You'd think the discovery of 500 chemical weapons in Iraq would be a big story, even if they are leftovers from Saddam's arsenal in the 1980s. This discovery confirms that WMD remained present in Iraq, despite the old regime's proclamation that such weapons had been destroyed, and fruitless searches conducted by U.N. inspectors, and later, the Iraq Survey Group (ISG). These weapons, which include artillery shells and rockets, were filled with mustard gas and nerve agents of varying toxicity. The discovery of these weapons suggests (surprise, surprise) that Saddam planned to retain at least a portion of his WMD capability, and would have likely resumed full-scale development and production, had UN sanctions been removed.
More importantly, these weapons remain a threat to coalition forces in Iraq. True, insurgents aren't likely to get their hands on a howitzer or rocket launcher and bombard a base with chemical rounds. But in the hands of terrorists, these chemical weapons could easily be used in IEDs or VBIEDs, daisy-chained together for increased effectiveness. According to Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra of Michigan (who announced the discovery yesterday), these chemical weapons have recovered by coalition forces over the past two years, on a regular basis. More of these weapons remain unrecovered, and could possibly wind up in the hands of terrorists. So much for the "no WMD in Iraq" mantra that has dominated coverage of our military operations in that country since 2003.
Big story? Guess again. Drudge has links to coverage from Fox News and AFP, but that's about it. You won't find a mention of this story on MSM sites; MSNBC is pre-occupied with the latest combat casualties from Iraq and Senate debate on John Kerry's "cut-and-run" resolution. Ditto for CNN. The Washington Post buried the story on page A10. Guess that unambiguous evidence of chemical weapons in Iraq doesn't fit too well with their editorial and reportorial assertions that "Bush lied" about WMD. Refusing to even acknowledge the Santorum-Hoekstra announcement is another black eye for American journalism, and furhter evidence that the MSM is (thankfully) on its last legs.
While a number of bloggers, including Captain's Quarters and Powerline, have done an excellent job in tracking yesterday's announcement (and the underwhelming media response), there is a back story that must be told. It's a story of brueaucratic inepitude, apparent political and personal agendas, and the efforts of a few courageous individuals to get the truth out.
The story begins in April of this year, when a team of intelligence analysts, assigned to the Army's National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC) published an exhaustive report on the continued recovery of chemical weapons in Iraq. Their report clearly noted that the weapons were clearly manufactured before the first Gulf War. However, the NGIC analysts also observed that some of the weapons remained in good condition (suggesting an Iraqi effort to preserve them), and posed a potential threat to coalition forces, if they fell into the hands of insurgents. From what I'm told, the report contained a full listing of all chemical weapons discovered in Iraq since the fall of Saddam, cut-away diagrams of the weapons, locations where they were found, and their potential lethality if employed by terrorists.
Obviously, the NGIC report ran against the conventional wisdom that "Iraq had no WMD" after the U.S.-led invasion, and (to its credit), the organization published the report, which was posted on INTELINK (the intelligence community's classified intranet) in April of this year. In that forum, the report could be easily accessed by anyone with access to the system, the proper security clearance, and a valid need-to-know. From an analytical standpoint, the team at NGIC did their job, and they deserve tremendous credit for publishing their report. That's what analysts are supposed to do--tell the truth, and let the chips fall where they may, even if their findings run contrary to popular assumptions and political agendas.
Shortly after the NGIC item was posted on INTELINK, Senator Santorum learned of its existence, and began pressing the Army for more information, and declassification of the report's key findings. At this juncture, however, political agendas and bureaucratic tail-covering became a factor. A GOP source sent me a copy of Senator Santorum's letter, requesting information on chemical weapons in Iraq, back in April. Amazing (or, perhaps not-so-amazingly), both NGIC and the Army's Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) ignored Santorum's request. Normally, DOD agencies are supposed to respond to a request from a member of Congress within 48 hours; the Army ignored Santorum's request for more than a month. In fact, Santorum and Hoekstra didn't get their information until the Intelligence Committee chairman obtained a copy of the NGIC report and reportedly "hit the ceiling." After that, the Director of National Intelligence, Ambassador John Negroponte, agreed to declassify portions of the report, which were released yesterday.
Why did the Army ignore Senator Santorum's initial request? That's an issue that the INSCOM commander, Major General John D. Freitas III, may be asked to explain the next time he's on the Hill. The same holds true for the NGIC Commander, an Army Colonel. But beyond the DOD's efforts to "slow-roll" Senator Santorum and Chairman Hoekstra, there's the larger issue of why the Defense Department and Intelligence Community "sat" on this information. Sources tell me that there is no evidence of the NGIC report making its way into high-visibility intelligence products, such as the daily update for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA's flagship National Intelligence Daily (NID), or the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB), now handled by Negroponte's staff. Additionally, there was no effort to inform key members of Congress on this issue, until they began demanding answers. Congressman Hoekstra has every right to be pissed; the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee should not learn about the discovery of WMD in Iraq via an "under-the-table" copy of an Army report that was published almost two months earlier.
As a young intelligence officer, I was drilled that important information should make its way up the chain of command as soon as possible. Apparently, things have changed since I left the business. Information that contradicts prevailing judgements can be ignored, or simply buried on an intelligence website--let the customer find out on his own. If members of Congress want information, simply delay your response as long as possible, and provide data only when someone with enough horsepower (in this case, the HPSCI chairman) demands answers. Then, provide only a fraction of what they ask for.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Such tactics have been part-and-parcel of how the intel community does business for decades. It's the sort of behavior that has created barriers between various intelligence agencies, and generated lingering suspicion and distrust between the community, the Congress, and (ultimately) the American people. More than a year into his tenure as DNI, Negroponte's intelligence community is still operating a lot like its predecessor. The American people have a right to know that we've been uncovering WMD in Iraq--just as they were led to believe that none still existed. Withholding that information is inexcusable; intel bureaucrats were apparently uncomfortable with the revelation that they had been wrong on Iraqi WMD, not once, not twice, but a total of three times.
The MSM--if it ever gets around to this story--will likely claim that Santorum and Hoekstra are playing politics with intelligence. This blog has been critical of Congress playing fast-and-loose with intel information in the past, but that doesn't appear to be the case this time. Santorum and Hoekstra played by the rules, made their requests through proper channels, and only released declassified portions of the document, with the approval of the DNI. Compare that to the antics of Vermont Senator Pat Leahy--who was booted from the Senate intel committee for leaking classified information--and you'll see that Santorum and Hoekstra were models of patience and decorum.
Kudos to the NGIC team for publishing this discovery, and to the members of Congress--Santorum, Hoekstra (and Pennsylvania Congressman Curt Weldon)--who pushed for its public release. Our elected officials should demand answers on why this important data never made its way up the chain of command, and why their requests for information were apparently stone-walled by the Pentagon and the intel community.