The Perception of Deception: Where Are the Iraqi Weapons?

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With
each passing day, the questions surrounding Iraq’s missing weapons
of mass destruction take on added urgency.  Where are the massive
stockpiles of VX, mustard, and other nerve agents that we were told
Iraq was hoarding? Where are the thousands of liters of botulinim
toxin? Wasn’t it the looming threat to America posed by these weapons
that propelled the United States into war with Iraq? Isn’t this
the reason American military personnel were called upon to risk
their lives in combat?

On
March 17, in his final speech to the American people before ordering
the invasion of Iraq, President Bush took one last opportunity to
bolster his case for war. The centerpiece of his argument was the
same message he brought to the United Nations months before, and
the same message he hammered home at every opportunity in the intervening
months, namely that Saddam Hussein had failed to destroy Iraq’s
weapons of mass destruction and thus presented an imminent danger
to the American people.  “Intelligence gathered by this and
other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues
to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised,”
the President said.

Now,
nearly two months after the fall of Baghdad, the United States has
yet to find any physical evidence of those lethal weapons. Could
they be buried underground or are they somehow camouflaged in plain
sight? Were they destroyed before the war? Have they been shipped
out of the country?  Do they actually exist?  The questions
are mounting. What started weeks ago as a restless murmur throughout
Iraq has intensified into a worldwide cacophony of confusion.

The
fundamental question that is nagging at many is this:  How
reliable were the claims of this President and key members of his
Administration that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction posed a clear
and imminent threat to the United States, such a grave threat that
immediate war was the only recourse?

Lawmakers,
who were assured before the war that weapons of mass destruction
would be found in Iraq, and many of whom voted to give this Administration
a sweeping grant of authority to wage war based upon those assurances,
have been placed in the uncomfortable position of wondering if they
were misled.  The media is ratcheting up the demand for answers:
Could it be that the intelligence was wrong, or could it be that
the facts were manipulated?  These are very serious and grave
questions, and they require immediate answers.  We cannot –
and must not – brush such questions aside.  We owe the
people of this country an answer.  Every member of this body
ought to be demanding answers.

I
am encouraged that the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees
are planning to investigate the credibility of the intelligence
that was used to build the case for war against Iraq.  We need
a thorough, open, gloves-off investigation of this matter and we
need it quickly.  The credibility of the President and his
Administration hangs in the balance.  We must not trifle with
the people’s trust by foot-dragging.

What
amazes me is that the President himself is not clamoring for an
investigation.  It is his integrity that is on the line. 
It is his truthfulness that is being questioned.  It is his
leadership that has come under scrutiny. And yet he has raised no
question, expressed no curiosity about the strange turn of events
in Iraq, expressed no anger at the possibility that he might have
been misled.  How is it that the President, who was so adamant
about the dangers of WMD, has expressed no concern over the where-abouts
of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

Indeed,
instead of leading the charge to uncover the discrepancy between
what we were told before the war and what we have found — or failed
to find — since the war, the White House is circling the wagons
and scoffing at the notion that anyone in the Administration exaggerated
the threat from Iraq. 

In
an interview with Polish television last week, President Bush noted
that two trailers were found in Iraq that U.S. intelligence officials
believe are mobile biological weapons production labs, although
no trace of chemical or biological material was found in the trailers. 
“We found the weapons of mass destruction,” the President was quoted
as saying.  Certainly he cannot be satisfied with such meager
evidence.

At
the CIA, Director George Tenet released a terse statement the other
day defending the intelligence his agency provided on Iraq. 
“The integrity of our process was maintained throughout and any
suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong,” he said.  How
can he be so absolutely sure?

At
the Pentagon, Doug Feith, the Under Secretary of Defense for policy,
held a rare press conference this week to deny reports that a high-level
intelligence cell in the Defense Department doctored data and pressured
the CIA to strengthen the case for war. “I know of no pressure. 
I can’t rule out what other people may have perceived.  Who
knows what people perceive,” he said.  Is this Administration
not at all concerned about the perception of deception?

And
Secretary of State Powell, who presented the U.S. case against Iraq
to the United Nations last February, strenuously defended his presentation
in an interview this week and denied any erosion in the Administration’s
credibility.  “Everybody knows that Iraq had weapons of mass
destruction,” he said.  Should he not be more concerned than
that about U.S. claims before the United Nations?

And
yet…and yet…the questions continue to grow, and the doubts are
beginning to drown out the assurances.  For every insistence
from Washington that the weapons of mass destruction case against
Iraq is sound comes a counterpoint from the field — another dry
hole, another dead end. 

As
the top Marine general in Iraq was recently quoted as saying, “It
was a surprise to me then, it remains a surprise to me now, that
we have not uncovered weapons, as you say, in some of the forward
dispersal sites.  Again, believe me, it’s not for lack of trying. 
We’ve been to virtually every ammunition supply point between the
Kuwaiti border and Baghdad, but they’re simply not there.”

Who
are the American people to believe?  What are we to think? 
Even though I opposed the war against Iraq because I believe that
the doctrine of preemption is a flawed and dangerous instrument
of foreign policy, I did believe that Saddam Hussein possessed some
chemical and biological weapons capability.  But I did not
believe that he presented an imminent threat to the United States
— as indeed he did not. 

Such
weapons may eventually turn up. But my greater fear is that the
belligerent stance of the United States may have convinced Saddam
Hussein to sell or disperse his weapons to dark forces outside of
Iraq.  Shouldn’t this Administration be equally alarmed if
they really believed that Saddam had such dangerous capabilities?

Saddam
Hussein is missing.  Osama bin Laden is missing.  Iraq’s
weapons of mass destruction are missing.  And the President’s
mild claims that we are "on the look" do not comfort me. 
There ought to be an army of UN inspectors combing the countryside
in Iraq or searching for evidence of disbursement of these weapons
right now.  Why are we waiting?  Is there fear of the
unknown?  Or fear of the truth?

This
nation and, indeed, the world were led into war with Iraq on the
grounds that Iraq, possessed weapons of mass destruction, and posed
an imminent threat to the United States and to the global community. 
As the President said in his March 17 address to the nation, “The
danger is clear: using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear
weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill
their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands
of innocent people in our country, or any other."

That
fear may still be valid, but I wonder how the war with Iraq has
really mitigated the threat from terrorists.  As the recent
attack in Saudi Arabia proved, terrorism is alive and well and unaffected
by the situation in Iraq.

Meanwhile,
the President seems oblivious to the controversy swirling about
the justification for the invasion of Iraq. Our nation’s credibility
before the world is at stake. While his Administration digs in to
defend the status quo, Members of Congress are questioning the credibility
of the intelligence and the public case made by this Administration
on which the war with Iraq was based.  Members of the media
are openly challenging whether America’s intelligence agencies were
simply wrong or were callously manipulated.  Vice President
Cheney’s numerous visits to the CIA are being portrayed by some
intelligence professionals as "pressure."  And the
American people are wondering, once again, what is going on in the
dark shadows of Washington.

It
is time that we had some answers. It is time that the Administration
stepped up its acts to reassure the American people that the horrific
weapons that they told us threatened the world’s safety have not
fallen into terrorist hands.  It is time that the President
leveled with the American people.  It is time that we got to
the bottom of this matter.

We
have waged a costly war against Iraq.  We have prevailed. 
But, we are still losing American lives in that nation.  And
the troubled situation there is far from settled.  American
troops will likely be needed there for years.  Billions of
American tax dollars will continue to be needed to rebuild. 
I only hope that we have not won the war only to lose the peace. 
Until we have determined the fate of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction,
or determined that they, in fact, did not exist, we cannot rest,
we cannot claim victory.

Iraq’s
weapons of mass destruction remain a mystery and a conundrum. 
What are they, where are they, how dangerous are they?  Or
were they a manufactured excuse by an Administration eager to seize
a country?  It is time to answer these questions.  It
is time– past time — for the Administration to level with the American
people, and it is time for the President to demand an accounting
from his own Administration as to exactly how our nation was led
down such a twisted path to war.

Senator
Robert C. Byrd represents West Virginia.


     

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