Grasping for defense of Bush, conservatives erroneously claim missing explosives prove Iraq had WMD

››› ››› GABE WILDAU

Following The New York Times' revelation that 380 tons of high explosives are missing (possibly as a result of looting) from the Al Qaqaa military installation in Iraq, conservatives attempted to spin the news as a vindication of President George W. Bush's prewar assertions that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In fact, the explosives in question -- HMX and RDX -- do not qualify as WMD.

Conservatives aggressively pushed the WMD angle following the publication of an October 25 New York Times article titled "Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq":

• Robert D. Novak, syndicated columnist and co-host of CNN's Crossfire: "[L]et me try to put this in perspective. You're talking about 380 tons. So far, we have secured and destroyed 243,000 tons of weapons and explosives in Iraq. In addition, there's another 163,000 tons of weapons and explosives that have been secured and awaiting destruction. And, by the way, I thought there weren't any weapons in Iraq?" [CNN, Crossfire, 10/25]

• Peggy Noonan, columnist and former Reagan speechwriter: "The first thought I had was, whoa! I thought there were no weapons of mass destruction. This sounds like a weapon of mass destruction to me. ... The sort of stuff that Saddam had could be used to do terrible things. ... It is also true that these explosives might have been used in the advancement of the creation of a nuclear program for Iraq down the road, in the past and down the road." [CNN, Lou Dobbs Tonight, 10/25]

• Mara Liasson, National Public Radio national political correspondent and FOX News Channel contributor; and Brit Hume, FOX News Channel managing editor and chief Washington correspondent:

HUME: [I]sn't there something interesting here? One of the things that critics now are pointing out is how damaging and dangerous this stuff was. Able to blow up airplanes, for example.

LIASSON: Sounds like weapons of mass destruction.

HUME: Doesn't it, though? I mean are we now in a situation where the critics have attacked the administration for failure to find weapons of mass destruction, because they weren't there, is now saying that they failed to find weapons of mass destruction that were there? [FOX News Channel, Special Report with Brit Hume, 10/26]

• Neil Cavuto, FOX News Channel host: "[W]hy suddenly this newfound concern for explosives at all? One of our primary reasons for going into Iraq when all established media argued there were no such explosives in Iraq. Let me ask you something. Is it remotely possible, just a teeny tiny bit possible that some of the 350 tons of these high explosives were even higher than that? I don't know, maybe the mass destruction kind." [FOX News Channel, Your World with Neil Cavuto, 10/26]

Under the definition used by the Iraq Survey Group, the Central Intelligence Agency-led task force charged with hunting for weapons in postwar Iraq, HMX and RDX do not qualify as WMD. The Iraq Survey Group's final report (long pdf), commonly known as the Duelfer Report, includes a "Scope Note" which explains: "For the purposes of this report, the term Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) refers to the definition established by the United Nations Security Council in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991)." Security Council Resolution 687, in turn, defines WMD in terms of three separate international treaties: the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, and the Chemical Weapons Convention. None of these treaties appears to forbid high explosives.

Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) publicly reported Iraq's possession of HMX before the war. If such a claim were remotely credible, it's reasonable to assume that the Bush administration would have used such explosives to make the case that Iraqi WMD posed an "urgent threat."

Reuters reported on October 25 that the IAEA allowed Iraq to keep some of the explosives before the war because they have legitimate military and civilian uses:

Prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the HMX had been sealed and tagged with the IAEA emblem while being stored at Al Qaqaa. Iraq was permitted to keep some of its explosives for mining purposes after the IAEA completed its dismantling of Saddam's covert nuclear weapons program after the 1991 Gulf war. [IAEA spokeswoman Melissa] Fleming said HMX also had civilian and conventional military applications.

The October 25 Times article quoted a "senior Bush administration official" insisting the explosives were not weapons of mass destruction: "This is a high explosives risk, but not necessarily a proliferation risk," the official told the Times.

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