This past fall The New York Times began publishing a powerful, ongoing series revealing the U.S. military’s mistreatment of soldiers who were exposed to decades-old chemical weapons during Operation Iraqi Freedom. According to The Times, between 2004 and 2011 U.S. troops stumbled across about 5,000 Iraqi chemical munitions of various types, and at least 17 American personnel, mostly bomb disposal experts, were wounded by them. All of the ordnance was manufactured by Iraq prior to the 1991 Gulf War, during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
Much of the conservative media has seized on the Times articles as long-awaited, sweet vindication of Bush’s case for war. According to Rush Limbaugh, it is now proven that “Saddam Hussein was doing and had done pretty much everything he was being accused of that justified that invasion.”
And the conservative glee is understandable: after all, Bush said Iraq had WMD, and here they are. Unfortunately for the right, however, they are just as wrong about this issue now as they were in 2003 — but for a peculiar, little-understood reason: Saddam Hussein was not trying to hide the chemical munitions found by the U.S. Just the opposite, in fact.
In an interview with The Intercept, Charles Duelfer, head of the CIA’s definitive post-war investigation of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs, explained that “Saddam didn’t know he had it … This is stuff Iraqi leaders did not know was left lying around. It was not a militarily significant capability that they were, as a matter of national policy, hiding.”
It is long established that Iraq — with assistance from the U.S. and other Western countries — produced enormous quantities of chemical weapons during its eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s. After Iraq was expelled from Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1991, the United Nations Security Council sent inspectors to ensure that Iraq disclosed and destroyed its entire chemical (and biological and nuclear) weapons programs. Iraq repeatedly said that it had done so, while the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations claimed it was still hiding pre-1991 weaponry.
The chemical ordnance described in the Times series falls into two categories:
The first was munitions that had been sealed in bunkers at Iraq’s Al Muthanna weapons complex by U.N. inspectors during the 1990s. The inspectors destroyed enormous quantities of chemical weapons at Al Muthanna between 1992 and 1994, including 480,000 litres of live chemical weapons agent, but some could not be incinerated because it was too dangerous to move it. The U.N. and U.S. knew these chemical weapons were there, Saddam Hussein knew they knew, and there was no way for the Iraqi military to access them without the world immediately finding out. But after the invasion the U.S. failed to secure the site, and insurgents broke into the bunkers to retrieve some of the munitions. This is well-known to anyone who follows this issue closely. However, the U.S. media, as Duelfer puts it, periodically “rediscover this and get excited about it.” (The Intercept explained some aspects of the remaining Al Muthanna munitions last fall.)
The second category was simply ordnance that the Iraqi military had lost track of. Says Duelfer, “Keeping in mind that they used 101,000 munitions in the Iran-Iraq War … it’s not really surprising that they have imperfect accounting. I bet the U.S. couldn’t keep track of many of its weapons produced and used during a war.” And as the Times series notes, Iraq’s chemical shells often looked identical to its conventional ones: “An X-ray of internal features was sometimes the only way to tell [the difference].”
The Saddam Hussein regime was well aware of this issue when U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq in 2002, and knew that it would be disastrous for the Iraqi government if the U.N. found such prohibited weapons — even if the regime had been unaware such weapons existed. Duelfer’s Iraq Survey Group reported that four months before the March 2003 invasion, Saddam ordered his top officials “to cooperate completely” with inspectors, with army commanders required “to ensure their units retained no evidence of old WMD.” (Colin Powell played intercepted audio of Iraqi soldiers discussing this at his infamous U.N. presentation but doctored the translation to make it appear suspicious; in fact, the soldiers were following Saddam’s orders to make certain they did not accidentally have chemical munitions mixed in with their conventional ones.)
But to locate all of Iraq’s old chemical ordnance was an impossible task. As Duelfer’s report predicted in 2004, the U.S. would continue to find chemical shells — not because the Saddam Hussein regime had been hiding them, but because they had been “abandoned, forgotten and lost during the Iran-Iraq war [since] tens of thousands of CW munitions were forward deployed along the frequently and rapidly shifting battle lines.”
As Duelfer points out, the U.S. military itself is itself not immune to losing things; the federal government’s General Accounting Office found $1.2 billion worth of equipment was misplaced in just the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And in a situation oddly analogous to the munitions found in Iraq, in 1993 contractors digging the foundations for new mansions in one of Washington, D.C.’s most expensive neighborhoods discovered a cache of chemical weapons manufactured by the U.S. Army in 1918. Similarly, during the 2004-11 period in which 5,000 chemical munitions were found in Iraq, about the same number dating from World War I were apparently found in Europe.
But the conservative media is not alone in its confusion about WMD in Iraq — many centrist and liberal media publications also misunderstood the issue. Outlets such as Salon, MSNBC, The New Republic, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post and The Times itself all accurately reported that the Times series did not vindicate the case for war. However, their recollection of what Bush’s justification for war actually was — as the Times put it, “Mr. Bush insisted that Mr. Hussein was hiding an active weapons of mass destruction program” — is not the whole story, either.
It’s certainly true that most of the Bush administration’s justification for war was that Iraq had active, post-1991 WMD programs. However, the administration also repeatedly claimed that Iraq was hiding elements of its pre-1991 chemical warfare program. In his State of the Union address two months before the invasion, Bush accused Iraq of concealing “30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents” from before the Gulf War. Colin Powell spoke of those munitions in his U.N. address, as well as “550 artillery shells with mustard” and “enough precursors to increase his stockpile to as much as 500 tons of chemical agents” — all from before 1991.
The complicated truth, then, is that part of the U.S. case for war was that the Iraqi government was hiding old, pre-1991 chemical weapons; such old chemical weapons were found in Iraq; but the U.S. case for war was still totally false because Saddam’s regime was not hiding those weapons.
Thanks in part to the failure of centrist and liberal media to explain this clearly, it’s now cemented as an article of faith on much of the right that Iraq was concealing weapons of mass destruction. Given this, many conservatives have been asking plaintively why Bush never took his own side in the argument. In fact, according to a recent story in The Daily Beast, during the Bush administration some Republican lawmakers wanted the president to hold a press conference with some of the old Iraqi chemical munitions while wearing a protective suit. However, the Bush White House — in what was surely a first for them — declined to do something incredibly foolish, rash and dangerous involving Iraqi WMD.
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