Bush Misled on Biolab Claim
The Bush administration claimed to have found WMD in Iraq despite agreement among the experts that they had not, reports Joby Warrick on the front page of today’s WaPo.
On May 29, 2003, 50 days after the fall of Baghdad, President Bush proclaimed a fresh victory for his administration in Iraq: Two small trailers captured by U.S. and Kurdish troops had turned out to be long-sought mobile “biological laboratories.” He declared, “We have found the weapons of mass destruction.” The claim, repeated by top administration officials for months afterward, was hailed at the time as a vindication of the decision to go to war. But even as Bush spoke, U.S. intelligence officials possessed powerful evidence that it was not true.
A secret fact-finding mission to Iraq — not made public until now — had already concluded that the trailers had nothing to do with biological weapons. Leaders of the Pentagon-sponsored mission transmitted their unanimous findings to Washington in a field report on May 27, 2003, two days before the president’s statement. The three-page field report and a 122-page final report three weeks later were stamped “secret” and shelved. Meanwhile, for nearly a year, administration and intelligence officials continued to publicly assert that the trailers were weapons factories.
This is certainly not good.
Now, there is some wiggle room here for the president. That “intelligence officials possessed” information does not mean that the president did. That the report was “transmitted . . . to Washington” does not mean that they reached the White House. Especially not in two days. Then again, they clearly knew within some reasonable span of time, which means they were being dishonest if the claims were “repeated by top administration officials for months afterward.”
Bob Owens, Ed Morrissey, Bryan Preston, and Dan Riehl all argue that the Post is engaging in some sleight of hand here by putting a damning headline and lede onto a story that is very much more complicated.
Indeed, if one reads further into the story, there is some grey to muddy the “Bush lied” implications of the first paragraph.
Spokesmen for the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency declined to comment on the specific findings of the technical report because it remains classified. A spokesman for the DIA asserted that the team’s findings were neither ignored nor suppressed, but were incorporated in the work of the Iraqi Survey Group, which led the official search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The survey group’s final report in September 2004 — 15 months after the technical report was written — said the trailers were “impractical” for biological weapons production and were “almost certainly intended” for manufacturing hydrogen for weather balloons. “Whether the information was offered to others in the political realm I cannot say,” said the DIA official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
Intelligence analysts involved in high-level discussions about the trailers noted that the technical team was among several groups that analyzed the suspected mobile labs throughout the spring and summer of 2003. Two teams of military experts who viewed the trailers soon after their discovery concluded that the facilities were weapons labs, a finding that strongly influenced views of intelligence officials in Washington, the analysts said. “It was hotly debated, and there were experts making arguments on both sides,” said one former senior official who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
The technical team’s findings had no apparent impact on the intelligence agencies’ public statements on the trailers. A day after the team’s report was transmitted to Washington — May 28, 2003 — the CIA publicly released its first formal assessment of the trailers, reflecting the views of its Washington analysts. That white paper, which also bore the DIA seal, contended that U.S. officials were “confident” that the trailers were used for “mobile biological weapons production.” [emphases all added]
These facts certainly seem to exhonerate Bush’s May 29 statement. It is highly unlikely that he read the raw reports from the field; the CIA summary would indeed have been what he relied upon. As most of the bloggers mentioned above noted, they also belie the assertion in the opening paragraph that the findings were “unanimous.”
Further, there was some cognitive dissonance going on with respect to the WMD issue in general and the trailers in particular. And it was not just the evil ChimpyBushCoMcHitlerHalliburton cabal:
Even before the trailers were seized in spring 2003, the mobile labs had achieved mythic stature. As early as the mid-1990s, weapons inspectors from the United Nations chased phantom mobile labs that were said to be mounted on trucks or rail cars, churning out tons of anthrax by night and moving to new locations each day. No such labs were found, but many officials believed the stories, thanks in large part to elaborate tales told by Iraqi defectors.
The CIA’s star informant, an Iraqi with the code name Curveball, was a self-proclaimed chemical engineer who defected to Germany in 1999 and requested asylum. For four years, the Baghdad native passed secrets about alleged Iraqi banned weapons to the CIA indirectly, through Germany’s intelligence service. Curveball provided descriptions of mobile labs and said he had supervised work in one of them. He even described a catastrophic 1998 accident in one lab that left 12 Iraqis dead.
Curveball’s detailed descriptions — which were officially discredited in 2004 — helped CIA artists create color diagrams of the labs, which Powell later used to argue the case for military intervention in Iraq before the U.N. Security Council. “We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails,” Powell said in the Feb. 5, 2003, speech. Thanks to those descriptions, he said, “We know what the fermenters look like. We know what the tanks, pumps, compressors and other parts look like.”
All that said, however, it obviously became clear within a few weeks that there was doubt as to the nature of those trailers. To keep referring to them in public as if they were slam dunk evidence of Iraqi WMD is disengenuous at best.
It is understandable, I suppose, that an administration that believed, as most did, that Iraq had an active WMD program and was soon under assault from critics and allies (myself included) when none were found would seize upon any evidence they could point to for vindication. The nature of the post-2000 election political climate makes that even more so, as any admission of failure is going to be seized upon by opponents as blood in the water.
Even so, leaders in democratic societies have an obligation to be honest when addressing their citizenry. It certainly appears that that obligation was not met here.