It pains me to be hard on Charles Duelfer. A smart and dedicated civil servant with vast experience in Iraq, he at least had an understandable reason for wrapping up his investigation into Iraq’s WMD programs: Osama bin Laden’s man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was trying to blow him up. Dr. Duelfer told London’s Independent in April of this year that a car bomb set by Zarqawi’s men “tried to get me and my follow car. Two of my guards were killed and one was badly wounded. My hearing's not been right since." This was the unofficial reason that Duelfer’s Iraq Survey Group had to “cut short” its concluding look into the transfer of WMD material to Syria. His predecessor, Dr. David Kay, resigned in protest because CentCom was repeatedly transferring away members of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) team in order to deal with terrorism.
These aren’t exactly ideal working conditions. Duelfer and Kay had other problems as well: Zarqawi and the ex-Baathist terrorists were also killing off as many Iraqi scientists as they could. According to Congressman Steve Buyer last year, at least nine Iraqi scientists questioned by ISG were assassinated within the year after Operation Iraqi Freedom and another fifty scientists simply fled the country. Mr. Duelfer told Congress that he was struck by the "extreme reluctance of Iraqi managers, scientists and engineers to speak freely."
We needn’t search too deeply into why the Iraqis with knowledge of Saddam’s WMD programs were specifically being targeted by Zarqawi's terrorists. It surely wasn’t because all Iraqi WMD programs had been dismantled twelve years earlier, shortly after the first Gulf War. But for those of you who haven’t carted this tome to the beach yet, Duelfer’s 1,500-plus page “Comprehensive Report,” issued in rough form in September and in final form this spring, argues that this is more or less what happened.
Duelfer’s Report suffers from curious lapses. In the months and years immediately before Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), Saddam was not nearly as WMD-free as Duelfer surmises. The Report is valuable for what it does reveal, but it certainly does not serve as any basis for the media’s and administration critics’ angry claims of a harmless Iraq.
In his Report, Duelfer works hard to impute rational calculations to an apparently irrational dictator. But his narrative is constrained by this model. Duelfer argues that Saddam, whom he describes as the Iraqi regime personified, can only be understood as a man who had clear goals but imperfect information. Saddam wanted to have WMD capabilities as long as he could, because WMD had saved him from Iranian human-wave attacks in the 1980’s and from the Shi’ite rebellion in the south after the Gulf War. Chemical weapons were good for gassing the Kurds into intimidated slavery as well, at least in Saddam’s twisted mind.
But the Iraqi president was hamstrung by the oil embargo during the 1990’s, and wanted an end to these sanctions at almost any cost. There was no tax base to pay for the security services and the outlandish multitude of palaces he wanted to build. The U.N.’s Oil-for-Food bribery program saved his regime from crumbling, and Saddam managed to skim more than $20 billion off the top: for himself, al-Qaeda and its affiliates like Ansar al-Islam and Abu Sayyaf, and hungry European governments like France and Russia.
By the turn of the millennium, Duelfer writes, things were going well for Saddam. A few years of bribing foreign governments and businesses through Oil-For-Food had managed to erode the sanctions regime entirely. The U.S. was quickly becoming the last holdout in favor of continuation. The Baghdad International Fair in November 2001 was attended by hundreds of companies, and “the Oil Minister was treated like a rock star.” The end of UN sanctions was finally in sight.
Duelfer believes that Saddam, who had already been heavily bombed in 1998 for not complying with UNSCOM’s inspections, thought he could keep his WMD human expertise (but not his visible stockpiles) preserved but inactive, and wait out the sanctions. Then he'd become flush and powerful again from pumping oil. When sanctions went finally kaput, Saddam could go back to growing anthrax and making VX in serious quantities. But back in 2002-3, if his WMD programs were inactive anyway, why was Saddam willing to pay so dearly for not complying with UN resolutions on WMD? By pretending he actually had WMD stockpiles, Saddam told the ISG from his jail cell, he would deter Iran, his real enemy. Duelfer accepts Saddam’s jailhouse explanation uncritically.
This had the appearance of logic, though: Saddam was obviously no suicide bomber and badly needed the cash that the end of sanctions would bring. But the dictator misjudged the United States’ intentions after the catastrophe of September 11th, and thought that he could keep his game going. As we all now know, this turned out to be wrong. President Bush, as Saddam’s sons lamented shortly before their deaths from an American TOW missile, was “not like Clinton.” The chastened American president was not interested in “strategic ambiguity” concerning Iraqi WMD, and so dismantled the regime by force in March 2003. In Duelfer's mind, it was war over a fiction—but it was not George Bush’s fiction: Saddam had acted guilty, after all. Duelfer believes that the major pretext for war turned out to be Saddam’s own fiction, contrived for Saddam’s unique purposes and stemming from his flawed strategic information.
But a great deal of information in Duelfer’s own Report contradicts his tidy model of a disarmed-but-coyly-pretending dictator. Take the little matter of the secret biological laboratories hidden throughout Baghdad and under the control of the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS). UNSCOM had spent years roaming Iraq and never so much as heard a whiff about them. Hans Blix and his successor agency, UNMOVIC, found Iraq in non-compliance in 2002 without stumbling over a single white lab coat. These labs were unknown to any intelligence agency in the world until after the Iraq War, when ISG uncovered their existence. They were all in egregious violation of the UN resolutions on disclosure and disarmament.
These labs deserve more than a mention because the real danger from Saddam’s Iraq was never really a large-scale use of chemical or biological weapons on a battlefield. American troops could defend against this kind of attack. It was the danger that Saddam would arm terrorists with these weapons, and use them against select American civilian targets.
And why wouldn’t Saddam? His men trained foreign al-Qaeda and other terrorists at Salman Pak in aircraft hijacking, helped to bankroll al-Qaeda and its affiliates, kept Zarqawi, Abu Nidal, and Abu Abbas as house pets, tried to kill former President Bush, tried to blow up Radio Free Europe, and apparently sent an active colonel in the Fedayeen Saddam to baby-sit the 9-11 hijackers in the 2000 Malaysia planning summit, for starters.
No one has yet figured out who cooked up and freeze-dried into spores the military-grade anthrax sent to Senators Leahy and Daschle’s offices in the fall of 2001. The entire resources of the US government have not been able to replicate the lethality of these spores. Former Iraq Survey Group member Col. Bob Kadlec said during a presentation at this year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that the secret Baghdad labs were not just a "proliferation threat"-- they could also provide the "missing link" to a better understanding of the regime’s biological weapons programs.
Dr. David Kay reported to Congress in October 2003 that one scientist was ordered to conceal reference strains of BW organisms like anthrax, ricin and Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever in his own refrigerator. The scientist knew of other seed stocks but these were missing when ISG investigators showed up to collect them. We also know now that a special unit of the IIS, like the Nazi SS, was conducting “secret experiments on human beings, resulting in their deaths.” As Duelfer wrote later, “the aim was probably the development of poisons, including ricin and aflatoxin, to eliminate or debilitate the Regime’s opponents.” Why not American opponents? Duelfer also judged that a “break-out production capability” in BW existed at one site, the State Company for Drug Industries and Medical Appliances, SDI, at Samarra.
Then there was the smallpox research. Recall that smallpox, the greatest killer disease in the history of mankind, was not only illegal, but supposed to be eradicated from the face of the Earth. Smallpox kills 33% of its victims. There is no cure.
Duelfer writes that ISG cannot be sure whether Saddam maintained his government’s prior work on weaponization of smallpox virus up to March 2003. But Duelfer reported that “According to Dr. Mahmud Farraj Bilal Al Sammarai, a senior official involved in the weaponization and testing of CBW agents, the aim of the viral BW program was intended for the weaponization of smallpox.” Dr. Bilal told Duelfer that his team started with Camel pox since it was easier to work with for development, but ultimately the program was intended to progress to smallpox. Dr. Bilal claimed that he “did not know for a fact that samples of smallpox existed within Iraq.” Dr. Rihab Taha, usually known as Dr. Germ, told Duelfer that she had destroyed her own samples and capability in 1990 or 1991, but Duelfer often found Dr. Germ’s credibility to be severely wanting. She is likely facing prosecution for Crimes Against Humanity, after all. Lying about her involvement in illegal activities is to be expected. Dr. Germ is still in US custody somewhere in Iraq.
Could Saddam have kept smallpox stores and concealed them from the inspectors? Duelfer’s technical advisors believe the answer is yes, particularly in liquid nitrogen freezers. And “several institutes” in Iraq had such freezers. One “institute” had an interesting story attached, according to Duelfer:
ISG learned of a television news report that was broadcasted on Western television in mid-April 2003 that reported the CPHL had been [recently] looted of highly infectious virus such as smallpox, polio and influenza. ISG visited the latter and interviewed senior researchers who described the incident….ISG did identify a “secret lab” that was operated there, which had been vacated in December 2002. The nature of the research in that laboratory was not determined [by ISG]. (Italics mine)
Somehow, when reporting that the Duelfer Report “proved” that the “case for war” was bogus, the mainstream media missed the part about the “senior researchers” telling ISG that their “secret lab” had just been looted of all their good smallpox.
But it’s not just Duelfer’s own evidence that flies in the face of his conclusions. He ignores completely a major but unreported find, first revealed on Cybercast News Service last year. American soldiers literally found some of Saddam’s purchase orders for mustard gas and “malignant pustule,” a known code-phrase for anthrax (according to UNSCOM) in a government building. What is interesting are the amounts of the WMD and the dates: five kilograms of mustard gas on August 21, 2000, and three ampules of anthrax on September 6th, 2000. The orders came with protective equipment.
I spoke at length with the reporter who broke the story, Scott Wheeler. I asked him about his authentication efforts with known Iraq experts. “I can’t find anyone who won’t authenticate them,” he said, with an air of regret. Retired CIA official Bruce Tefft described the documents to Wheeler as “accurate.” I personally asked former Clinton campaign advisor and Iraq expert Dr. Laurie Mylroie what her confidence level in the (related) terrorist-ties documents was. She emailed back “One hundred percent.” Dr. Walid Phares, a renowned Lebanese-American expert on the Middle East, told Wheeler that the documents were a “watershed” and “big” in their implications. Scott Wheeler got a high-level former UNSCOM inspector to authenticate the documents, too. The UNSCOM veteran told Wheeler that he had “zeroed in on the signatures on the documents and ‘the names of some of the people who sign off on these things….[The Iraqis] were meticulous record keepers.’"
Almost not believing that ISG could be disinterested in this story, I contacted my old graduate professor at Georgetown, Dr. Assad AbuKhalil. Dr. AbuKhalil has become a violent critic of Israel and the Bush Administration’s Iraq War, running a weblog called “the Angry Arab” chock full of pictures of suffering Palestinians and Iraqis sent to him by God-knows-who. This angry Arab (with whom I maintain a certain affection and respect) enjoys attacking government officials on television over various policy errors and mistranslations of the Arabic language, such as the Bin Laden videotapes. I sent him the original Arabic documents via email. “Interesting,” he wrote back. He said “nothing would surprise me” about the depths of Saddam’s depravity anyway, and the documents would have to be studied “more carefully.” I never heard back. The fact that this virulently anti-Administration professor could not dismiss these documents as fakes speaks well of their authenticity, in my humble opinion.
I sent the documents to ISG, offering to assist them with experts and authentication. I got a polite “we’ll-call-you.” If Dr. Duelfer’s experts somehow knew about these documents and why they were fakes, he wasn’t sharing this with the American people. One thing was certain: if they weren’t fakes, Duelfer’s tidy model of Saddam only pretending to have WMD to deter Iran wasn’t holding up. Saddam at least wanted a terrorist-friendly WMD capability, three ampules of anthrax at a time, which in the end was one of the things that we were afraid of anyway.
In the summer of 2000, around the time of his purchase orders to Iraqi companies for new mustard and anthrax, Saddam gave an unusually belligerent speech aimed at the rest of the world. Iraq would never give up its “special” weapons, he stared into the camera, if its neighbors would not. “Neighbors” was interpreted by the US to mean Israel. At the same time, Saddam ordered his underlings to speed up development of a long-range missile, which would defy the 150 km range limit imposed by the United Nations. Duelfer’s predecessor David Kay later reported that around this time Saddam had ramped up illegal SCUD-variant fuel production capacity and had sent agents to North Korea to buy parts for the No Dong missile, which has a range in excess of 1,500 km. In June of 2002 Saddam ordered development of the Jinin cruise missile, which had a prototype range of 1000 km. He developed the al-Samoud II missile with ranges over 600 km.
There was no doubt that as America and Britain pushed harder for Iraqi compliance in 2002, Saddam became alarmed enough to re-admit the inspectors. He tried to hide the evidence on a massive scale. The US satellite intercepts re-played by Colin Powell in February 2003 refer to officers getting rid of the “nerve agents” before the inspectors got there. Saddam told his surprised generals shortly before the war that he had no WMD, and ordered the scientists to “cooperate completely” with the inspectors. He agreed to destroy his al-Samoud missiles, and suspended work on the Jinin cruise missile. As part of his effort to vacuum up all the evidence, his men resorted to tactics like dumping mustard gas barrels and cyanide in the Euphrates, never minding that the local people use this river for their drinking water. The US Marines found “significant quantities” of the poisons in the river near Nasiriyah in June of 2003. Duelfer never mentions this find.
Shortly before the war, Hans Blix’s UNMOVIC teams found and destroyed at Al-Muthanna 10 155-millimeter artillery shells and four plastic containers filled with mustard gas. Duelfer mostly denies Blix’s find here has any significance, because it doesn’t fit his model. He writes off the 58-plus chemical weapons shells found all over Iraq after the War as being “residual” shells left over from before the 1991 Gulf War. I somehow doubt that the Marine unit that was targeted by terrorists with one of these shells was interested in the date of its construction. I also doubt that if Saddam wanted to send over the next Ramzi Yousef to dump one of these shells in the Sears Tower HEVAC system, the thousands of victims’ families would much care, either. Duelfer also doesn’t pay much attention to how the Polish Army actually purchased cyclosarin (five times deadlier than sarin) rockets from the black market in Iraq to keep them out of the hands of Zarqawi's terrorists. So clearly Saddam didn’t have time to bury all the evidence.
It’s really too bad about Duelfer’s work being “cut short” because of Zarqawi. The trail of WMD isn’t cold. It leads to Syria and the Bekka Valley of formerly Syrian-occupied Lebanon, according to a Syrian defector to US intelligence. Gen. Tommy Franks himself leans this way, telling the media that "Two days before the war, on March 17 , we saw through multiple intelligence channels - both human intelligence and technical intelligence, large caravans of people and things, including some of the top 55 [most wanted] Iraqis, going to Syria." What was so important to move to Syria immediately before the War with the top regime officials? Duelfer’s next stop should have been Damascus. With Syrian President Bashar Assad now admitting that he has stockpiles of WMD, perhaps it should be ours.