, one can only wonder why the president resists declassifying what can only help the current debate about how to proceed in Iraq.
A new and improved White House maxim might go something like this: Sometimes one has to look back in order to go forward.