On February 24, Newsweek broke what may be the biggest story of the Iraq crisis. In a revelation that “raises questions about whether the WMD [weapons of mass destruction] stockpiles attributed to Iraq still exist,” the magazine’s issue dated March 3 reported that the Iraqi weapons chief who defected from the regime in 1995 told U.N. inspectors that Iraq had destroyed its entire stockpile of chemical and biological weapons and banned missiles, as Iraq claims.
Until now, Gen. Hussein Kamel, who was killed shortly after returning to Iraq in 1996, was best known for his role in exposing Iraq’s deceptions about how far its pre-Gulf War biological weapons programs had advanced. But Newsweek‘s John Barry– who has covered Iraqi weapons inspections for more than a decade– obtained the transcript of Kamel’s 1995 debriefing by officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the U.N. inspections team known as UNSCOM.
Inspectors were told “that after the Gulf War, Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them,” Barry wrote. All that remained were “hidden blueprints, computer disks, microfiches” and production molds. The weapons were destroyed secretly, in order to hide their existence from inspectors, in the hopes of someday resuming production after inspections had finished. The CIA and MI6 were told the same story, Barry 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” in order to “bluff Saddam into disclosing still more.”
CIA spokesperson Bill Harlow angrily denied the Newsweek report. “It is incorrect, bogus, wrong, untrue,” Harlow told Reuters (2/24/03) the day the report appeared.
But on Wednesday (2/26/03), a complete copy of the Kamel transcript– an internal UNSCOM/IAEA document stamped “sensitive”–was obtained by Glen Rangwala, the Cambridge University analyst who in early February revealed that Tony Blair’s “intelligence dossier” was plagiarized from a student thesis. This transcript is posted here (pdf) at the FAIR website.
In the transcript (p. 13), Kamel says bluntly: “All weapons–biological, chemical, missile, nuclear, were destroyed.”
Who is Hussein Kamel?
Kamel is no obscure defector. A son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, his departure from Iraq carrying crates of secret documents on Iraq’s past weapons programs was a major turning point in the inspections saga. In 1999, in a letter to the U.N. Security Council (1/25/99), UNSCOM reported that its entire eight years of disarmament work “must be divided into two parts, separated by the events following the departure from Iraq, in August 1995, of Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel.”
Kamel’s defection has been cited repeatedly by George W. Bush and leading administration officials as evidence that 1) Iraq has not disarmed; 2) inspections cannot disarm it; and 3) defectors such as Kamel are the most reliable source of information on Iraq’s weapons.
- Bush 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’s February 5 presentation to the U.N. Security Council claimed: “It took years for Iraq to finally admit that it had produced four tons of the deadly nerve agent, VX. 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.”
- In a speech last August (8/27/02), Vice President Dick Cheney said 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 Adviser Stephen Hadley recently 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 quotes from Bush and Powell cited above refer to anthrax and VX produced by Iraq before the 1991 Gulf War. The administration has cited various quantities of chemical and biological weapons on many other occasions–weapons that Iraq produced but which remain unaccounted for. All of these claims refer to weapons produced before 1991.
But according to Kamel’s transcript, Iraq destroyed all of these weapons in 1991.
According to Newsweek, Kamel told the same story to CIA analysts in August 1995. If that is true, all of these U.S. officials have had access to Kamel’s statements that the weapons were destroyed. Their repeated citations of his testimony– without revealing that he also said the weapons no longer exist– suggests that the administration might be withholding critical evidence. In particular, it casts doubt on the credibility of Powell’s February 5 presentation to the U.N., which was widely hailed at the time for its persuasiveness. To clear up the issue, journalists might ask the CIA to release the transcripts of its own conversations with Kamel.
Kamel’s disclosures have also been crucial to the arguments made by hawkish commentators on Iraq. The defector has been cited four times on the New York Times op-ed page in the last four months 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.” The release of Kamel’s transcript makes this claim appear grossly at odds with the defector’s actual testimony.
The Kamel story is a bombshell that necessitates a thorough reevaluation of U.S. media reporting on Iraq, much of which has taken for granted that the nation retains supplies of prohibited weapons. (See FAIR Media Advisory, “Iraq’s Hidden Weapons: From Allegation to Fact,” 2/4/03.) Kamel’s testimony is not, of course, proof that Iraq does not have hidden stocks of chemical or biological weapons, but it does suggest a need for much more media skepticism about U.S. allegations than has previously been shown.
Unfortunately, Newsweek chose a curious way to handle its scoop: The magazine placed the story in the 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.” So far, according to a February 27 search of the Nexis database, no major U.S. newspapers or national television news shows have picked up the Newsweek story.