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Why Iraqi Chemical Weapons Embarrass the U.S. Government

Powell-anthrax-vial

At the UN, Colin Powell holds a model vial of anthrax

The New York Timesaccount of Washington’s embarrassed secrecy about the U.S. military’s encounter with several thousand chemical weapons in Iraq, and the often callous medical treatment provided to the troops who dealt with them during the 2003-20011 occupation, is incomplete.

Not mentioned by the Times is that our special operations forces had run into these weapons in 2002 during secret, pre-invasion reconnaissance missions under CIA operational command. At least one U.S. officer suffered kidney failure after coming upon a suspect site, ordering his men to stand back as he entered to check it out and collapsing upon exiting. Discharged on medical disability, he has been on dialysis awaiting a kidney transplant since 2004. He and other special forces were warned—more categorically than the occupying troops discussed by the Times—that divulging what happened to them would be treated as a serious breach of “top secret” security.

“Top Secret” is defined officially as “information the release of which would cause exceptionally grave damage to national security.” We should consider: Whom does the American people’s knowledge of the truth about these matters hurt? Whom and what did this secrecy protect? Just why did the U.S. government take pains—in an effort that continues to inflict pain—to pretend that things it knew to be true did not exist?

The short answer is: the internally politically conflicted, half-hearted and half-embarrassed, tentative, unserious manner in which our national security establishment operated then and operates now. Because our officials do things this way, avoiding embarrassment ends up being the default purpose of U.S. operations. This being so, brave troops end up being sacrificed as pawns of fearful bureaucrats.

The timing of C.J. Chivers’ story is part of the domestic partisan political struggle that has perverted U.S. policy. Chivers details the presence in Iraq of thousands of chemical weapons. But his point, that these were scrap rather than currently usable—the latter being what the Bush administration adduced in support of its decision to invade Iraq in 2003—follows the 2004 report by Charles A. Duelfer, a former U.N. official under contract to CIA. The Duelfer Report had argued that, because many of these weapons were buried and not in good condition, they were “not a secret cache of Weapons of Mass Destruction.” This report was a big part of the Democratic Party’s 2004 campaign. By running this story on the eve of another election, the Times recycles the issue.

Reality, however, is more complex and more damning. For everyone involved—except the U.S. service men who encountered these weapons, in many cases to their physical harm.

Recall that by early 2002, the Bush administration had realized that its overthrow of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime had done little to prevent another attack like that on New York and Washington the previous fall. The impetus for the September 11 outrage had come from the rampant anti-Americanism stoked by most of the regimes in the Sunni Arab world. Administration officials believed that, to reverse these regimes’ attitudes, it had to do something dramatic. Since Saddam Hussein had made himself the paladin of anti-Americanism; since he was running terrorist training camps and had ties with jihadis around the region; and since many in the Defense Intelligence Agency and in Vice President Cheney’s office believed he had had some hand in 9/11, Bush had decided to “do something” major against him.

But opposition from within the U.S. government was fierce and resulted in bitter, debilitating bureaucratic and partisan warfare. State Department and CIA officials— attached as they were, personally and (in the case of State) financially, to clients in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and supported by the Democratic Party with increasing vigor—denied that Saddam’s Iraq was a proper target for the War on Terror. Through countless leaks of made-to-order intelligence estimates and internal memos, all of them magnified by the media, they went after President Bush.

The campaign included the demand that he appoint a special prosecutor to prosecute his administration’s presumed complicity in “outing” CIA officer Valerie Plame. This despite that the applicable law stated unequivocally that such an act was not punishable—and despite that the author of the deed was known to be anti-Bush Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Intimidated, Bush complied. This led to the jailing of journalist Judith Miller and the absurd felony conviction of Cheney aide Lewis Libby, both of whom were guilty of getting in the way of dishonorable behavior by the potentates of both political parties.

President Bush labored to get hold of a rationale that would placate bureaucratic and political opponents. By the spring of 2002, WMDs had become the leading candidate. Under orders, the CIA used military special forces to look for evidence. Its lack of enthusiasm about finding any, along with the intra-governmental turmoil, on top of the international illegality of U.S. armed forces roaming around a country with which we were officially at peace, led to treating these missions as “Top Secret” and those who executed them as pawns.

In the balance of low, urgent, squalid concerns on the part of high officials of both parties, and their media allies, what is the value of a brave officer’s kidneys, or of any ordinary person’s life?

Chivers quotes the spokesman for the current Secretary of Defense:

The secretary believes all service members deserve the best medical and administrative support possible. . . . His expectation is that leaders at all levels will strive to correct errors made, when and where they are made.

To believe that this cool solicitude extends beyond the cases upon which public attention now focuses, or that it will outlast that attention, is to imagine that our bipartisan ruling class is something other than what we experience daily.

Reader Discussion

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on October 21, 2014 at 10:27:47 am

"The short answer is: the internally politically conflicted, half-hearted and half-embarrassed, tentative, unserious manner in which our national security establishment operated then and operates now. Because our officials do things this way, avoiding embarrassment ends up being the default purpose of U.S. operations. This being so, brave troops end up being sacrificed as pawns of fearful bureaucrats."

THE SHORT ANSWER IS: KARL ROVE.
The question is: who does the above quote identify?

Can someone please forward this to Kevin D. Williamson at NRO who seems to believe that Rove is the great genius that Rove purports himself to be? rather than the vainglorious, defeatist, tactical and strategic blunderer that he is!
Talk about being part of the "ruling class!!!!
One would also not be surprised to find that Rove was also behind Mr Bush's silence / acquiescence on the whole Scooter Libby matter in which the great and exalted Colin Powell also demonstrated these same traits.

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Image of gabe
gabe
on October 21, 2014 at 18:25:41 pm

This piece is far to obsessed with the equating of the two parties. It isn't reasoned in this sense, the two are not equatable. There is little one can compare with the behavior of the Bush Administration and the unethical Democratic Partisans who overwhelmingly voted for the liberation of Iraq with the use of force. Slow down, make a better detailed study of the issue. The Bush Administration's record grows in the realm of soundness, which is hard for many stuck on a false narrative to accept. They begin to equate and manipulate, distracting from their own mistakes in prior assumptions based on superficial fashion and partisan diatribe.

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Image of Will Dean
Will Dean
on October 21, 2014 at 21:26:01 pm

The Bush admin was embarrassed because the WMD of note here was not from Saddam's program Bush accused him of, they were old 1980s crap Germany and the USA had developed for Iraq and used on Iranians a hell of a lot.

This article acts as if the stuff was new crap, go check out the NYT article, it was old, dangerously unstable crap and they have proof we and Germany made it happen.

That's why they kept it quiet. Reagan and whoever led Germany in the 1980s were international criminals. I'm a con, but, Reagan was a criminal in this respect and Bush was for allowing the mistreatment of our soldiers when they inadvertently discovered the facts with their lungs and brains. They have treated these unfortunate men like animals.

So much for "America the beautiful".

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Image of Patrick
Patrick
on October 21, 2014 at 23:03:35 pm

[…] American special forces soldiers under CIA command discovered chemical weapons in Iraq in 2002 during pre-invasion reconnaissance missions. […]

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Image of Links for 10-21-2014 | Karl Heubaum
Links for 10-21-2014 | Karl Heubaum
on October 22, 2014 at 07:43:27 am

Wait a minute. Do you mean that we pulled out of Iraq and left caches of CW behind?

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Image of Coldfoot
Coldfoot
on October 22, 2014 at 12:48:44 pm

Don't know which timeframe you're referring to.

I surmise that now we're no longer discussing chemical weapons, but rather former chemical weapons that have devolved into a toxic swamp. (If they were still discrete chemical weapons, I'd guess our troops would have carried them off by now.)

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Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on October 22, 2014 at 15:16:45 pm

Yes, but some of it was mustard gas - and this weapon retains its potency for quite some time. So the times piece (as one can usually expect) is somewhat misleading on this score.

The real degradation is to be found in the deliverability of the *weapons* - not the toxins. Yet they remain potent (at least with the mustard gas (and possibly sarin)) killing mechanisms whether delivered by artillery or by, say, a small plane with a dispensing capability.

You are correct about the absolutely reprehensible treatment of affected service members. Perhaps we should have those responsible clean up the *toxic swamp* that Nobody.really refers to below.

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Image of gabe
gabe
on October 25, 2014 at 17:06:56 pm

[…] Why Iraqi Chemical Weapons Embarrass the U.S. Government – Angelo Codevilla  […]

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Image of Weekly Briefing, October 19-25, 2014
Weekly Briefing, October 19-25, 2014
on March 05, 2018 at 16:37:29 pm

[…] Why Iraqi Chemical Weapons Embarrass the U.S. Government – Angelo Codevilla  […]

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Image of Weekly Briefing, October 19-25, 2014 – ACD
Weekly Briefing, October 19-25, 2014 – ACD

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.