Where Oh Where Are Those W.M.D.?5

Last week, six months after the commencement of war in Iraq, the Bush administration’s chief weapons inspector reported on his findings. To date, David Kay has found no nuclear-weapons program (and, of course, no actual nuclear arsenal), no chemical weapons, and no evidence that those famous mobile laboratories were ever used to produce biological weapons, as advertised at the United Nations.

The most terrifying item discovered by Mr. Kay’s 1,200 inspectors so far is a single vial of something that he described as botulinum toxin.

Upon closer examination, however, even that vessel of nastiness isn’t quite so frightening. It reportedly contains botulism bacteria rather than the lethal toxin, and it has been identified as strain B rather than the more virulent strain A. That may be why the Iraqi scientist who turned that vial over to the Kay team had been keeping it in his home refrigerator since 1993. This item appears to be the sum total of Iraq’s imminent threat to Western civilization.

For a deadly serious matter that led to untold thousands of fatalities, the quest to eliminate weapons of mass destruction from Iraq now seems darkly comical. Mr. Kay’s interim report offers only the most paltry rationale for a pre-emptive war.

Were all those Iraqi civilians, all those American soldiers, all of our international prestige and credibility sacrificed for the sake of a test tube in somebody’s fridge? George W. Bush likes to be compared with Winston Churchill, but this latest episode of his Presidency resembles Fawlty Towers more than Their Finest Hour -except the horrific carnage that resulted from the President’s zeal is no skit.

Mr. Kay’s own expertise is in the field of nuclear weapons, so his conclusions concerning that category of threat carry particular weight. The President, along with Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, declared repeatedly during the year that led up to the war that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear-weapons program and was actively seeking an atomic arsenal. Ms. Rice went so far as to conjure scary images of a mushroom cloud.

Yet according to Mr. Kay, his endeavors have found no evidence that Iraq undertook significant steps after 1998 to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material.

The President and Secretary of State Colin Powell stated as incontrovertible fact that the Iraqi dictator possessed mobile laboratories whose purpose was to produce biological weapons. Both men claimed last May that those labs had been found. On May 29, Mr. Bush told reporters, “We found weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories.”

Wrong again, as Mr. Kay reluctantly noted. After scouring the two trailers for the past several months, his teams have been unable to “corroborate the existence of a mobile [biological-weapons] production effort.” Indeed, what his scientists have learned is that technical limitations would almost certainly have made such difficult, dangerous processes impossible in those peculiar, canvas-sided vehicles.

On various occasions during the past two years, the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld all insisted that the Iraqi regime had maintained an enormous, illegal cache of VX, sarin and mustard gas. There can be no doubt, said Mr. Powell. There is no doubt, said Mr. Cheney. And Mr. Rumsfeld, with his typical chin-thrusting certitude, spoke of large, clandestine stockpiles of chemical weapons.

Their hand-picked inspector, Mr. Kay, had this to say on Oct. 2: “Multiple sources with varied access and reliability have told [the Kay team] that Iraq did not have a large, ongoing, centrally controlled C.W. program after 1991. Information found to date suggests that Iraq’s large-scale capability to develop, produce and fill new C.W. munitions was reduced -if not entirely destroyed-during Operation Desert Storm and Desert Fox, 13 years of U.N. sanctions and U.N. inspections.”

The Kay report does hold out slight hope that sometime during the next nine months-possibly just in time for next year’s Presidential nominating conventions-the American inspectors may find evidence more convincing than W.M.D.-related program activities, tall tales told by former exiles and trashed computer disks. Now the President would like to give Mr. Kay $600 million to pursue the search, whose results can hardly get worse.

Meanwhile, however, evidence of another sort continues to emerge.

A few weeks ago, an Australian journalist discovered videotaped remarks made by Mr. Powell during a Feb. 24, 2001, press conference in Cairo. He told Egyptian reporters that the international sanctions against Iraq had worked, assuring them that Saddam Hussein had not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. More recently, former British foreign minister Robin Cook revealed excerpts from his diary, which suggest that Prime Minister Tony Blair knew there was no imminent threat from Iraq.

Incompetence or dishonesty are the only plausible explanations, and either demands accountability.

Where Oh Where Are Those W.M.D.?5