WMD: The hunt is just beginning, says Blair
“Army Col Richard McPhee … said he took seriously US intelligence warnings on the eve of war that Hussein had given ‘release authority’ to subordinates in command of chemical weapons. ‘We didn't have all these people in [protective] suits’ for nothing, he said. But if Iraq thought of using such weapons, ‘there had to have been something to use. And we haven't found it. … Books will be written on that in the intelligence community for a long time’”
These days the Prime Minister pleads Blix-like for more time to find Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”. The latest excuse for not finding anything is that the occupying powers have only just begun looking for them – because their first priority was to attend to the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people.
As Blair told Oona King at Prime Minister’s Questions on 4 June 2003:
“In respect of the search for weapons of mass destruction, I would point out to the House that the Iraq survey group, which is 1,300 to 1,400-strong, is literally now just beginning its work, because the priority after the conflict was to rebuild Iraq and to make sure that the humanitarian concerns of the Iraqi people were achieved.”
The imprint of the Downing Street communications directorate is clearly visible on that formula. As usual with formulae from that source, the accompanying instructions were to repeat it over and over again, making sure to mention the strength of the Group each time, in order to ram home the message that a big effort was about to begin to hunt down “weapons of mass destruction”. Blair duly obliged, and repeated it six times in the House of Commons that day.
This formula, like others from the same source, was designed to put Mr Blair and his government in a good light. The absence of “weapons of mass destruction” is an acute political embarrassment to them. Nevertheless, so the story goes, they care so much for the Iraqi people (having killed countless thousands of them, and injured a great deal more) that they were prepared to put the hunt for these weapons on the backburner, and bear the political embarrassment for now.
As usual with these formulae, this one doesn’t bear close textual analysis. Are we really supposed to believe that by early June Iraq was reconstructed, and the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people attended to (and aid workers retrained as weapons inspectors) so that the hunt for “weapons of mass destruction” could begin in earnest?
This formula seems to have been a one-day wonder, not surprisingly, since it suffers from a serious design flaw, which Labour MP, Denzil Davies, exposed in a question to his leader:
“My right hon. Friend has made much of the survey teams that will look for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but is he not concerned that the failure of the coalition to look for those weapons as a matter of the highest priority in the immediate aftermath of the war could well have provided the opportunity for many of the weapons — if they are there — to find their way into the hands of the various terrorist groups that are operating in and around the middle east?”
Since the justification for war was, not merely that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”, but also that he might pass them on to people even more evil than himself, there was no satisfactory answer to that.
So, what are the facts about the fruitless hunt for these weapons in Iraq?
The truth is that the hunt began before the first US/UK bombs fell. They were particularly worried about Iraq’s capacity to hit Israel with chemical or biological weapons delivered by missiles from sites in Iraq’s western desert. So before the first bombs fell, special forces had raided these sites but found nothing. They also raided other sites throughout Iraq, ahead of the US ground advance, without success.
Behind the ground advance came searchers from the 75th Exploitation Task Force, which visited, literally, hundreds of sites all over Iraq. It has now been withdrawn, and replaced by the Iraq Survey Group, which, as we will see, is a very different animal.
On 11 May, the Washington Post carried an article by Barton Gellman, entitled Frustrated, US Arms Team to Leave Iraq. Gellman had spent a week with the 75th Exploitation Taskforce in Iraq, and he paints a graphic picture of their frustration at their lack of success:
“The 75th Exploitation Task Force, as the group is formally known, has been described from the start as the principal component of the US plan to discover and display forbidden Iraqi weapons. The group's departure, expected next month, marks a milestone in frustration for a major declared objective of the war.
“Leaders of Task Force 75's diverse staff - biologists, chemists, arms treaty enforcers, nuclear operators, computer and document experts, and special forces troops - arrived with high hopes of early success. They said they expected to find what Secretary of State Colin L Powell described at the UN Security Council on February 5 - hundreds of tons of biological and chemical agents, missiles and rockets to deliver the agents, and evidence of an ongoing program to build a nuclear bomb.
“Scores of fruitless missions broke that confidence, many task force members said in interviews.
“Army Col Richard McPhee, who will close down the task force next month, said he took seriously US intelligence warnings on the eve of war that Hussein had given ‘release authority’ to subordinates in command of chemical weapons. ‘We didn't have all these people in [protective] suits’ for nothing, he said. But if Iraq thought of using such weapons, ‘there had to have been something to use. And we haven't found it. … Books will be written on that in the intelligence community for a long time.’
“Army Col Robert Smith, who leads the site assessment teams from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, said task force leaders no longer ‘think we're going to find chemical rounds sitting next to a gun.’ He added, ‘That's what we came here for, but we're past that.’
“Motivated and accomplished in their fields, task force members found themselves lacking vital tools. They consistently found targets identified by Washington to be inaccurate, looted and burned, or both. Leaders and members of five of the task force's eight teams, and some senior officers guiding them, said the weapons hunters were going through the motions now to ‘check the blocks’ on a pre-war list.”
Major General Keith Dayton, the head of the Iraq Survey Group, gave a briefing to the press at the Pentagon on 30 May before he set off for Baghdad (see transcript here). He said that searchers from the 75th Exploitation Taskforce had “visited over 300 sensitive sites”, mostly from a list of 900 sites selected on the basis of pre-war intelligence, and found nothing. And it had now been decided that visiting more sites on the pre-war list was a waste of time; that what is required is more reliable intelligence on sites before making a decision to visit them.
It is the task of the new Group to acquire that intelligence. In other words, it is the failure to find anything based on pre-war intelligence that has prompted the setting up of the new Group, which is an intelligence gathering/collating organisation, rather than a body that merely searches sites.
Furthermore, its role goes way beyond gathering intelligence on “weapons of mass destruction”. General Dayton described its role as follows at the Pentagon briefing:
“But in addition to WMD, the ISG will collect and exploit documents and media related to terrorism, war crimes, POW [prisoner of war] and MIA [missing in action] issues, and other things relating to the former Iraqi regime. It will interrogate and debrief individuals, both hostile and friendly, and it will exploit captured materiel. The goal is to put all the pieces together in what is appearing to be a very complex jigsaw puzzle.”
General Dayton also made it clear that the number of searchers on the ground will increase very little (from 200 or so, to “probably between 200 and 300”) and that 250 out of the 1300 to 1400 are media personnel, who will be based in Qatar.
That is not quite the story that the Prime Minister told the House of Commons on 4 June 2003.
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