Saddam: Pure As the Driven Snow!

That’s the implication of this Associated Press story, which makes the astonishing claim that the recently-released audio tapes of meetings in Saddam Hussein’s office prove that Saddam was sincere in his protestations that he had no WMDs. As written by the AP, Saddam and his henchmen are the heroes of the story, “frustrated” by the U.N.’s irrational conviction that they’re hiding something:

Exasperated, besieged by global pressure, Saddam Hussein and top aides searched for ways in the 1990s to prove to the world they’d given up banned weapons.

“We don’t have anything hidden!” the frustrated Iraqi president interjected at one meeting, transcripts show.

At another, in 1996, Saddam wondered whether U.N. inspectors would “roam Iraq for 50 years” in a pointless hunt for weapons of mass destruction. “When is this going to end?” he asked.

It ended in 2004, when U.S. experts, after an exhaustive investigation, confirmed what the men in those meetings were saying: that Iraq had eliminated its weapons of mass destruction long ago, a finding that discredited the Bush administration’s stated rationale for invading Iraq in 2003 — to locate WMD.

[T]he documents make clear Saddam’s regime had given up banned weapons….

There are several things wrong with this expansive interpretation of the audio tapes. First, only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of hours of tapes that were collected have yet been released. We have no way of knowing what may be in the remaining 90+ percent, so it is premature, to say the least, to draw conclusions about what the tapes prove.

Second, the transcripts released so far date no later than the mid-1990s. It is perfectly clear that there were periods of time when Iraq had stockpiles of WMDs. It is highly probable that there were also periods of time when it did not. The fact (if it is a fact) that there were none in the mid-1990s says very little, if anything, about whether Iraq had WMDs in 2002 and 2003.

Third, while I assume the quotes in the AP article are accurate, the overall picture conveyed by the tapes released to date is nowhere near as clear as the article implies. I’ve spent several hours reading the transcripts, and they are, for the most part, confusing and ambiguous. Often the discussions are incoherent. Much knowledge is assumed by the participants, and references are often unclear. To pull out a couple of sentences and claim they prove that Saddam was innocent after 1991 is misleading at best.

Consider, for example, this exchange from ISGQ-2003-M0004665_TRANS.pdf:

Male 2: The main obstacle is the biological file. How did this issue progress? They themselves [the U.N.] closed the biological file. They closed it before they found out about the complete deal for the materials. … I know our comrades worked very hard after 1991, they worked 26 hours in a 24hour period. They erased everything. So they were concentrating their efforts on the biological issue, and it’s a small program compared to the chemical, missile and nuclear programs. And the Special Committee’s capabilities turned out to be even smaller than our program. Meaning their experts and equipment and capabilities are too small to deal with the Iraqi program in such a short period of time. So they closed it and weren’t talking about it. But when they found out about the materials that we bought, they opened their eyes and…

Male 1 [I think this is Saddam]: But they could find out about these materials fasters than the other things that they discovered, because we bought them from the west…

Male 2: True Sir, but the information that came to the Special Committee didn’t all come at the same time. They get some information, then a little more, and so on and so forth. So it looks like they got the information in the fall of last year. … Right now Sir, this is a meeting of the highest leadership in our country, we did actually produce biological weapons. It’s not a lie to say that we worked in this field. And the materials that came here came for this purpose, not for the medical use like we told the Special Committee. So when there’s proof, you are a man of law, when there’s a case in a court, and there’s proof, it leads to the conclusion.

So the conclusion that the Special Committee came to is correct, it’s not a lie. The conclusion said that you imported a large quantity of materials that are used for medical purposes, and at the same time they are raw materials to produce biological weapons. You said it’s for medical purposes, using it for medical purposes only requires kilograms not tons. Meaning that the Ministry of Health can use 200 kilograms the entire year for examinations, but it doesn’t use 37 tons.

We tried to tell them about mistakes that could happen, and how Health Ministers… They see two issues sir, they see some very efficient and accurate actions from us, and they see some mistakes. But when we exaggerate the mistake, they’ll say: you guys are efficient and accurate, know exactly how to work a machine, you were able to establish this big military program with little resources, nobody helped you, but you want us to believe that buying 37 tons was by mistake? So the biological issue…

The next nine minutes of the tape are blank.

So don’t shed too many tears, over poor, “frustrated,” “exasperated” Saddam Hussein.


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