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.

Correction: The original attributed work at Confederate Yankee to California Yankee‘s Dan Spencer rather than Bob Owens.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bob Owens says:

    Who is Dan Spencer, and why is he credited for writing this story on my blog?


  2. legion says:

    The problem with staking out the high moral ground with black-or-white, with-us-or-against-us positions is that you have to be scrupulously honest about the basis for those positions. _That’s_ why this is going to bite Bush on the ass – he set himself up as the ‘chosen by God’ president, but now he’s got to go back and tweak his own words with the “definition of ‘is'” defense, because he wasn’t really being honest. Ever. About anything related to Iraq other than the statement that Saddam was a Really Bad Guy.

    Of all the tinfoil-hat, way-out-left-field, wingnut Michael Moore things said during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, can anyone point out one single thing the left was _wrong_ about, and that Bush et al were right, or at least not lying or obscenely incompetent about? There still aren’t any WMDs, Saddam wasn’t involved in 9-11, Saddam wasn’t supporting Al Qaeda, Iraq wasn’t a threat to anyone other than Iran and possibly Israel, we really did pull our troops out of Afghanistan before the job was done there to do something that didn’t need to be done yet, the Taliban and the opium farmers are still quite active, our ‘ally’ Pakistan not only isn’t that big a help in tracking down bin Laden, they actually supplied nuclear technology to North Korea and who knows who else, and the list just goes on.

    I used to cringe when I heard leftys chanting “Bush lied, people died” because I thought it was insipid, naive, and imprecise. But the man really has lied about damn near everything.

  3. Fersboo says:

    I don’t know why you are wasting your time with stories like these. Let us just state that the President has an approval rating of 0%, the Irag War was a mistake and the President lied and therefore should be impeached. Now we can move on to more interesting things, like, the Democrats winning by 12,000,000 votes in the ’08 Presidential Election, the Democrats locking the monies collected for Social Security in a lock-box and the Evangenicalization of America and banning of the Science of Evolution.

  4. Andy Vance says:

    I wonder how the baloney quotient fits into all this.

  5. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Just before the onset of operation Barbarossa in 1940, a German soldier defected to the Soviets with information about both the time of the operation and the order of battle. Stalin chose to ignore the information, instead, trusting his ally, Germany. Hitlers forces were not subsequently stopped until they were 60 miles from Moscow. It is far better to mourn their losses than ours. Until all of the documents captured in Iraq have been deciphered, I think anyone with a brain would refrain from making stupid pronouncements concerning evidence revealed by the CIA concerning the War to remove Saddam, After all, it was not the CIA who discovered the faults in the oil for food program, nor have they been very effective in locating a couple of Bosnian war criminals who seem to be hiding in plain sight. If this is the same CIA that brought you the liar Joseph Wilson and his lovely wife Valerie Plame. To think there are those at CIA who do not have an ax to grind with this administration is to be ignorant of the history of that organization.

  6. legion says:

    I find it very entertaining that the CIA spent years being the left-wing conpiracy nut’s black helicopter-flying bugbear, but now that they’re sying things that conflict with what the administration wants to be true, it’s suddenly a hotbed of untrustworthy liberal activists, working to undermine our gummint. Wow.

  7. Fersboo says:

    left-wing conpiracy nutâ??s black helicopter-flying bugbear

    IIRC, that ‘black helicopter’ crowd was defined as ‘right-wing’ and were generally associated with the militia-types (do not construe that I am defending either the ‘black helicopter’ crowd or the militias).

  8. Jack Ehrlich says:

    The reason is that it is possible the Washington Post, which is the source of this mis-information, according to Powerline, failed to tell all. That is, that a larger group of inspectors disagreed with the findings of the smaller group and that those trailers may have, indeed been mobile bio weapons labs. I sometimes wonder just how much the left hates Mr. Bush. Evidently enough to remain fooled by the man who without doubt will be found guilty of crimes against humanity. I know, Bin Ladin is important to the left to point out Bush’s ineffectiveness, but I would like to point out that Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are still free, and without doubt responsible for the deaths of more innocent people that Bin Ladin is, yet the Clinton administration failed to bring them to justice. Something about wag the dog. Clinton governed by poll and look where it go us. Bush is consistently doing the right thing, in spite of what the gross liars on the left and in the media portray it to be. North Korea was lost because the U.S. did not have the will to push the Chinese back across the Yalu river. Viet Nam was lost because we fought it in South Viet Nam. Had we captured or killed Ho Chi Minn and General Gapp. Those people would be free and our troops who died there would not have died in vain.

  9. legion says:

    Fersboo- Yeah, I forgot for a moment that black helos are more of a ‘one world government’ shorthand 🙂

    Jack- Wow… I think you got the bolts on your tinfoil a little too tight. We ‘lost’ North Korea because the President decided he didn’t want to trigger a full-scale nuclear exchange with China, which is what would have happened if it looked like our troops were getting too close to crossing the Yalu.

    While you are technically correct about Vietnam, we didn’t fight it in the North (and we refused for years to admit we were fighting it in neighboring countries) for the same reason.

    And while Ratko and Radovan (didn’t they work with the Marx brothers?) are truly evil bastards, they are hiding inside another sovereign country. While NATO admittedly hasn’t done much good, I also haven’t seen Bush take any pains to track them down either. Those genocidal bastards were a legitimate threat to destabilize the region – we invaded, put them out of power, and (mostly) left. Yes, SFOR still exists, but I don’t read about too many suicide bombings in Bosnia these days…

  10. dfx says:

    Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan were still selling this turd to the press months after the May speech. The Administration knew by Summer ’03 that no mobile weapon labs were found, but they still trotted out that (fake) dead horse over and over and over again.

    Perhaps there were some hybrid mobile weapon/taco labs in Iraq, but it doesn’t seem likely. It’s as ridiculous as the idea of a mobile meth lab.