Ignoring the WMD find

Posted: May 19, 2004 12:00 AM

You would have thought that the discovery of an actual weapon of mass destruction in Iraq would be big news, especially since it was aimed at American soldiers. But apparently not in the eyes of most U.S. newspaper editors and network television producers, who chose largely to ignore one of the major stories coming out of Iraq this week.

 On Monday, the Iraqi Survey Group, which is tasked with searching for Saddam Hussein's WMD, confirmed that an artillery round containing weaponized sarin nerve gas was detonated in an improvised explosive device (IED) aimed at U.S. troops in Baghdad on Saturday. Thankfully, the IED didn't kill anyone, and the sarin components dispersed without causing real harm because the 155-mm shell had not been used as an artillery round, as it was intended. The weapon's design required the shell to be fired from a launcher that would have allowed the binary components of the sarin to mix as the shell spun at high speed, which would have turned the relatively small artillery round into a devastating killer. Instead, the device detonated in an IED, and most of the 3-4 liters of sarin were not activated.

 So how did the major dailies treat this story? They buried it. The Washington Post carried a story on page 14, with a subtitle that dismissed its significance, "Weapon Probably Not Part of a Stockpile, Experts Say." But despite the headline, the story said nothing of the sort. The Post reported that David Kay, the man previously in charge of the Pentagon's search for WMD, "said the discovery did not conclusively prove the existence of stockpiles of concealed chemical and biological weapons," which is very different than saying somehow it proved the contrary. The story goes on to quote Raymond Zilinskas, a former U.N. weapons inspector: "The question is: Was it part of a cache that contains another 10 or 20 of these, or is it one of a kind? ... We have no way of knowing at this point."

 The New York Times headline on page 11 was also dismissive. "Army Discovers Old Iraqi Shell Holding Sarin, Illicit Weapon." Most of the story was a re-hash of the complaints that the Bush administration had failed to find the WMD the president and his advisers had said Hussein possessed. The Times only grudgingly admitted that the existence of the shell offers "some of the most substantial evidence to date that Mr. Hussein did not destroy all of the banned chemical agent, as he claimed before the war last year."

 One shell does not a stockpile make -- but where there is one such weapon there are likely to be others, dozens, maybe hundreds. No matter how you slice it, this story is important. But most of the liberal media have been too busy focusing on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal or other bad news from Iraq to pay attention.

 On the same day the Times put the WMD story on page 11, it ran a front-page piece breathlessly reporting that "M.P.s Received Orders to Strip Iraqi Detainees." Since "strip-searches" are a routine fact of life in most U.S. jails and prisons, and these detainees are arguably more dangerous than common criminals, this "revelation" seems a little overblown. Furthermore, nothing in the story suggests that there were any orders to force the prisoners to engage in sexually degrading behavior or to encourage soldiers take pictures of naked prisoners, much less to jump on them, punch them or have others abuse them.

 No matter how hard the media try to turn a prison scandal involving a handful of rogue soldiers into an official policy of abuse, they haven't yet been able to produce a smoking gun. Yes, the soldiers involved should be punished, but that appears likely. Four soldiers will face military courts this week, with one having already pled guilty. The only foot-dragging by the military so far involves the three female soldiers who are implicated in the scandal but who have yet to be charged. Oddly, the media aren't screaming foul on this apparent double standard.

 Mark my words, these proceedings will dominate the news in the days ahead, even if we stumble across more of Hussein's WMD in Iraq.