The Times Report on Chemical Weapons In Iraq: It’s No Blockbuster

The front page of today’s New York Times is dominated by a long article on chemical weapons in Iraq. It appears to be the result of a major investigation; bylined by C.J. Chivers, it credits six additional reporters and researchers as well as eight “producers.” The gist of the article is that there were far more chemical weapons in Iraq than were ever publicly reported, and between 2004 and 2011 there were “at least six” instances where American troops were exposed to chemical agents including mustard and sarin. The Times criticizes the military for understating the chemical weapons problem, and in some instances, for the medical treatment received by servicemen.

Last night, conservatives were all over Twitter, asserting that the Times’s investigation vindicates President Bush’s position on Iraq’s WMDs. The article itself attempts to pre-empt any such inference:

The United States had gone to war declaring it must destroy an active weapons of mass destruction program. Instead, American troops gradually found and ultimately suffered from the remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West. …

The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Bush insisted that Mr. Hussein was hiding an active weapons of mass destruction program, in defiance of international will and at the world’s risk.

Actually, the persistence of “old” chemical and/or biological agents in Iraq was an important part of the Bush administration’s case for war. The United Nations inspections, which Saddam endlessly and successfully frustrated, were largely intended to account for Iraq’s formerly-massive stocks of chemical and biological weapons, and verify Iraq’s claim to have destroyed them all. Pretty much everyone believed that Saddam was lying, and that Iraq had retained significant quantities of such materials. Certainly, there was no persuasive proof to the contrary, which was really the salient point. In his State of the Union speech in January 2003, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, President Bush said:

The United Nations concluded in 1999 that Saddam Hussein had biological weapons materials sufficient to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax; enough doses to kill several million people. He hasn’t accounted for that material. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed it.

That was true.

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 hasn’t accounted for that material. He’s given no evidence that he has destroyed it.

That was also true.

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.

The New York Times has now accounted for a small portion of the sarin and mustard that President Bush referred to.

The Times’s theory that “old” chemical weapons are somehow irrelevant to the hazards posed by Saddam’s regime is simply wrong. At the same time, the paper’s discovery that there were more chemical agents than previously acknowledged doesn’t materially change the calculus as to the wisdom of overthrowing Saddam. Whether or not Saddam had vast stocks of usable chemical and biological weapons as of 2003–he didn’t–is relevant, but hardly dispositive. We know that Saddam had every intention of renewing his WMD programs, including his nuclear program, as soon as the U.N.’s sanctions dissolved, and by 2003, that was about to happen. Given Saddam’s history of committing mass murder with WMDs, repeatedly, it would have been foolish to trust his assurances.

Beyond that, the paper’s revelation that the Pentagon downplayed both the quantity of chemical weapons left in Iraq and their potential for injury is not the scoop the Times imagines it to be. In the first place, it is hardly surprising that six incidents (and zero fatalities) over the span of eight years, in the context of everything else going on in Iraq at that time, were not at the top of the Army’s priorities. Moreover, to the extent that anyone may have made a conscious decision to under-report the leftover chemical weapons, such a decision made sense. It would have been foolish for the military to broadcast to the world (i.e., to our enemies in Iraq) that the place was crawling with chemical agents and, by the way, they are still a potent means of injuring or killing U.S. troops.

As for the quality of the medical care rendered to the seventeen servicemen who were exposed to mustard or nerve gas, I can’t judge it from the Times’s report. However, given what we now know about conditions at the VA, it would not be shocking if the care were less than first-rate. Again, however, in the context of the broader VA scandal, this isn’t much of a revelation.

If there is a real news hook to the Times story, it lies in the fact that ISIS now controls many of the areas where chemical weapons have been found. That is a legitimate concern, but the Times’s own reporting downplays any serious potential to use these “old” chemical agents as weapons. On the list of reasons to be worried about ISIS, leftover chemicals in Iraq rank pretty low.

When a news organization invests substantial resources in an investigation that goes on over a period of months, as the Times obviously did here, it creates pressure to over-sell the significance of the results. I think that happened in this case. The paper’s findings–there were quite a few more chemical weapons in Iraq than previously reported, and a modest number of servicemen, 17, were injured by them–are interesting and certainly worth documenting, but they hardly constitute a bombshell.