Not a few of the emails I get nowadays are from aggrieved but expectant 'wingers who say something like this: Aren't you gonna feel stupid for going on about the uranium documents when the president finds the VX nerve gas?
Well, in lieu of answering this question a gazillion times individually, let me try to answer it here ...
No, not really.
Before and during the war, I was pretty sure Saddam had at least some chemical weapons. I also figured he probably had some low-level biological weapons. I never thought he had a serious nuclear weapons program. And my confidence in that last assessment increased greatly after the IAEA got back into the country late last year (the rule of thumb here is that a credible nuclear weapons program is much, much more difficult to conceal than a chemical or biological weapons program.)
What began to change my mind, not surprisingly, was our inability thus far to find them. In particular, it was our inability to find them when we had so many regime leaders and scientists in custody.
So, if we find them, we find them.
But nerve gas was never a serious threat to the United States or our allies -- not in the US, not in the region. Nuclear weapons, big-time biological weapons, a serious long-range missile program -- these would have been a very big deal. And the difference between these two orders of WMD -- a phrase that confuses more than it clarifies -- bears directly on whether we needed to go to war when we did, and whether the nature of the threat merited our turning the world upside down to get into the country last spring.
Since I thought he had them before, I'm not wedded now to the idea that he didn't have them. It just seems increasingly unlikely -- at least that he had any sort of robust and on-going effort.
The bigger issue though is the utter lack of connection between the two issues.
If the White House knowingly deceived the American public about one of its key pieces of 'evidence' that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, it's hard for me to see how that becomes less of a big deal because we find some nerve gas. I'd say it's still a pretty big deal, especially when you consider that it's just the most evident and egregious example of a much broader pattern of exaggeration, manipulation and in some cases outright deception.
It's also a big deal since it was precisely because some chemical weapons weren't that threatening that you'd decide to scam the public about the nuclear stuff.
Now, with that out of the way, let's move to a different point -- one that makes me at least a little less confident about the assumption that we would have found the chemicals or biologicals by now because we've got so many people in custody.
You've no doubt heard the story that CNN ran Wednesday about the Iraqi nuclear scientist who had the uranium enrichment hardware buried under a rose bush in his backyard. (In case you've been buried under a rose bush for the last few days, you can read the story here.)
Now, when I read CNN's story, what jumped out at me was the name David Albright. CNN was quoting Albright about what the scientist's story was, why he'd come forward, what kind of stuff he had, and so forth. And it made me wonder, how'd he know this stuff?
Albright is one of the legion of former UN Iraqi weapons inspectors from back in the 1990s. He does a fair amount of TV. And, if my memory serves me right, he was -- as the former inspectors go -- fairly dovish on whether we should go to war this time against Saddam. So that made me think even more, why were they giving Albright a crack at him?
Well, on Friday CNN ran another story which tells the tale -- one which they should have run with the original one.
It turns out that Obeidi was trying to give up the goods almost from the moment US troops stormed into Baghdad. But our operation was so poorly run that we ended up making the guy into some sort of friggin' nuclear Diogenes, practically wandering the streets trying to find one competent person to turn himself in to.
According to the CNN story, Obeidi wanted to cooperate from day one, but was afraid to talk to US soldiers. That's understandable -- on both sides. Question one is why no one else was there beside soldiers (who are going to be, in their nature, intimidating and not professional weapons inspectors) for him to talk to. Perhaps they were there. But it doesn't seem like he knew where to find them.
(Think it might have been a good idea to have brought the IAEA folks back in to help out? Yeah, me too.)
So Obeidi remembered Albright from back in the day and "approached international journalists at random outside the well-known Palestine Hotel in the Iraqi capital until he was able to convince one to contact" him.
Finally someone got him in touch with Albright. And Albright started making calls in Washington. But apparently he had a helluva time getting anyone to listen.
"I have never seen anything like it," he told CNN, "Obeidi is sending all sorts of signals, and they just missed it completely. They were going to walk away from him."
Finally, he got the Agency to take Obeidi seriously and Obeidi started talking. He said he just wanted assurances that he and his family would be protected. After he got those assurances, he handed over the stuff on June 1st.
Then, two days later, the US Army showed up at his house, busted his door down and took him into custody.
"They took me outside, and they handcuffed me," he told CNN. "I saw tens of soldiers and tens of tanks and Hummers and helicopters were all around. And then I was taken to the side, and I was put on one of these Hummers ... and they took me to the airport" where the US is incarcerating detainees.
Anyway, that got worked out after a day or so. Centcom now calls the incident "unfortunate." David Kay -- another former inspector and the CIA's new weapons supremo in Iraq -- apparently got things straightened out. According to CNN, he "blamed the mistake on a lack of coordination between the many units operating in the country."
(Boy, I'd say that's a pretty big #$%@#& understatement, wouldn't you?)
At this point you half expect to hear that Obeidi woke up one morning to find he'd been transformed into a giant cockroach. (A little absurdist humor there ...) But actually it gets better.
After Obeidi got out of Army slammer, the CIA started hedging on its promises to get him out of the country. Or at least that's what Obeidi thought.
"First they have promised that they will make all the attempts to safeguard me ... and then what happened they told me that they have looked and they have investigated this matter, and they have discovered that there is more that I can offer, and they are ready to take the news to the media."
At this point, Obeidi apparently started to freak and asked Albright what he should do. Abright told him to go to the media. And this, it would seem, is how CNN got pulled in -- as Obeidi's insurance policy that our folks over in Iraq didn't completely screw-up the situation or end up FedExing him and his nuclear parts to Osama bin Laden off in the wilds of Central Asia.
So CNN went to the CIA and asked what the deal was. When asked, the CIA responded by saying that they were "moving Obeidi to a safer place and asked that the network refrain from airing anything until he and his family were out of Iraq."
Now, I can certainly see why CNN held off. But, contrary to how the story was played on Wednesday, you get the sense that the reason the CIA asked CNN not to move on the story was that they needed a few days to figure out what the hell they were doing and get their act together.
"CNN later interviewed Obeidi under an agreement not to reveal his location," the report says toward the end. "Obeidi in turn had consented with his handlers not to reveal much about his removal from Iraq or future plans."
Now, I have to tell you that I'm not sure quite what to make of this. I guess I'm not going too far out on a limb to say that this doesn't inspire a huge amount of confidence -- not least of which in the planning that went in to how we were going to deal with the WMD issues once we got there. At the same time, if something like this happened, maybe there are people out there dying -- hopefully not literally -- to tell their stories but just can't get anyone to listen to them.
I still think that our failure to find anything after ninety days most likely means that the sort of extensive chemical and biological weapons programs we thought were there probably weren't. But that doesn't mean stuff wasn't put on ice, literally or figuratively. When you hear stories like Obeidi's, who knows?