Blogs > HNN > The Iraqi WMD Iceberg, Post #1

Jun 1, 2005 8:35 pm

The Iraqi WMD Iceberg, Post #1

Every schoolchild knows by now that Iraq had “no WMD,” and that we could easily have avoided war if only we had “let the inspectors do their work,” because “the inspections were working.”

Unfortunately, every schoolchild is dead wrong on both counts. One of my long-term projects on this blog is to drag those of you willing to face the evidence kicking and screaming through every last bit of it to explain why. It’s going to be an excruciatingly tedious task, but when the stakes are as high as they are, I find tedium preferable to falsehood. My hope is that some of you do, too.

Ideally, the best approach to this topic would be chronological: start at the beginning and slowly work our way to the end. But sometimes, it can be useful to consider the end before returning to the beginning, and that’s what I intend to do right now. In that vein, let’s consider the latest (i.e., 20th ) Quarterly Report of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) , released in February 2005. This report codifies what the UN inspectors currently know—and don’t know—about Iraq’s WMD programs. Both things, the knowledge and the ignorance, turn out to be relevant.

After some boilerplate, the report begins with this claim in paragraph 6:
6. The Commission has continued its work on the draft of the compendium of Iraq’s proscribed weapons and programmes with the intention of completing its first draft in March 2005. Some preliminary lessons drawn from this ongoing work reflecting the progress achieved so far have been presented to the College of Commissioners.
The more carefully you read this passage, the greater the number of questions you ought to have. What do the inspectors mean by “continued its work”? How could the Commission have work to do if—as “everyone knows”—there neither are nor were WMD to be found in Iraq? Why, by the way, does the Commission speak not of “WMD” but of “proscribed weapons and programmes”? Could that be a matter of definition? And might the definition matter? At any rate, what happened to that “first draft in March 2005”? What did it say, and what did the media have to say about its contents? While we’re at it, why have the “lessons” to be drawn from “ongoing work” on disarmament been merely “preliminary”? Are they trying to tell us that we don’t have all the relevant information yet?

Pause for a minute and reflect a bit. Either you know the answers to those questions or not. If you do, good for you. But if not, are you really in a position to be repeating the mantra that “no WMD were found” in Iraq, or worse yet, that the WMD issue was (as one incautious author puts it) “a hoax”?

This past January, I spoke to an audience of 100 journalists on the subject of Iraqi WMD, only one of whom had bothered to read a single UN document on the subject, two years after the inception of the war. That ratio seems, if anything, to overstate the knowledge of the average citizen. It doesn’t, however, do a damn thing to constrain the average citizen from shooting his mouth off. Put it this way: if loose talk about Iraqi WMD were itself a WMD, we’d all be dead.

Paragraphs 7-10 discuss the topic of Iraqi WMD and terrorism; paragraph 7 gives the flavor:
7. In its last quarterly report (S/2004/924), the Commission mentioned its intention to examine adjustments to the focus of the monitoring procedures for Iraq with respect to small quantities of weapons of mass destruction. While they may not be of military significance, they may be of potential interest to non-State actors. The Acting Executive Chairman further explained the Commission’s thoughts during informal consultations of the Council on 7 December 2004 in the context of the Council’s review of that report.
Notice that this paragraph undermines the idea that the weapons search was fundamentally about WMD stockpiles of military significance—and with it, all of the righteous indignation over our not finding"them."

In fact, the whole stockpile issue is a red herring. Whether stockpiles were there or not (and as we’ll see later on, this is NOT resolved), the relevant search was for “small quantities” of WMD as well as components and know-how that could generate those quantities. (Those of you in favor of gun control should recognize this latter formulation, since federal gun control laws define such things as"machine guns" and"destructive devices" in about the same way.) Can we be sure that Iraq lacked the relevant components and know-how? If UNMOVIC can’t yet be sure, can you?

The preceding point is reinforced by part of paragraph 10:
However, it was possible that small quantities of such materials could be acquired through clandestine procurement networks. A possible source of chemical precursor material could also be the chemical mixtures that are traded internationally and exempted from export control on the basis of a concentration threshold. Accordingly, and as an initial observation, the group felt that some changes in emphasis and reporting thresholds outlined in the ongoing monitoring and verification regime might be needed. The regime may require more activity-based monitoring of sites and less reliance on specific quantities (number, volume etc.) as triggers; that is, it would be “quantity independent”.
Bear the phrase “quantity independent” firmly in mind as you recall the raucous jeering and laughter that took place every time the Coalition discovered a chemical munition in the aftermath of the invasion. “Ha, ha!” we were told. “So these were the only WMD they had? We invaded Iraq for a couple of sarin gas rounds? What a joke!” Unfortunately, the only humorous feature of this laughter was the fact that it derived from abject ignorance of the relevant issues.

Incidentally, the observant reader will have noticed that paragraph 10 is a rather remarkable confession of error on the part of the UN inspectorate—an organization not usually given to admitting error. The passage tells us that the “chemical precursor material” was dangerous, and yet EXEMPT from the “export control.” This is a direct admission that the sanctions/inspections regime was NOT working with respect to this particular threat; it systematically exempted something that might well have produced terrorist-worthy quantities of WMD. The group’s feeling “that some changes in emphasis and reporting thresholds…might be needed” is an admission that the emphases and reporting threshold hitherto in operation were wrong—which is to say, too lax. This suggests that the loose talk about how “the inspections were working” turns out to be impossible to reconcile with the testimony of…the inspectors. Incidentally, this is not the only case where that turns out to be true.

Paragraphs 13-17 discuss the topic of “seed stock” in relation to Iraq’s potential possession of a BW program. Here is paragraph 13:
13. In its last quarterly report to the Council, the Commission stated that it shared the concerns raised in the report of the Iraq Survey Group with respect to the fate of biological agent seed stocks in Iraq and that the issue remained a verification concern.
Well, it “remained a verification concern” for those whose attention was focused on the subject. It didn’t “remain” a “concern”—it never was a concern—for those busy propagating the myth that there was nothing to be concerned about.

Here is the conclusion of the section, in paragraph 17:
17. As a consequence, the issue remains as part of the residue of uncertainty with respect to the continued existence in Iraq of seed stocks that could possibly be used in the future for the production of biological weapon agents. Given its unresolvable nature, the issue could best be dealt with through monitoring to detect inter alia any possible future activity associated with biological weapon agent production or significant related laboratory research work.
How do we reconcile the claims of this paragraph with the popular wisdom on Iraq’s WMD?

The popular wisdom tells us that no WMD were found, and infers that there was nothing TO find. This paragraph speaks of a “residue of uncertainty.”

The popular wisdom tells us that the whole WMD issue was a sham, a hoax, a mockery, and a lie propagated by the Bush Administration. But how can that be, if the UN still regards the question of disarmament as “unresolvable” two years after the invasion?

The popular wisdom tells us that there was no point in looking for Iraqi WMD. But paragraph 17 tells us that it is imperative to KEEP looking for them.

In short, the popular wisdom tells us that Iraq was WMD-free way back in 2003, and that our retrospective “knowledge” of that “fact” negates the uncertainty we had then.

By contrast, Paragraph 17 of the United Nations Monitoring, Inspection and Verification Commission’s 20th Quarterly Report tells us that (i) we did not know whether Iraq was WMD free in 2003, (ii) that we do not know whether it is WMD-free now, (iii) and that no one is entitled to speak with certainty about whether Iraq is currently disarmed by the standards of UN Resolutions 687 and 1441.

It further implies that if we are this badly off two years after an invasion that allows us relatively unrestricted access to the individuals who ran Iraq’s weapons programs—something the inspectors never had before the war—it is more than a mystery how our current and very uncertain level of knowledge was ever to be equalled by means weaker than the ones we ended up employing.

This, let me assure you, is merely the tip of a very large and unexplored evidential iceberg. If you want to explore it, feel free to climb on board. As any painter or sailor will tell you, there's more to an iceberg than at first meets the eye.

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