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The Iraq WMD hunt

Here’s what the David Kay report on the search for WMD in Iraq really said: U.N. sanctions and inspections worked. By Fred Kaplan.
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David Kay’s interim report on whether Saddam Hussein had a serious program to build weapons of mass destruction — an investigation that Kay and 1,500 agents from the Pentagon’s Iraq Survey Group have been conducting for three months now — is a shockingly lame piece of work.

InsertArt(2035074)PRESIDENT BUSH has insisted that the report proves Saddam “was a danger to the world” and thus vindicates the war. Secretary of State Colin Powell chimed in that the Kay report left him “even more convinced … that we did the right thing.”

These statements were mustered to counter criticisms from Democratic senators who, upon reading the report, proclaimed that it proves only that Bush had no basis for whipping up prewar fears of an imminent Iraqi danger.

A close reading of the actual, unclassified report — which Kay delivered as testimony on Oct. 2 to a panel of several congressional committees — reveals not only that Bush’s critics are closer to the mark, but something much more significant: that Saddam wanted and, in some cases, tried to resurrect the weapons programs that he had built in the 1980s, but that the United Nations sanctions and inspections prevented him from doing so.


First, let us dispose of the president’s argument for taking the report as proof that Saddam posed a “danger to the world.” On the White House lawn last Friday, Bush recited the report’s finding that Iraq’s WMD program “spanned more than two decades” and “involved thousands of people, billions of dollars.”

The report does contain these figures, in precisely those words. However, it does not claim, or even pretend to suggest, that the WMD program consumed so much manpower or money toward the end of its run — i.e., on the eve of Gulf War II. In context, the numbers clearly refer to how much Iraq put into the program through its entire 20-plus-year duration. And elsewhere, the report notes that most of this effort was undertaken before Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War of 1991.

For instance, there’s this eyebrow-raising sentence halfway into the report: “Multiple sources with varied access and reliability have told ISG [the Iraq Survey Group] that Iraq did not have a large, ongoing centrally controlled CW [chemical weapons] program after 1991. … Iraq’s large-scale capability to develop, produce, and fill new CW munitions was reduced-if not entirely destroyed-during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Fox [Clinton’s 1998 airstrikes], 13 years of UN sanctions and UN inspections.”

Throughout the report, Kay kicks up a sandstorm of suggestiveness, but no more. He notes, in alarming tones, the discovery of “a clandestine network of laboratories and safehouses within the Iraqi Intelligence Service,” including equipment ”suitable for continuing CBW [chemical and biological weapons] research” (all italics-here and henceforth-added). This is an interesting finding, but it says nothing about CBW development or production or deployment, and proves nothing about whether the equipment was actually intended or designed for CBW purposes.

The report cites “multiple sources” who told Pentagon agents “that Iraq explored the possibility of CW production in recent years.” But there is no indication Iraq went any further. In fact, the report adds, when Saddam asked a senior military official “in either 2001 or 2002” how long it would take to produce new chemical weapons, “he responded it would take six months for mustard” gas. Another senior Iraqi official, replying to a similar request in mid-2002 from Saddam’s son Odai, estimated it would take “two months to produce mustard and two years for Sarin.”


Though the report doesn’t say so explicitly, these exchanges reveal fairly conclusively that, in 2001-02, Iraq had no ongoing CW program. Just about any country, starting from scratch, could produce mustard gas or Sarin along this timetable, given access to the materials. Nor does the report cite any indication that, after posing the question, Saddam or Odai ordered production to commence.

One reason may be that Iraq had no chemical agents to churn into chemical weapons. The report says Iraq “may have engaged” in ”research on a possible VX stabilizer” and in ”research and development for CW-capable munitions.” (Just about any munition can be CW-capable.)

“We have also acquired information related to Iraq’s CW doctrine and Iraq’s war plans for OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom], but,” the report acknowledges, “we have not yet found evidence to confirm pre-war reporting that Iraqi military units were prepared to use CW against Coalition forces.” Indeed, the Pentagon teams’ efforts “have thus far yielded little reliable information on post-1991 CW stocks and CW agent production.”

The section of the report on Saddam’s nuclear aspirations is still more revealing — and disingenuous. The section begins with the Pentagon teams learning from several sources that Saddam “remained firmly committed to acquiring nuclear weapons.” But read the next two sentences: “These officials assert that Saddam would have resumed nuclear weapons at some future point. Some indicated a resumption after Iraq was free of sanctions.”

In other words, Saddam might have restarted his nuclear-weapons program — except for the U.N. sanctions.

“At least one senior Iraqi official believed that by 2000 Saddam had run out of patience with waiting for sanctions to end and wanted to restart the nuclear program,” the report notes.

However, the evidence that Saddam acted on this impatience is flimsy at best. “Starting around 2000,” the report states, Dr. Khalid Ibrahim Sa’id, Saddam’s senior atomic-energy official (who was killed during the fall of Baghdad when his driver tried to run a U.S. roadblock), “began several small and relatively unsophisticated research initiatives that could be applied to nuclear weapons development.”

The report adds, “These initiatives did not in and of themselves constitute a resumption of the nuclear weapons program, but could have been useful in developing a weapons-relevant science base for the long-term.” This sentence, which seems very carefully written, is so devoid of meaning that it could accurately be invoked to describe the purchase of a college-level textbook in nuclear physics.


The Pentagon team also found “indications” of ”interest, beginning in 2002, in reconstituting a centrifuge enrichment program” — but nothing of actual reconstitution.

Some Iraqi scientists “suspect” that “Dr. Sa’id, at least, was considering a restart of the centrifuge program.” However, “the evidence does not tie any activity directly to centrifuge research or development.”

The evidence garnered on behalf of Saddam’s ballistic-missile program is similarly weak. Beginning in 2000, Saddam ”ordered the development of ballistic missiles with ranges of at least 400km and up to 1000km.” However, according to “a cooperating senior detainee,” the report goes on, “Saddam concluded that the proposals from … missile design centers would take too long.” Saddam wanted the missile built within six months, but one of his design centers told him it would take “six years.”

Kay’s teams discovered that, in 2000, Saddam sought to buy Scud-type missiles from North Korea (a finding that, by the way, suggests Iraq couldn’t build them itself). However, the report admits that, by the time the war started, “these discussions had not led to any missiles being transferred to Iraq.”

At a news conference shortly after his testimony, Kay shed more light on this curious connection within the “axis of evil.” Saddam paid North Korea $10 million for the missiles. However, the North Koreans decided delivering the missiles was too risky because they thought the rest of the world was watching Iraqi transactions too closely. (North Korea kept the $10 million, though. Some axis.)


In another indication that the United Nations’ prewar sanctions and inspections were working fairly well (though Kay never puts it that way), the report cites Saddam’s attempt to convert the HY-2 coastal-defense cruise missile, which had a range of 100 km, into a land-attack missile with a range of 1,000 km. He planned to do this by replacing the HY-2’s liquid-fuel rocket engine with a turbine engine from a Russian-built helicopter. However, the report notes, ”To prevent discovery by the U.N., Iraq halted engine developing and testing and disassembled the test stand in late 2002 before the design criteria had been met.”

The report cites just one case where the Pentagon teams found physical evidence of WMD in Iraq: “a vial of live C. botulinum Okra B, from which a biological agent can be produced,” which had been “hidden in the home of a BW [biological weapons] scientist.” The scientist told the team that he “was asked, but refused, to conceal” a “large cache of agents.” (Really? A scientist in Saddam’s Iraq refused an official request and lived to tell it?) The Pentagon team, Kay testified, “is actively searching for this second cache.”

It is not impossible that Kay and his team will some day find a ton of VX in someone’s basement. Kay invokes this possibility — as well as the tangible hunt for the “second cache” (or is it just a second vial?)-to justify the Bush administration’s $600 million request to keep his Iraq Survey Group going. But his report — once you get around its alarm-bell tone and take a close look at its substance — suggests, as strongly as anything published to date, that there’s very likely nothing there.

Fred Kaplan writes the “War Stories” column for Slate.