Before the war, media overlooked a key story
If the media seem surprised by the U.S. military’s failure, as of this writing, to find any hidden chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, maybe it’s because they virtually ignored a critical story that was lost in a flood of stories about the dangers of a chemically armed Saddam Hussein. Weeks before the war began (3/3/03), Newsweek‘s John Barry published an account of a secret United Nations transcript recording the 1995 interview between U.N. weapons inspectors and Iraq’s highest-ranking defector, former weapons chief Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel.
For years, the story of Kamel’s defection had been used by reporters, pundits and high-ranking U.S. foreign policymakers to prove that Iraq amassed vast stockpiles of dangerous weapons. But in the transcript obtained by Newsweek, Kamel added a crucial qualifier: “All weapons–biological, chemical, missile, nuclear, were destroyed.”
In the Byzantine world of Iraqi politics, of course, there’s no guarantee that there weren’t weapons programs that even Kamel, the head of Iraq’s unconventional weapons project, didn’t know about–or that even after he defected, he was telling all he knew.
But Kamel was no obscure defector. A son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, his 1995 departure from Iraq carrying crate-loads of secret documents on Iraq’s past weapons programs was a major turning point in the inspections saga. The U.N. disarmament group that inspected Iraq through most of the 1990’s asserted that its entire eight-year history of weapons searches “must be divided into two parts, separated by the events following the departure from Iraq, in August 1995, of Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel” (UNSCOM report to the Security Council, 1/25/99).
At the time, Kamel’s defection made front-page news for his disclosure of information about the full extent of Iraq’s pre-Gulf War biological weapons and VX nerve gas programs. His defection proved that Iraq had been lying about its past programs, and it panicked the regime into handing over millions of documents to the weapons inspectors. In Washington officialdom, Kamel’s story quickly became a talking point in the Clinton administration’s efforts to prove that Saddam Hussein’s government was still hiding massive amounts of banned weaponry. “Following the defection of his son-in- law, [Saddam Hussein] admitted they had produced more than 2,100 gallons of anthrax,” Defense Secretary William Cohen announced at a February 1998 town-hall meeting on Iraq. He noted: “If you were to take a five-pound bag of anthrax, properly dispersed, it would kill half the population of Columbus, Ohio.”
By the time the Bush administration began arguing for war, Kamel’s story had become legend. Newsweek‘s story exploded the myth. Kamel did admit that Iraq once had a biological weapons program, despite the regime’s denials. But according to Newsweek, he also said that “after the Gulf War, Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them.” All that remained were “hidden blueprints, computer disks, microfiches” and production molds.
The weapons were eliminated secretly in the summer of 1991, he said, in order to hide their existence from inspectors, and in hopes of someday resuming production after inspections had finished. The CIA and MI6 were told the same story, Newsweek reported, and “a military aide who defected with Kamel… backed Kamel’s assertions about the destruction of WMD stocks.”
But these statements were “hushed up by the U.N. inspectors,” Barry reported, in order to “bluff Saddam into disclosing still more.”
When Newsweek‘s story appeared, during the height of the U.N. Security Council debate over weapons inspections, CIA spokesperson Bill Harlow angrily denied it. “It is incorrect, bogus, wrong, untrue,” he told Reuters (2/24/03). But two days later (2/26/03), a complete copy of the Kamel transcript–an internal UNSCOM/IAEA document stamped “sensitive”–was obtained by Glen Rangwala of Cambridge University and posted to the Internet.
It’s no wonder the CIA at first tried to deny the Newsweek story. By the time it was published, virtually every major foreign-policy official in the administration had publicly cited Kamel’s testimony to argue not only that Saddam was harboring a fearsome arsenal, but that inspections could never work: Only defectors such as Kamel, the administration argued, can uncover Iraq’s hidden weapons. Officials often used Kamel to cite specific quantities of weapons, like anthrax and VX, that Iraq produced before 1991, without noting that according to the defector, these quantities had been destroyed.
George W. Bush himself declared in an October 7, 2002 speech: “In 1995, after several years of deceit by the Iraqi regime, the head of Iraq’s military industries defected. It was then that the regime was forced to admit that it had produced more than 30,000 liters of anthrax and other deadly biological agents. The inspectors, however, concluded that Iraq had likely produced two to four times that amount. This is a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for, and capable of killing millions.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell made use of the Kamel story in his widely hailed February 5 presentation to the U.N. Security Council. “It took years for Iraq to finally admit that it had produced four tons of the deadly nerve agent, VX,” Powell said. “A single drop of VX on the skin will kill in minutes. Four tons. The admission only came out after inspectors collected documentation as a result of the defection of Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s late son-in-law.”
Vice President Dick Cheney (8/27/02) warned that inspectors would be unable to find Iraq’s weapons: Kamel’s story “should serve as a reminder to all that we often learned more as the result of defections than we learned from the inspection regime itself.” Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley wrote in the Chicago Tribune (2/16/03) that “because of information provided by Iraqi defector and former head of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs, Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel, the regime had to admit in detail how it cheated on its nuclear non-proliferation commitments.”
The media also treated Kamel as an authority on Iraq’s weapons. In the four months prior to Newsweek‘s story, the defector was cited four times on the New York Times op-ed page in support of claims about Iraq’s weapons programs–never noting his assertions about the elimination of these weapons. In a major Times op-ed calling for war against Iraq (2/21/03), Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution wrote that Kamel and other defectors “reported that outside pressure had not only failed to eradicate the nuclear program, it was bigger and more cleverly spread out and concealed than anyone had imagined it to be.”
Re-killing the messenger
Unfortunately, Newsweek chose a curious way to handle its scoop: The magazine placed the story in its miscellaneous “Periscope” section with a generic headline, “The Defector’s Secrets.” Worse, Newsweek‘s online version added a subhead that seemed almost designed to undercut the importance of the story: “Before his death, a high-ranking defector said Iraq had not abandoned its WMD ambitions.” (Soon after FAIR wrote about the Kamel report, Newsweek‘s website changed the headline to one that better reflected the story.)
That might be one reason why the story was largely ignored. In the U.S. media, it was picked up only in brief articles running deep inside the Washington Post and Boston Globe (both 3/1/03), along with an interview with Barry on CNN (2/28/03).
Also hobbling the story were comments from former chief weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus, who called Kamel “a consummate liar” and said his story was “absurd”: Iraq could not have destroyed all its weapons in 1991, Ekeus said, since the inspectors themselves destroyed large quantities of chemical weapons in 1992-1994.
Yet when Kamel was killed following his 1996 return to Iraq, Ekeus’ spokesperson, Ewen Buchanan, insisted that the defector, far from being a “liar,” had provided “valuable information” to the inspectors (AFP, 2/21/96). And Scott Ritter, who led UNSCOM’s investigation into Kamel’s defection, maintains that Ekeus is confusing two different sets of weapons: those that Iraq declared to inspectors and those it denied having. The first group were indeed destroyed by the U.N. in the early 1990s. It’s the second group of weapons, the undeclared weapons, that Kamel claimed were destroyed secretly by Iraq in 1991. Indeed, Kamel’s 1995 claim about the secret destruction of weapons would have been “absurd” if it had referred to weapons destroyed by the U.N. in the early 1990s, since it was Kamel himself, as head of Iraq’s weapons industries, who had originally handed them over to the very organization that later took his testimony.
By the time war was imminent, in mid-March, the media had forgotten about Hussein Kamel. Conventional wisdom had it that Hans Blix and his team of inspectors had come up empty because they just weren’t up to the job of ferreting out Saddam’s hidden arms. And it would be weeks until U.S. troops were to arrive in Baghdad to begin a frustrating search for the elusive weapons. But quietly, some in the government began echoing Kamel’s message. In the Washington Post (3/16/03), “a senior intelligence analyst said one explanation for the difficulties inspectors have had in locating weapons caches ‘is because there may not be much of a stockpile.'”