The sketchy information that justified launching U.S. cruise misses on Syria takes us back to an unpleasant episode in our past.
On May 29, 2003, President George Bush announced during a speech in Poland that, “We have found the WMD.” His tone was jubilant.
He pointed to two Iraqi mobile labs who allegedly were involved in producing chemical weapons, which had been named by a German intelligence source code named Curveball whom the CIA had never interviewed directly.
The mobile labs proved to be harmless.
The rational for the Iraq War of 2003 was mainly based on lies, but of all the fatuous and insulting lies told to the U.S. public, the ones regarding Iraq’s WMDs were the lowest. They would dishonor a sewer.
In May of 1991, under the cover of Operation Provide Comfort, the U.S-run military relief effort in Kurdistan, the CIA began an intensive program to debrief Iraqi defectors about Saddam’s WMD. U.S. intelligence agencies were in a state of shock when, after the war, they found Saddam had progressed much farther in his WMD programs than they had thought.
One of the first things the United States did was to infiltrate the United Nation Special Commission, UNSCOM. As early as May of 1991, a senior Iraqi scientist had defected to America, making his way through Kurdistan. He was called, “Defector source DS-385.” At first, the U.S. refused to share the information with UNSCOM, but later it did and the CIA was soon holding daily briefings for UNSCOM officials. Soon the CIA teams, based in Bahrain, were invited to send reps from the U.K, Canada and Australia.
The CIA operations there were complex. There was a National Security Agency team in Bahrain tasked to review the agency’s findings. The NSA unit was a special unit under the NSA’s “B” group responsible for the Middle East. The intercepts were sent by satellite relay to Bahrain and forwarded to the NSA at Fort. Meade, Maryland. The CIA also had a Special Collections Unit, a five man team able to intercept not only the calls of senior Iraqi leadership but also their security detachments.
The surprise UN inspections were invaluable. The UNSCOM teams destroyed so much WMD equipment that in July of 1994, that the UN leader Rolf Ekeus had wanted to lift sanctions from Iraq.
But the problem was that no one knew what the exact status of Saddam’s WMD arsenal was. UNSCOM was constantly bedeviled by faulty information. One DIA analyst was always peddling the worst case scenarios, one allegation insisting that Iraq had squirreled away a large batch of Scud missiles. But on August 8, 1995, the obscuring murk vanished when Saddam’s son in law, Gen. Hussein Kamel, defected from Iraq and the whole landscape lit up. He was not a pleasant character– he was a megalomaniac, delusional etc — but he had unsurpassed access to Saddam’s WMD processes — their inventory, the performance of individual weapons, knowledge not only about weapons but even where they had been made, by whom, and where they had been deployed. Ekeus, accompanied by two technical experts, were told that Iraq had “unilaterally destroyed” Saddam’s WMD in the summer of 1991. His questioners were stunned, and he expanded. “All weapons—biological, chemical, missile nuclear warheads were destroyed,” Kamel adding, “You have an important role in Iraq with this. You should not underestimate yourself. You are very effective in Iraq.” Later I learned that this destruction had occurred in June of 1991.
Not only did Saddam not have any WMD, his intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, wanted Baghdad to display complete openness to the United Nations on strategic grounds. The Mukhabarat did not want Saddam to hide any WMD or remnants of WMD programs or in any way hamper or impair the work of the inspectors. The Mukhabarat’s only concern was to keep the weapons inspectors under the closest possible scrutiny and to get them out of the country. Other Iraqi security organizations disagreed, among them the Special Security Organization which felt that anything related to Saddam’s security could never be discussed with the UN. Yet much of this resistance was not perverse willfulness, but based on Iraq’s own pride in its being a sovereign nation.
In Operation Desert Fox, a bombing campaign that involved 650 bomber and missile assaults during a 72-hour period, CENTCOM Commander, Gen. Anthony Zinni targeted, not Saddam’s WMD but Iraq’s air defense system, Saddam’s pillars of powers including palaces strongholds, units of secret police, guard, an transport organizations. Several barracks and units in and around Baghdad or outlying provinces were hit as well. The attacks were designed to shake the regime to its core and destabilize it if possible. But the attack did not drop one bomb on Iraq’s Army.
In 2009, I asked Zinni about Saddam’s WMD. He said, “If Saddam had any WMD, it was only tactical stuff – old Soviet artillery rounds, and those things tend to degrade quickly.” He added that Iraq wasn’t storing or producing WMD at all.
But the aim was to weaken Iraq, not occupy it and Zinni was shocked by the Bush administrations claim of WMD.
We all were.