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Iraq and WMD: An Absurd Paradox

Paul Monk reflects on Hans Blix’s account of the WMD conundrum.

“Why on earth do people keep saying that it’s easy to be wise after the event? Few enterprises are as difficult and demanding as that (otherwise, the work of the historian would be simplistic and one-dimensional).”

-         Christopher Hitchens (April 2003) [i]

Amid the welter of often heated commentary on Iraq and WMD, the newly published reflections of Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq, stand out for their temperate and reasoned tone. For many, they will put the seal on the belief that Iraq never had WMD and that the whole thing was a put up job by neo-cons in Washington and their Anglo-Australian ‘poodles’. That would, I think, be an error. To understand why, it is necessary to think carefully about Blix’s account of the matter and to juxtapose it with the testimonies of other specialists.

Blix was Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1981 until 1997. He came out of retirement in 2000 to take up the job as Executive Chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), under the auspices of which WMD inspections were recommenced in Iraq, after intense Anglo-American pressure, in late 2002. Rolf Ekeus, former head of UNSCOM, had been favoured by Washington and London to head UNMOVIC, but Iraq and its friends on the Security Council pushed for Blix instead.[ii]

By his own account, throughout 2002, Blix found the Iraqis as resistant to unfettered inspections and as evasive regarding their WMD track record as UNSCOM had found them for the preceding decade. He found their attitude “puzzling”, he writes, given the seriousness of the threat they were facing. His own attitude is itself rather puzzling. The Iraqis were doing nothing other than what they had always done - as the ISG subsequently found. Their December 2002, 12,000 page submission to the UNSC, Blix states was “certainly not…used as the hoped for occasion for a fresh start….”[iii] But why would that surprise anyone familiar with their pattern of behaviour since the 1980s - when they had built a nuclear weapons program right under Blix’s IAEA nose and he had never got a whiff of it?

What he encountered in Washington and London was a presumption that Iraq had WMD, despite the fact that compelling evidence could not be produced. He agreed with Donald Rumsfeld that “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence” and that no-one could reasonably offer a presumption of innocence to the regime of Saddam Hussein. What he was not prepared to do was to presume the guilt of the regime based on its past behaviour.[iv]

As of mid-January 2003, with the clock ticking down to war, Blix writes, “my gut feeling was still that Iraq retained weapons of mass destruction. The early opportunity to declare them, regrettably, had been missed in 12,000 pages. Perhaps more military pressure would do the trick…but how far could the game of chicken go?”[v] How far indeed? Surely the issue was, why should Saddam be indulged at all?

In a meeting with Tony Blair on 17 January, Blix found the British Prime Minister concerned that Iraq would drag the game of inspections out for months, making allied military deployments unsustainable. He was also concerned that North Korea would see this as encouraging evidence that no recalcitrant would be brought to heel. A decision would have to be made by 1 March, Blix was told. He comments that he was struck by how Blair’s “awareness of the horribly brutal, evil nature of the Baghdad regime weighed heavily in his thinking.”[vi]

 Blix was aware throughout February 2003 that there would be war unless Iraq demonstrated unequivocally that it did not have WMD. “The US - and much of the rest of the world - was convinced that Iraq retained substantial quantities of weapons of mass destruction. At UNMOVIC we thought this was entirely plausible but, examining all material with a critical mind, we could not in good conscience say that there was any conclusive evidence.”[vii]

            Saddam Hussein was not in the business of offering unequivocal demonstrations. For seven years he had frustrated UNSCOM. He could see the extent of pacifist sentiment throughout the world and may have been clinging to a belief that Washington would baulk at war under George W. Bush as it so often had under Bill Clinton. Surrounded by sycophants, he would have had his delusions nourished. Yet Blix stuck to his knitting, without taking sides.

      What he found disturbing was that the intelligence provided to him by Washington and London did not lead to any discoveries of prohibited activity. He acknowledged that intelligence agencies will at times feel obliged to offer political leaders a ‘worst case’ scenario and that such leaders will not always read such offerings “with sufficiently critical eyes.” But where was the evidence?

As 1 March approached, he wondered increasingly whether there was “a risk in the current situation that governments convinced - for not implausible reasons - about the existence of elusive weapons in Iraq would identify some on the slightest grounds.”[viii] When he presented his second report to the UNSC on 14 February 2003, Blix had no smoking guns to report. Was this because Saddam truly had nothing to hide? Or was it simply a sign that he was successfully hiding what he had? There was no way, at the time, to be certain.

In the circumstances, Blix preserved a rather admirable detachment. He was not, he declared, prepared to judge the matter on anything other than hard evidence. “Without evidence,” he stated to the Security Council, “confidence cannot arise.” “This remark”, he writes, “was primarily directed to the Iraqis, who had failed to present credible evidence in support of their contention that items unaccounted for had been destroyed or had never existed. It was equally relevant, however, to the US, UK and others who had affirmed that Iraq retained weapons and other prohibited items…”[ix]

On 20 February, Blix spoke again with Tony Blair regarding the uses of ‘intelligence’ in the matter. He told Blair that “personally” he “tended to think that Iraq still concealed weapons of mass destruction, but I needed evidence.” Blair told him that “even the French and German intelligence services were sure there were weapons; the Egyptians, too.” Blix responded that “it would prove paradoxical and absurd if 250,000 troops were to invade Iraq and find very little.”

Blair, he records, “responded that the intelligence was clear that Saddam had reconstituted his weapons of mass destruction program.”[x] Condoleezza Rice took the same line with him a fortnight later. Did the US “know where the weapons of mass destruction were?” he asked her. “No, she said, but interviews after liberation would reveal it. I am sure she was speaking in good faith. I only said it was odd that no tips had been given to us that led us to sites with weapons of mass destruction.”[xi]

The ‘paradoxical and absurd’ denouement that Blix spoke of was what occurred, of course, in the second half of 2003. Yet, in making retrospective judgments, it is important to bear in mind, as he did at the time, that what appears to have been an error of judgement on the part of the intelligence agencies and political leaders of the anti-Saddam coalition was based on twelve years experience of frustration with Saddam and was reinforced by the fact that, in Blix’s own words, even in early March 2003, “There was a US clock ticking fast and Saddam was ignoring it and speaking about inspectors as spies.”[xii]

The paradox was that Saddam had had WMD and had failed to account for great quantities of it. This has never been in serious dispute. The UNSCOM specialists were clear about this, both at the end of 1998, when their work was aborted by Saddam Hussein, and in the lead-up to the war last year. Rolf Ekeus, Charles Duelfer, Richard Spertzel, David Kay, Tim Trevan, Richard Butler, even the erratic Scott Ritter, are all on record in this regard. Yet such WMD were not found by Blix and could not be found by the ISG.

Ritter’s tirades about the alleged lies of the Bush administration[xiii] read strangely, even in retrospect, when one considers what he wrote in 1999. At a minimum, he asserted, Iraq had maintained “the capability to produce, weaponise, store and employ chemical weapons” and had not accounted for hundreds of tons of precursor chemicals used in making the nerve agent VX. It had similarly retained capacities in the areas of biological weapons, ballistic missiles and the ‘intellectual infrastructure’ for nuclear weapon manufacturing.[xiv]

UNSCOM’s Trevan recounted, also in 1999, the years of struggle between UNSCOM, with uncertain Security Council support, and “a master of brinkmanship and a merciless opponent” in Saddam Hussein. “Iraq”, he wrote, “has still not accounted for 20 tons of complex growth media, 200 tons of precursor chemicals for VX production and the full extent of its capabilities to produce long-range missiles…In short, it could have an unknowable number of SCUD-type missiles, with sufficient anthrax and VX to cause immense damage…That should be enough to scare anyone into action. It scares me. What scares me more is that the Security Council seems to have learnt nothing...”[xv]

Writing in January 2003, Spertzel, former head of UNSCOM’s biological weapons inspections, noted that Blix’s UNMOVIC inspections were never going to find a ‘smoking gun’. “What person with any reasoning abilities would really expect to find a smoking gun at sites that Iraq has every reason to believe will be inspected?” he asked.[xvi] Quite. Yet, after the downfall of the regime, the ISG failed to find such a smoking gun at any site it chose to inspect. Therein lies the problem.

“Let there be no doubt, Iraq retained an active biological-weapons program”, Spertzel wrote, in late June last year. “UNSCOM had adequate evidence of such. In 1998, presented with the evidence, the leading biological-weapons experts from the U.S., U.K., Russia, France, Sweden, Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Ukraine, Romania and Canada all agreed with the UNSCOM findings and observations. Incredibly, U.S. and British politicians with little or no knowledge of biological weapons and biological warfare are choosing to believe otherwise”.[xvii]

Yet Blix’s conclusion, looking back, is that “The UN and the world had succeeded [before 1998] in disarming Iraq without knowing it.”[xviii] Those things unaccounted for between 1998 and 2003 had apparently been destroyed by the Iraqis themselves as early as 1991, without records being kept of this destruction and without UNSCOM having been notified. This is the absurd part of the story. Indeed, it is all but unfathomable. Given such sustained efforts by Saddam’s regime to evade compliance with the Security Council’s WMD resolutions, why would it behave in such a fashion?

Blix observes that what was unaccounted for was assumed to still exist. Such an assumption, he declares, was the common denominator in intelligence and policy judgments to the effect that Saddam still had WMD. Given the testimony of both UNSCOM specialists and Iraqi defectors, as well as Iraqi generals in place during the war, this was surely not an unreasonable assumption. Yet it would appear, on ISG evidence, to have been strangely erroneous - unless Blix was missing something.

Failing to see through the assumption that what was unaccounted for must still exist, Blix claims, demonstrated “a deficit of critical thinking”.[xix] Technically, he is correct. “Like most others, we at UNMOVIC certainly suspected that Iraq might still have hidden stocks of chemical and biological weapons”, he writes. “However, we were not asked by the Security Council to submit suspicions or simply to convey testimony from defectors.”[xx] Yet it is surely breathtaking that it should come to this: that Saddam did everything he could to avoid inspections that would show he had no WMD when he had himself long since destroyed them all in secret, without keeping a record of when, where or how.

Saddam’s record surely suggests that we would actually be suffering a critical thinking deficit if we simply halted, baffled, at this conclusion and pointed the finger of blame at our own intelligence agencies and political leaders. Blix bent over backwards to be dispassionate in 2002-03, but it is important to remember that similar qualities in him, when he was head of the IAEA for a decade before the 1991 Gulf War, prevented him from discovering that Saddam had a nuclear weapons program. Yet, according to Blix himself, reporting to the IAEA General Conference in August 1996, he was only months away from having an atomic bomb when, in August 1990, he recklessly launched his invasion of Kuwait, confident that the United States would not intervene to stop him.[xxi]

Now, consider that the ISG did find “the elaborate efforts to which Saddam had gone to destroy evidence, disperse material and confuse and even threaten searchers. Files had been burned, computer hard drives destroyed. People were taking potshots at the team.” It found that, far from having given up his WMD ambitions, Saddam had engaged in an ongoing, organized strategy of deception, while concealing ongoing biological and chemical weapons laboratories and facilities within his clandestine security apparatus.[xxii] In other words, he was in material breach of the Security Council resolutions - to an indeterminate extent.

Does it beggar belief that, if there were actual stockpiles of precursors or weapons, the ISG could not find them in six months? Not unless you assume that that searching was done systematically and effectively, that it was completed and that the WMD stockpiles would not be especially difficult to find. All those assumptions are open to question and have been challenged by well-placed specialists.

Richard Spertzel is one of them.[xxiii] He wrote, in June last year, before the ISG’s first report, in October, “I was asked in February to propose a list of UNSCOM experienced biological inspectors (a so-called A team) that had multiple inspection trips to Iraq. These were to be from the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. In March, after the concept was approved, I was asked to contact those on my list to assure they were willing and able to devote the time. All but one agreed to the deployment. None of the individuals on that list ever made it to Iraq”[xxiv]. In consequence, he argued, the job was being incompetently done.

Douglas Hanson, Chief of Staff in the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology in 2003, is another. “The ISG's search for significant stockpiles of WMD has so far come up empty. It may be that there are no large stockpiles, as Dr. Kay has stated”, he wrote recently. “But from my perspective in the MOST, this lack of a positive finding may also be the result of unfocused and uncoordinated ISG search operations.  It is entirely possible that the much sought-after WMD stockpiles may be literally right under the feet of coalition forces, and until a properly coordinated search effort is completed, no firm conclusions about their presence or absence can be reached. The case remains open”.[xxv]

Hans Blix has publicly disputed President Bush’s claim that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has made the world safer.[xxvi] His predecessor as head of inspections, Rolf Ekeus, thinks differently. “To accept the alternative - letting Saddam Hussein remain in power”, he has declared  “would have been to tolerate a continuing destabilizing arms race in the Gulf, including future nuclearisation of the region, threats to the world’s energy supplies, leakage of WMD technology and expertise to terrorist networks[xxvii], systematic sabotage of efforts to create and sustain a peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the continued terrorizing of the Iraqi people.”[xxviii] Where do you stand? With Blix or Ekeus?


[i] Christopher Hitchens Regime Change, Penguin, 2003, p. 89.

[ii] This was an interesting turn of events, given what had occurred in 1991, when UNSCOM was first set up over the objections of the IAEA and its supporters. Tim Trevan, in his 1999 reflection on the whole matter of UNSCOM’s struggle with Saddam - and with the UN Security Council - wrote: “Certain parts pf the US administration were furious that the IAEA inspectors had, in the course of their inspections in Iraq, failed to notice the huge nuclear weapons programme going on right under their noses, details of which were now available from several high-level Iraqi defectors. These critics further pointed out that it was inconsistent to ask the IAEA both to promote the nuclear industry and to police it. It had not done anything to win over its critics by seemingly refusing to admit that anything was wrong with its record in Iraq. The worry was that it had not learned its lesson. The critics concluded that it could not be trusted with disarming Iraq…” Tim Trevan Saddam’s Secrets: The Hunt for Iraq’s Hidden Weapons, Harper Collins 1999, p. 47.

[iii] Hans Blix Disarming Iraq: The Search For Weapons of Mass Destruction, Bloomsbury, London, 2004, p. 107.

[iv] Ibid. p. 112.

[v] Ibid. p. 116.

[vi] Ibid. p. 130.

[vii] Ibid. pp. 146-7.

[viii] Ibid. p. 157.

[ix] Ibid. p. 177.

[x] Ibid. p. 194.

[xi] Ibid. p. 205.

[xii] Ibid. p. 208.

[xiii] Scott Ritter ‘A Weapons Cache We’ll Never See’, New York Times, 25 August 2003. See his extended argument in Scott Ritter Frontier Justice: Weapons of Mass destruction and the Bushwhacking of America, Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2003, 211 pp.

[xiv] Former UNSCOM Chief Weapons Inspector, Scott Ritter has played an odd and inconsistent role in public debate on this subject since he resigned from UNSCOM in August 1998. In the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s expulsion of UNSCOM in late 1998, however, he catalogued the weapons of mass destruction the Iraqi dictator still had, despite seven years of inspections and numerous UN resolutions.

Chemical Weapons: “The Iraqis maintain, at a minimum, the capability to produce, weaponise, store and employ chemical weapons…Iraq has not accounted for hundreds of tons of precursor chemicals used in manufacturing the VX nerve agent…The entire range of agents available to Iraq prior to the Gulf War may have been retained…”. Biological weapons: “The Iraqis have at least the capability to produce, weaponise, store and employ biological weapons…numerous biological weapons projects known to have existed in Iraq before the Gulf War [were] never declared to UNSCOM…” Ballistic missiles: “…Iraq has been conducting top secret training in support of an operational long-range ballistic missile force…” Nuclear weapons: “…Iraq has retained a considerable nuclear weapon manufacturing production base…the vast majority of its intellectual infrastructure remains in place.” For the full catalogue, see Scott Ritter Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem Once and For All, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999, Appendix, pp. 217-224.

[xv] Tim Trevan Saddam’s Secrets: The Hunt for Iraq’s Hidden Weapons, Harper Collins, London, 1999, p. 374.

[xvi]  Richard Spertzel ‘No Smoking Gun Farce Revealed’, National Review Online, January 13, 2003.

[xvii] Richard Spertzel ‘The Politics of Mass Destruction’ Wall Street Journal, 27 June 2003.

[xviii] Blix op. cit. p. 259.

[xix] Ibid. p. 263.

[xx] Ibid. p. 264.

[xxi] See Blix’s address ‘The Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions Regarding Iraq’ to the IAEA General Conference, 12 August 1996. “No-one knows precisely how many billions of dollars were lavished on the Iraqi bomb project…It was not as if the veil of secrecy surrounding the project was complete…In 1989, a senior official at the US Department of Energy learned that nuclear detonators of the most advanced kind were being shipped from the United States to Baghdad, indicating that designs for the actual operational Iraqi nuclear warhead were far more sophisticated than previously suspected. He therefore requested that intelligence scrutiny of the Iraqi program be made a high priority. The request was rejected and the official in question fired from his post and exiled to a bureaucratic Siberia. In explanation of this curious indifference, one former official recalls that, ‘We knew about their bomb program, but Saddam was our ally and, anyway, we didn’t realize how far along they really were. It was off the radar.’ In fact, the bomb program…had been far more successful than anyone in the outside world had realized…The target date for production of a complete weapon was 1991. In fact, just before the Gulf War, the weapons design team was on the verge of success.” Andrew and Patrick Cockburn Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession, Verso, London, 2002, pp. 89-90.

[xxii] William Shawcross Allies: The US and the World in the Aftermath of the Iraq War, Allen and Unwin, London, 2004, pp. 189-90.

[xxiii] Spertzel, who had worked in the US’s own biological warfare program until it was shut down, following the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, was recruited by UNSCOM in 1994. Until then, little had been discovered about Iraq’s BW program, the most secretive of all its WMD efforts. UNSCOM’s first BW inspection was carried out on 8 April 1994 and led by a German expert. His report was described later as “a major disappointment” by one of UNSCOM’s leading investigators. “He declared at the end of the inspection that UNSCOM now knew all there was to know about Iraq’s biological activities and that future new data would involve only technical omissions and oversights...This report infuriated some of the inspectors on the team and UNSCOM’s own biological weapons analysts.” Tim Trevan Saddam’s Secrets: The Hunt for Iraq’s Hidden Weapons, Harper Collins 1999 p. 261. As Andrew and Patrick Cockburn remarked three years later, “It was only after UNSCOM hired Dr Richard Spertzel…that the search for the Iraqi biological warfare program gathered speed.” Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession, Verso, London, 2002, p. 111.

Richard Spertzel ‘The Politics of Mass Destruction’, Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2003. See also his piece ‘Glass Half- Full’ New York Post, 6 October 2003. He wrote, after the ISG’s interim report had been released: “Again we hear the cries of "no smoking gun." David Kay's report to Congress is decried variously as a full glass or an empty glass. It seem no one can accept that this is an interim report, and indeed the glass is half full. Kay says his group has found considerable evidence that Iraq had ongoing, prohibited biological and missile programs, although to date no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have been found. He further reports of innumerable items and sites that should have been declared by Iraq to U.N. Monitoring and Verification Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and probably earlier to U.N. Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM). Not declaring directly violated Security Council Resolution 1441.

Those of us experienced in dealing with Iraq over its weapons are not surprised that no "smoking gun" - e.g., munitions filled with chemical or biological agents - has been found. I've stated many times that if Iraq didn't use these weapons, they'd be difficult to find. Iraq didn't use them. Rolf Ekeus, former UNSCOM executive chairman, explained why in an op ed earlier this summer: Iraq had told him and others in UNSCOM that it realized chemical and biological weapons could do little against a rapidly advancing enemy.”

[xxv] Hanson’s testimony appears under the heading ‘Case Not Closed: Iraq’s WMD Stockpile’ in The American Thinker, 2 March 2004. (http://www.americanthinker.com/articles.php?article_id=3399).

[xxvi] Warren Hoge ‘Ex-U.N. Inspector Has Harsh Words for Bush’, New York Times, 16 March 2004.

[xxvii] One of the greatest canards of the anti-war movement is the tirelessly repeated falsehood that there is no evidence of links between Saddam Hussein and terrorist organization, especially al Qaeda. Hans Blix repeated this strange claim this very week, speaking to a crowd of 1,200 people at New York University. The reality is that Saddam harboured Abu Abbas and Abu Nidal, financed Hamas and al Aqsa Brigade suicide bombers and had links with al Qaeda, including top level meetings with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri dating from 1992 right through until the downfall of his regime last year. It was the testimony of George Tenet, Director of the CIA, in October 2002, that the Agency had more than one hundred reliable reports of such links stretching right back through the preceding decade. See, also, the two long reports by Stephen Hayes, ‘Saddam’s alQaeda Connection: The Evidence Mounts, But the Administration Says Surprisingly Little’ The Weekly Standard 1-8 September 2003 and ‘Case Closed: The US Government’s Secret Memo Detailing Cooperation Between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden’ The Weekly Standard, 24 November 2003.

[xxviii] Quoted in William Shawcross op. cit. p. 189.