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The President’s Credibility, and the Post’s

This morning’s Washington Post includes an article by Glenn Kessler, titled “Arms Issue Seen as Hurting U.S. Credibility Abroad.” Kessler’s theme is announced in his the opening sentence: “The Bush administration’s inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — after public statements declaring an imminent threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein — has begun to harm the credibility abroad of the United States and of American intelligence, according to foreign policy experts in both parties.” Regular readers of this and many other blogs need no reminder that the President said no such thing; on the contrary, a central point of his 2003 State of the Union address was the need to act, on occasion, in the absence of an imminent threat.
But Kessler’s misrepresentations don’t stop there. This is how he quotes last year’s State of the Union speech:
“In last year’s State of the Union address, President Bush used stark imagery to make the case that military action was necessary. Among other claims, Bush said that Hussein had enough anthrax to ‘kill several million people,’ enough botulinum toxin to ‘subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure’ and enough chemical agents to ‘kill untold thousands.’
Last year’s speech is available at the White House site, and Kessler presumably consulted it to get the quotes in the above paragraph. How odd, then, that he didn’t quote the President correctly. Here are the complete paragraphs from which the above phrases were drawn:
The United Nations concluded in 1999 that Saddam Hussein had biological weapons sufficient to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax — enough doses to kill several million people. He hasn’t accounted for that material. He’s given no evidence that he has destroyed it.
The United Nations concluded that Saddam Hussein had materials sufficient to produce more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin — enough to subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure. He hadn’t accounted for that material. He’s given no evidence that he has destroyed it.
“Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent. In such quantities, these chemical agents could also kill untold thousands. He’s not accounted for these materials. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them.”
What President Bush said was true. The 1999 UNSCOM report sets out the historical context of the U.N.’s effort to verify Iraq’s compliance with various U.N. resolutions:
“Iraq’s offensive BW [biological weapons] programme was among the most secretive of its programmes of weapons of mass destruction. Its existence was not acknowledged until July 1995. During the period from 1991 to 1995 Iraq categorically denied it had a biological weapons programme and it took active steps to conceal the programme from the Special Commission. These included fraudulent statements, false and forged documents, misrepresentation of the roles of people and facilities and other specific acts of deception….In 1995, when Iraq was confronted with evidence collected by the Commission of imports of bacterial growth media in quantities that had no civilian utility within Iraq’s limited biotechnology industry, it eventually, on 1 July 1995, acknowledged that it used this growth media to produce two BW agents in bulk, botulinum toxin and Bacillus anthracis spores, between 1988 and 1991. It was not, until August of 1995, however, that Iraq acknowledged that it had weaponized BW agents….Since July 1995, the Commission has conducted 35 biological inspections directly or indirectly related to investigations of Iraq’s proscribed BW programme….This considerable effort has been negated by Iraq’s intransigence and failure to provide cooperation concerning its biological weapons since January 1996.”
Paragraph 105 of the UNSCOM report sets out the amounts of various materials needed to produce biological weapons which remained unaccounted for. It states that 460 kg of casein, known to have been possessed by Iraq, were unaccounted for, “Sufficient for the production of 1200 litres of concentrated botulinum toxin.” It says further that at least 520 kg of yeast extract were unaccounted for: “This minimum estimate is uncertain and is likely to be much higher. It is based on a liberal assessment of the contents of many opened and irregularly marked containers. However this minimum figure is sufficient to produce 26000 litres of Bacillus anthracis spores or over 3 times the amount declared by Iraq.”
UNSCOM concluded that “Throughout the investigation of the programme there has been a systematic and comprehensive attempt by Iraq to conceal the programme and deceive the Commission….In the Commission’s view, Iraq has not complied with requirements of the relevant Security Council resolutions on the disclosure of its BW programme.”
So what President Bush said in his State of the Union address was a precisely accurate summary of UNSCOM’s 1999 report as it related to those pathogens. What he said about the American intelligence community’s assessment of Iraq’s ability to produce sarin, mustard gas and VX, as reflected in the National Intelligence Estimate, was accurate as well.
So, regardless of whether chemical or biological weapons are found in Iraq or not, what President Bush said in last year’s State of the Union was correct: Iraq possessed materials from which considerable quantities of those weapons could be produced, and it never accounted for the whereabouts of those materials. President Bush’s conclusion is hard to argue with: “Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.”
Does the Post think that anything we have learned since the fall of Saddam’s regime should cause us to question that judgment?
UPDATE: In the context of the “Bush lied” hysteria that has swept the Democratic Party, it is interesting to compare President Bush’s statements in his 2003 State of the Union speech with those of Wesley Clark in his September 2002 testimony before a House committee:
“He does retain his chemical and biological capabilities to some extent and he is, as far as we know, actively pursuing nuclear capabilities, though he doesn’t have nuclear warheads yet….It’s possible that Saddam Hussein may use biological weapons….Yes, he has chemical and biological weapons. He’s had those for a long time….We need to be ready because if suddenly Saddam Hussein’s government collapses and we don’t have everything ready to go, we’re going to have chaos in that region. We may not get control of all the weapons of mass destruction.”
Far from having hyped the intelligence, it was President Bush, not Wesley Clark, whose description of Saddam’s weapons capability was sober, nuanced, and strictly accurate.

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