June 24, 2006

That WMD Story II

A few more thoughts are in order on the 500 chemical weapons that Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Congressman Peter Hoekstra, (R-MI-2) announced that we'd found in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.

I checked CNN, Reuters, the BBC, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and MSNBC this morning, and from what I can tell none of them are running any stories about it. It's been moved to the status of "old news".

When they did cover it, they dismissed it as "no news". A Washington Post story last week which declarered that "intelligence officials reaffirmed that the shells were old and were not the suspected weapons of mass destruction sought in Iraq after the 2003 invasion."

An AP story posted on Yahoo yesterday also downplayed the announcement:

Intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitive nature, said the weapons were produced before the 1991 Gulf War and there is no evidence to date of chemical munitions manufactured since then. They said an assessment of the weapons concluded they are so degraded that they couldn't now be used as designed.

They probably would have been intended for chemical attacks during the
Iran-Iraq War, said David Kay, who headed the U.S. weapons-hunting team in Iraq from 2003 until early 2004.

He said experts on Iraq's chemical weapons are in "almost 100 percent agreement" that sarin nerve agent produced from the 1980s would no longer be dangerous.

"It is less toxic than most things that Americans have under their kitchen sink at this point," Kay said.

And any of Iraq's 1980s-era mustard would produce burns, but it is unlikely to be lethal, Kay said.

Well, maybe. David Kay certainly is an expert. But Jim Geraghty asks the obvious question: "Okay, if it's so harmless, why don't you open the canister?"

Funny, but I suspect that those who so casually dismiss the weapons we found as harmless would find some excuse to be out of the room when the canister was opened.

Toxicity Time

So how long does the stuff last? For how long is it lethel?

Here's a letter from two United Nations weapons inspectors to the President of the Security Council from 1999 (hat tip Jim Gheraghty) . Money quote

550 Artillery shells filled with Mustard 33. Iraq declared that 550 shells filled with mustard had been "lost" shortly after the Gulf War. To date, no evidence of the missing munitions has been found. Iraq claimed that the chemical warfare agents filled into these weapons would be degraded a long time ago and, therefore, there would be no need for their accounting. However, a dozen mustard-filled shells were recovered at a former CW storage facility in the period 1997-1998. The chemical sampling of these munitions, in April 1998, revealed that the mustard was still of the highest quality. After seven years, the purity of mustard ranged between 94 and 97%. Thus, Iraq has to account for these munitions which would be ready for combat use. The resolution of this specific issue would also increase confidence in accepting Iraq’s other declarations on losses of chemical weapons which it has not been possible to verify.

At 94% purity I'm not going to be in that room when the canister is opened, I'll tell you that much.

While searching myself, I found this story from 2001:

VIMY, France - Some 13,000 villagers were hastily evacuated Friday in northern France where explosives and lethal chemical weapons stockpiled in a weapons dump from World War I were suddenly found to be dangerous.

"There's a real and serious risk of a leak causing toxic gas to escape," said Remy Pautrat, the chief local government officer: "The gases ... are lethal."
...

The dump contains 173 tonnes of munitions, among them some 16,000 British, German and French shells, nearly all containing highly toxic mustard gas or phosgene, the two chemicals most widely used in the war, local officials said.

So the French take old chemical weapons seriously, and they ought to know, because almost all of the World War I battles in which it was used was in their country. They've been finding stockpiles of it every since.

Moving the Goalposts

For the past three years we've endured critics say that "there were no weapons of mass desctruction in Iraq".

Now it's going to be "there weren't that many, and they were old and probably not in a condition to be lethel."

But how many is "not many"? Today we know about 500 shells. Jim Geraghty on NRO asks if 500 shells isn't enough for the critics, what amount is enough?

500 shells? Because that's what we're learning today. 700 shells? 1000?

How many of these shells are required before a war opponent rethinks the conclusion that Iraq posed no threat? (Recall that about 15 were used in the massacre of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988.)

How many have to be found before the talking point "there were no WMDs in Iraq" gets retired? (I know, never. That will be repeated, and repeated, no matter how many shells get found.)

How much has to be found before a war opponent will say, "Okay, this clearly was a potential threat to the United States and its allies, and we did have to take some action"? I can see how some would say that 500 shells isn't enough. But some amount is enough, and I'd like the anti-war folks to give us a sense of how much is enough by their criteria. If they say that no amount of WMDs could justify the invasion, then we know where they stand.

Threat Analysis

Chemical weapons may be used in one of maybe three circumstances, by a regular military force on the battlefield, by insurgents against a regular military force, and by terrorists against civilian populations.

On the Battlefield

Now that Saddam Hussein's regime is no more, we do not have to worry much about our forces being exposed to chemical attack from other major army units. Even if we had to move against Syria, who has many such weapons, it is difficult to imagine them using them.

I don't have the links to prove it, but as I recall reading, World War I battlefield experience shows that once defenders know that an agressor will use chem/gas, they suit up and casualties are reduced to near 0. However, these suits also reduce effectiveness to a large degree. So, if American troops faced even probable attack by even possibly active chemical agents, whether from terrorists or regular army units, they would probably be forced to suit up. Imagine if our commanders said "oh the stuff is old and won't work", and then one soldier died? Or claimed later that exposure caused his cancer/headaches/etc? You know the result. So, ever-safety consious US commanders would be forced to order troops to suit up if faced with probable attack by even possibly active chem/gas agents. Thus our effectiveness is reduced, which evens the odds somewhat.

Use By Terrorists

Let's remind ourselves of something fundamental; that the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize.

Yes, this sounds obvious, but those who casually dismiss the weapons that we have found need to consider the implications if the terrorists find and bring any of this stuff to a western nation and attempt to release it. Why this has not happened yet I do not know, but it would undoubtably sow panic if it did. Attempts to reassure the public that it was old and " less toxic than most things that Americans have under their kitchen sink" would most likely bring angry responses.

We live in a day when people fret over sacarrine and aspartame in soft drinks, imagine the reaction to news that terrorists had released mustard or sarin.

Unpleasant, but they are things to think about.

Posted by Tom at 8:00 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 23, 2006

That WMD Story

Two days ago Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Congressman Peter Hoekstra, (R-MI-2) announced that since the start of OIF three years ago US and Coalition forces have found not-insignificant amounts of chemical weapons in Iraq. Prior to their announcement the only information available to the public were public news stories in 2004 that two old artillery shells had been found.

It is important to note, I think, that only a small part of a much larger document was declassified.

Santorum and Hoeksrta's announcement told of 500 weapons, mainly artillery shells, filled with either mustard gas or the sarin nerve agent. The weapons were produced prior to the 1991 Gulf War, and are in a "degraded" state, so it is not clear if they would work if used if, say, fired from an artillery piece. Neither is it clear how much of the gas or nerve agents remain in "useable" form.

What Does It Mean?

In no particular order, here are some of my thoughts on the matter.

First, this is not the "holy grail" of WMD. Let's face it; when we invaded in March of 2003 we expected to find a lot more, including stuff made after 1991. Those of us who supported OIF and continue to do so should not overemphasize this find.

Further, it does not necessarily prove that Saddam hid WMD. I saw a story yesterday whereby some US chemical weapons were found in a depot in Maryland that the US Army had forgotten about or lost track of. I don't have details handy, and later today or this weekend will try and find the link. The Iraqis produced so much of this stuff that they could have lost track of some of it.

But it also doesn't mean that the 500 shells is all we'll find. If nothing else has become clear about Saddam's Iraq, it is that he armed that country to the teeth. We have found warehouse upon warehouse with small arms, ammunition, mortars and mortar shells, RPGs, and raw explosives piled to the ceiling. They also hid a lot of it underground, even going so far as to bury fighter jets themselves.

Further, I recall reading (can't find the link) that the Iraqis were not good about putting special marks on their WMD shells, so that when mixed in with high-explosive types they were indistinguishable. The point is that the 500 shells may just be the tip of the iceberg.

It is also possible that Saddam did keep some WMD "just in case." To this day we don't know what happened to much of it. Tim Robbins, writing on NRO's The Corner Blog, noted that the Blix report stated that

"The [Iraqi weapons report] document indicates that 13,000 chemical bombs were dropped by the Iraqi air force between 1983 and 1998, while Iraq has declared that 19,500 bombs were consumed during this period. Thus, there is a discrepancy of 6,500 bombs. The amount of chemical agent in these bombs would be in the order of about 1,000 tons. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we must assume that these quantities are now unaccounted for."

Under the terms of the 1991 cease-fire, and subsequent Security Council resolutions, Saddam was required to provide proof that he destroyed all of his WMD. He never did so. What happened to the 6,500 weapons cited above is a mystery to this day. Therefore, while it is possible that the Iraqis simply misplaced some weapons, the legal onus was on them to account for it.

The entire story also illustrates the Bush Administation's failure to make it's case about Iraq. Why it took Senator Santorum and Represenative Hoekstra to make this public is frustrating to those of us who support OIF. No these weapons are not all of what we expected to find. But neither are they insignificant. Between this and the Administration's failure to tell the story of Saddam's links to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, they have done a terrible job at justifying the invasion.

It isn't clear whether the insurgent terrorists know about or have found any of Saddam's WMD too, but of course they could sell it on the black market, or secret it into a Western country. It doesnt matter if the stuff is so degraded that if used it doesn't have much or any effect, because the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize. And no doubt if there are any incidents in which these weapons make it to a Western nation nad are used, we will all freak out for a long period of time.

More later, but for now see Richard Fernandez' post at The Belmont Club. Glenn Reynolds also has a good round-up at Instupundit.

Posted by Tom at 8:25 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack