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No mystery to untangling WMD puzzler
by Jay Bookman
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
January 29, 2004

How could U.S. officials have been so wrong about something so important -- the stockpiles of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that we now know never existed?

The Case of the Two Trailers may hold the answer.

You may recall that when two oddly equipped flatbed trailers were found in northern Iraq last spring, U.S. officials jumped to claim them as mobile labs used to make anthrax and other weapons.

"We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories," President Bush boasted at the time. "And we'll find more weapons as time goes on. But for those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong, we found them."

In reality, it was the president who was wrong. As retiring chief weapons inspector David Kay admitted last week, the trailers that we flaunted before the world to justify our invasion have turned out to be harmless facilities that produced hydrogen to fill weather balloons.

How could we make such an embarrassing mistake? Well, the initial claim that Iraq possessed mobile weapons labs came from the same source as so much of our faulty intelligence: Iraqi defectors, a group with a long history of telling us whoppers about highly advanced nuclear programs, smallpox research -- anything that might goad us into invading. The CIA knew all too well that such sources were often tainted, yet it went ahead and cited the mobile labs as fact, with no physical evidence to corroborate the claim.

Why? Without a thorough investigation, we have only conjecture. But mobile labs did serve a convenient purpose for U.S. policy-makers, who were scrambling to explain why U.N. inspectors weren't finding anything in Iraq.

"We know that Iraq has at least seven of these mobile, biological agent factories," Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations in February. "The truck-mounted ones have at least two or three trucks each. That means that the mobile production facilities are very few, perhaps 18 trucks that we know of. There may be more. . . . Just imagine trying to find 18 trucks among the thousands and thousands of trucks that travel the roads of Iraq every single day."

Now skip ahead a few months to the discovery of the two trailers. Here another glaring weakness in U.S. intelligence comes into play. We did not investigate to see what the trailers were; we investigated to prove that they were weapons labs. In other words, the conclusion was preordained.

Kay, who was a strong supporter of the war, offers a compelling example of that blindness at work. Last May, before his appointment to head the U.S. weapons search, he was working as an expert analyst for NBC News and was given the chance to inspect one of the trailers firsthand. He immediately proclaimed them proof that Saddam Hussein had been producing biological weapons.

"Literally, there's nothing else you would do this way on a mobile facility," Kay told the world. He also rejected the suggestion that the trailers might have been simple hydrogen facilities, claiming that it "didn't pass the laugh test."

Inevitably, a lack of trust and coordination among U.S. agencies also plays a role, as it has throughout this episode. In late May, the CIA released a "white paper" admitting that it had no evidence that the trailers were used to create germ weapons. "We nevertheless are confident that this trailer is a mobile BW [bioweapons] production plant," the agency said. The CIA reached that conclusion without consulting the State Department's intelligence bureau, and a few days later, State concluded that the CIA report had little basis in fact.

That leads to one more question:

Why did CIA professionals release a white paper on the trailers prematurely, a paper that even to laymen seemed to ignore conflicting evidence and distort the available data? Well, they were responding to a request from the White House, which at the time needed help in fending off doubts about our failure to find WMD.

That gives us the final piece of the puzzle: Intelligence was corrupted for political purposes, not just in the Case of the Two Trailers, but in almost every aspect of our intelligence effort.

Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Thursdays and Mondays.

Posted: January 31, 2004


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