Crying Wolf?

Secrets and the search for weapons of mass destruction


Twenty-five thousand liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve agent, and upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents were supposed to be part of Saddam Hussein's arsenal of terror. So said President George Bush in his 2003 State of the Union message. Bush also cited secret intelligence suggesting that Hussein's regime had constructed mobile biological weapons labs and was still trying to develop nuclear weapons. Bush persuaded many, including me, that war must be waged against Iraq because Hussein could some day provide these weapons to terrorists for an attack on the United States.

The United States Central Command declared at the beginning of the war that the discovery of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) was, after the overthrow of Hussein, the second highest priority of the campaign. A month later, the Centcom has all but declared victory in Iraq, but no solid evidence for stockpiles of WMDs has yet been uncovered.

Of course, there remains intriguing evidence that Iraq did maintain some type of biological and chemical weapons programs. Consider the evasive radio exchanges between Iraqi military commanders cited by Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations. Or the discovery of thousands of chemical weapons suits left behind by fleeing Iraqi soldiers. Even Hussein's military leaders would know that the U.S. would not use chemical or biological weapons, so the likely reason for Iraqi troops to have such suits is to protect themselves against their own weapons. Finally, unless one thinks it is an elaborate hoax, the U.S. military forced its troops to carry chembio protective suits and is still putting considerable effort into searching for hidden WMDs.

Opponents of U.S. policy have already suggested that the U.S. government lied about Iraqi WMDs. Meanwhile assorted conspiracy theorists think that the U.S. will post facto fabricate evidence of WMDs in order to justify the war.

If no WMDs are found, the international embarrassment will be great, though mitigated by mobs of liberated Iraqis dancing in the streets of Baghdad. Setting aside accusations of lying and fabricating evidence, the failure to find WMDs would lend itself to two hardly more benign possible explanations: First, that our intelligence apparatus—the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Defense Intelligence Agency—is providing our leaders with the information that our spies believe the leaders want to hear or, second, that our spies are incompetent. Either is a menace to our free system of government.

Intelligence estimates need to be independent of political pressures. Spymasters who slant ambiguous information to fit what they think our political leaders want to hear serve neither our leaders nor our nation.

Spymasters also need, at least most of the time, to ferret out the truth. It might be that despite an annual expenditure estimated to exceed $30 billion, our spy agencies are merely incompetent. In both cases, the only remedy is a major housecleaning of the "intelligence community" that should include a substantial streamlining and downsizing.

No doubt, protecting the American people does occasionally require secrecy, but expanding the scope of secret activities makes it difficult for the public, the press, or even Congress to know whether or not the agencies are performing effectively and within the confines of our constitutional rights. The Bush administration has made this oversight task even more difficult by allowing agencies to classify more and more information as top secret and by restricting Freedom of Information Act inquiries.

For example, the Bush administration issued Executive Order 13292 on March 25, 2003, which greatly enhanced the ability of officials to classify information and to prevent or delay declassification. One telling line struck out from the previous Clinton administration executive order on classification notes that positive changes in the world "provide a greater opportunity to emphasize our commitment to open Government." The earlier order, in a phrase that was also struck out in the new executive order, had declared, "If there is significant doubt about the need to classify information, it shall not be classified." The new rule is, when in doubt stamp SECRET on it.

Perhaps significant caches of WMDs will turn up as coalition forces gain more control over Iraq, but that will not vindicate our government's growing secretiveness.

Six years ago, former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) headed the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, which warned, "Excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when, as a result, policymakers are not fully informed, government is not held accountable for its actions, and the public cannot engage in informed debate." That was true before the atrocities of 9/11 and it's just as true today. If we cannot remain an open society, we cannot remain a free society.