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Iraq had WMDs

| Monday, November 2, 2015

In Aesop’s Fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” a foolish shepherd repeatedly tells nearby villagers that a nonexistent wolf has come to attack his sheep. After failing to find the wolf, the villagers grow sick of his tricks. Unfortunately for the shepherd, a real wolf then appears, and when he tries to tell the villagers of the impending attack, they disbelieve him and his sheep are slaughtered.

Such is the fate of the George W. Bush administration in the wake of the Iraq War. As a major plank of the pretext for invasion, the administration repeatedly claimed that Iraq possessed and was continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction (“WMDs”), and that these could be used by the Hussein regime or Hussein-affiliated terrorists to kill American citizens. When we got into Iraq, however, many of these claims turned out to be false or overblown, and the American people were incensed. WMDs became a punch line; years of stump speeches and late-night comedy burned the knowledge that Iraq had no such weapons into the public consciousness. The strange part is that we actually did find WMDs in Iraq. We found thousands of them.

In February 2015, the New York Times released a detailed investigation of Operation Avarice. In this secret program, the CIA purchased rockets containing nerve agents from a secret merchant in post-Hussein Iraq, with the goal of keeping these weapons out of the hands of terrorists. (This sort of buyback program is conducted frequently by the CIA; they’ve done it with surface-to-air missiles in both post-Soviet Afghanistan and post-Qaddafi Libya.) From 2005 to 2006, more than 400 Borak rockets containing sarin gas were purchased and destroyed by the U.S. government, and others had been turning up as early as 2004. Meanwhile, American ordinance disposal teams were digging up M110 mustard gas artillery shells. In total, over 5,000 weapons, including airdropped bombs, were discovered over the course of the American occupation.

In response to this report, many of those who had sung loudly of Bush’s blunder in Iraq (most of whom had opposed to the war from the start) began spinning so fast you’d think they were trying to enrich yellowcake uranium. Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post Fact-Checker, for instance, concluded that, “Anyone who claims that the New York Times story vindicates George W. Bush-era claims of Iraq WMD automatically earns Four Pinocchios.” With regard to the chemical weapons discussed by the Times story, the Post claims these weapons were pre-1991 relics and were largely useless.

It is true that the recovered rockets and shells were not part of an active chemical warfare program. However, records from Operation Avarice indicate that many of these weapons were still dangerous. CIA reports indicate that the sarin recovered in some of the purchased rockets was “purer than the intelligence community had expected given the age of the stock,” while some of the artillery shells contained up to 84 percent mustard gas. Another internal report stated that even an IED made with a Borak rocket “could effectively disperse the sarin nerve agent.” Rear Admiral John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, stated, “the U.S. military worked diligently to find and remove weapons that could be used against our troops and the Iraqi people.” For the Post to claim that these rockets were harmless leads to a paradox — why would the CIA be trying to keep harmless weapons out of the hands of terrorists?

Perhaps the American public paid less attention to the discovery of chemical weapons because they don’t fit our preconceptions of the term “weapon of mass destruction.” Certainly, chemical weapons lack the apocalyptic potential of megaton nuclear bombs or pandemic-inducing disease. However, they are WMDs by any formal definition. Sarin of the type discovered in Iraq is even specifically named as a banned weapon of mass destruction by UN Resolution 687, which set terms for the behavior of Iraq after the First Gulf War. U.S. federal law is broader still — Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was charged with using a weapon of mass destruction in the Boston bombing.

I’m not going to argue that every claim about Iraq’s weapons program was true. Groupthink among political and intelligence leaders and sensationalism among journalists led to outrageous claims such as the rightfully-ridiculed assertion that Hussein could strike Great Britain in 45 minutes. Similarly, the much vaunted “mobile biological weapons labs” the Bush administration claimed it had discovered early in the invasion turned out not to exist, and none of Hussein’s chemical arsenal was produced after the Gulf War sanctions. In a sense, these early rumors inoculated the American public against the actual discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, much as the shepherd’s cry of “Wolf!” inured the villagers to the wolf’s final assault.

It seems strange to me that the Bush administration didn’t make more noise about these discoveries during Operation Iraqi Freedom, instead choosing to be castigated for over a decade about the absence of WMDs. It’s possible that doing so might have exposed their buyer. Unfortunately, they also classified chemical injuries to ordinance disposal teams, leaving the soldiers without proper medical treatment. For its part, the Times speculates that treating these injuries would have called attention to the Western origins of the Iraqi chemical arsenal and the close cooperation of the United States with Saddam Hussein when he fought Iran.

Truth can be a complicated matter, especially when mixed with politics. Many statements the Bush administration made about Iraq’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction were false. But some of them were true, and when you’re dealing with WMD’s, “some” is all it takes.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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