OP-EDS

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January 30, 2004

WMD: a faith-based initiative

This week, having vacated his post, the leading U.S. weapons inspector, David Kay, contends that Iraq was disarmed at the start of the war. His replacement, Charles Duelfer, agrees. "The prospect of finding chemical weapons, biological weapons is close to nil at this point," remarked the former U.N. weapons inspector and Bush senior administration official of the eight-month, 1,400-person search, which has thus far failed to bear out Bush Jr.'s boldest pre-war claims.

Kay's remarks revealed a portrait of an Iraqi threat far different than that pushed by the president: one in which Saddam, a lone, loony despot, threw money at ever-more-improbable weapons proposals, most of which landed in the pockets of shrewd Iraqi scientists. The UNSCom's watchful gaze stayed actual weapons programs: to Baghdad's scientists, it seems, the U.N. was not irrelevant. Kay attributes the misinformation to a lack of on-the-ground intelligence, and to a CIA that does not know what it does not know, or at least does not admit it. Prodded for assessments of the Iraqi threat, intelligence agencies put forth meaty reports based on increasingly skeletal evidence. Now, Kay says, he's more concerned than ever before, not with the extent of Iraqi weapons, but with that of U.S. ignorance. As nuclear threats from Libya and Iran emerged this year, to the surprise of U.S. intelligence, that ignorance has becomes more and more hazardous.

Meanwhile, the White House waffles. Spokesman Scott McClellan keeps the weapons of mass destruction torch burning: "Yes, we believe he had them, and yes we believe they will be found," he insists. Yet Bush has sought to dilute the term, hawking Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction program-related activities" instead. It is, quite simply, a rhetorical move that shifts both brevity and accountability. This column could be called a weapons of mass destruction program-related activity, as could most student activities at the University of Chicago. But I digress. "This is not a political ‘gotcha' issue," cautions Kay, and rightly so. Clearly, the blame for such broad failures of the intelligence community cannot be laid at the White House doorstep.

Yet neither can such failures be swept under the rug at Bush's convenience. Ashcroft and Cheney, touting the removal of Saddam, have both dismissed the WMD issue as irrelevant. Such nonchalance is "understandable, comforting and false." That Iraq likely did not possess WMD is an embarrassingly public demonstration of the sorry state of U.S. intelligence, and, by extension, our vulnerability as a nation. In their haste to control Kay's statement as a Bush re-election threat, the administration has failed to confront it as a national security threat.

Unfortunately, as some Democrats disingenuously push the issue as a Bush failure (which it isn't), and Bush Republicans dodge the issue altogether (which they shouldn't), the larger question of our failed intelligence is likely to slip into the partisan rift. No matter what your leanings on the issues of foreign intervention and the war on terror, having solid information on which to base your opinion is essential. In light of his findings, Kay argues, we need a "fundamental analysis of how we got here." I hate to say it, but it's true: if you're not with that, you really are with the terrorists.