Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq

Did we ever find anything?

By Deane Barker

In general, no.

However, there are two separate things here: (1) WMDs themselves, and (2) a WMD development program.

Saddam Hussein did have older WMDs, dating back to the 1960s. In fact, he used chemical weapons extensively on his own people in the 1980s.

However, he was ordered to stop all WMD development programs after the first Gulf War in the early 90s, and all signs indicate that he complied with that order.

So there were older, legacy WMDs in Iraq that had been abandoned for 20 years and deteriorated to the point where they couldn’t easily be weaponized. We knew this going in. However, we justified the war on the existence on an active WMD development program, which was never found.

So, if we unpack this, there are actually multiple questions lurking under the surface here:

Did we find evidence of an active WMD program in Iraq?

This was the entire reason for the Iraq War – that Hussein had an active WMD program that was an imminent threat to the world.

However, we didn’t find any WMDs of any recent production.

The group responsible for finding the supposed WMDs was the Iraq Survey Group, headed by David Kay. They searched for WMDs (or indirect evidence of them) for 18 months. Nothing was found.

Kay actually resigned in January 2004, saying:

I don’t think they existed. What everyone was talking about is stockpiles produced after the end of the last Gulf War and I don’t think there was a large-scale production program in the nineties.

The ISG was taken over by Charles Duefler, and it issued its final report in September 2004 (full text (PDF)), saying:

While a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions have been discovered, ISG judges that Iraq unilaterally destroyed its undeclared chemical weapons stockpile in 1991. There are no credible indications that Baghdad resumed production of chemical munitions thereafter…

In spite of exhaustive investigation, ISG found no evidence that Iraq possessed, or was developing [biological weapons] agent production systems

So, it seems conclusive that we did not find an active WMD program in Iraq.

Did we find any WMDs at all?

We did eventually find some chemical munitions, but they were old and clearly dated to Hussein’s former program. They were still toxic, but in no condition to be used as weapons.

In particular, the NY Times wrote an article in 2014 – The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons – about U.S. servicemen who encountered older chemical weapons and were exposed during demolition.

Some seized on this article as “proof” of the long-sought WMD program. However, all of the weapons appeared to have been leftover from the original program and were in very poor condition.

Also, in 2008, the U.S. removed 500 tons of uranium from Iraq. Many people also seized on this as “proof” that Hussein was trying to make nuclear weapons. However, the uranium that was seized was already known to investigators, was used in a prior nuclear reactor program (reactors which had both been destroyed by military action), and had been in sealed containers since the 80s.

If no WMDs existed, did we know this before starting the Iraq War?

The supposed existence of WMDs was the reason given for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

In President Bush’s State of the Union speech in January that year, he said:

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.

The two pieces of evidence cited here were:

  • A report that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger in 2001. This was debunked by a subsequent investigation. The investigator eventually wrote a NY Times op-ed when he felt like his findings were being misused, and then his wife was outed as a CIA operative in what seemed like retaliation for contradicting the White House. The first sentence quoted above has since become infamously known as The Sixteen Words.

  • The interception of aluminum tubes being shipped to Iraq in 2001. These tubes were similar to those used in centrifuges to enrich uranium. However, few sources could agree on their intended use – many agencies felt like these were intended as shell cases for 81mm mortar rounds.

Nevertheless, Colin Powell gave testimony at the United Nations on February 5, 2003, saying:

[…] the facts and Iraq’s behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction …

Five weeks later, the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Unfortunately, in the years since, it appears that the evidence presented in the run-up to the war was mostly wrong, leaving us with the question: did we know the justification narrative wasn’t true? Did the administration actively and knowingly lie to lead the country into war?

No one is confessing to this. If anyone knows, they’re not saying, and there’s a good chance the truth is vague – people could have had private doubts that they just suppressed to maintain some level of plausible deniability. Perhaps they didn’t need to be convinced the evidence was 100% true, but just that it was believable enough to justify going to war.

Many opponents of the war have since claimed “Bush lied!”, but there’s no definitive proof of this. People are free to make their own assumptions, but no irrefutable evidence has emerged that the president knew the narrative was wrong but proceeded anyway. If he privately felt this way, there’s no way of knowing this.

Senator John McCain – who was a proponent of the war in 2003 – wrote this in a book published just before he died:

The principal reason for invading Iraq, that Saddam [Hussein] had WMD, was wrong. The war, with its cost in lives and treasure and security, can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.

Colin Powell himself, who made the case for the war in front of the United Nations, expressed regret for it. In a 2005 interview with Barbara Walters, he called that speech a “blot” on his record.

However, in a 2012 interview with Time, Powell claimed that he was simply acting on bad intelligence that he thought was true at the time.

Well, I was quite surprised when it started to fall apart. You know, “Well, there aren’t three sources; it’s really one source.” What? And then suddenly a number of members in the intelligence community at fairly senior levels started writing books saying, “Well we knew [the source of the intelligence] was flaky.” You did? What a minute. His flakiness was in the President’s State of the Union address. The President talked about weapons of mass destruction and biological events. So where were you? And then suddenly they start saying “Well we tried to tell the senior levels but it didn’t get through.” Well, you didn’t try very hard. There were people who knew that the source was flaky and they didn’t step forward. That was annoying.

[…] I made the best presentation that I could make, which was expected of me and which was my job, of the intelligence we had. The intelligence turned out to be wrong…

(See postscript below about the the intelligence that “Curveball” provided.)

In a 2006 press conference, even President Bush admitted his administration was wrong:

[…] the main reason we went into Iraq at the time was we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. It turns out he didn’t…

(More on this interview below.)

Two years earlier, at the 2004 Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner, Bush even joked about it. He showed a picture of several people looking for something in an office and said, “Those weapons of mass destruction gotta be here somewhere…” (You can see this moment at the 30:00 point in this video.)

In 2004, President Bush ordered a report into the intelligence process that led to the wrong conclusion. The final report issued in 2005 (full text) was damning:

While the intelligence services of many other nations also thought that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, in the end it was the United States that put its credibility on the line, making this one of the most public – and most damaging – intelligence failures in recent American history.

Was the Iraq War justified for other reasons?

There’s no real answer to this. Even if there was no WMD program to find, some have cited multiple reasons why invading Iraq made sense.

  1. There were WMDs, we just never found them (clearly, this is impossible to know with any certainty)
  2. There were WMDs, but they had been moved and hidden in another country (an extensive investigation could find no evidence of this)
  3. Hussein wanted to restart a WMD program in the future (there’s some evidence that he wanted to do this during the 90s, and given his history, this seems plausible)
  4. Hussein was a sponsor of terrorism and actively harbored terrorists and was therefore a threat to the world (attempts to link Hussein to 9/11 were unsuccessful, however it’s not unreasonable to believe he had some involvement in terrorism)
  5. Hussein was responsible for so many human rights abuses that he simply had to be brought to justice (it’s undeniable that Hussein was a brutal dictator and mass murderer, however, there are many similar figures in the world and we don’t automatically go to war with them)

None of those are objectively true or false, but it’s some of the reasoning that many proponents of the war have fallen back on in the years since.

In a July 2004 election speech, Bush clearly pivoted to reasons #3, #4, and #5.

Three years ago, the ruler of Iraq was a sworn enemy of America, who provided safe haven for terrorists, used weapons of mass destruction, and turned his nation into a prison. Saddam Hussein was not just a dictator; he was a proven mass murderer who refused to account for weapons of mass murder. Every responsible nation recognized this threat, and knew it could not go on forever…

Although we have not founded stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq. We removed a declared enemy of America, who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder, and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them. In the world after September the 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take.

To continue quoting from the 2006 interview above, Bush said:

[…] imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein who had the capacity to make a weapon of mass destruction, who was paying suiciders [sic] to kill innocent life, who would – who had relations with Zarqawi. Imagine what the world would be like with him in power. The idea is to try to help change the Middle East.

[…] but I also talked about the human suffering in Iraq, and I also talked the need to advance a freedom agenda. And so my question – my answer to your question is, is that – imagine a world in which Saddam Hussein was there, stirring up even more trouble in a part of the world that had so much resentment and so much hatred that people came and killed 3,000 of our citizens.

So, was it all about WMDs? At the time the war was justified, yes. But in the years since – and in light of the apparent fact that no active WMD program existed – the justification has morphed into the need to simply rid the world of a despot.

Why I Looked It Up

I lived through this time. I remember all the headlines and speeches, and the confusion when no WMDs were found.

In the years since, however, both the 2014 NY Times article cited above, and some conspiracy theories about the uranium removed in 2008 left me with questions.

I finally decided to research it.


Added on

How Spies Think discusses the problems with “Curveball,” the single source the CIA relied on for information about the WMDs.

Curveball seemed the answer to the [Biological Warfare; BW] experts’ prayers. He was an Iraqi chemical engineer who had turned up in a German refugee camp claiming to have worked on Saddam’s BW programmes and ready to spill the beans. To the old operational hands in the CIA and Britain’s MI6 he seemed to good to be true. […]

The problem was, those mobile BW units did not exist. Curveball had invented them. The experts fell for his story.

After the war, Curveball was tracked down by journalists. He admitted that he had lied in his reporting, and said that he had watched in shock when it was used to justify the war.

He told them that he fabricated tales of mobile BW trucks and clandestine factories in an attempt to bring down the Saddam Hussein regime, from which he had fled. He added: “Maybe I was right, maybe I was not right…they gave me this chance. I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime. I and my sons are proud of that…”

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