While the media have been quick to run with WikiLeaks’ U.S. State Department cable releases to undermine Washington’s efforts to effect stability in unstable parts of the world, it is slow, if not silent, in giving credit where credit is due. Although other credible sources confirmed it before WikiLeaks did, in receiving similar disinterested responses from the media, it should be clear now that President Bush’s concerns about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program were well-founded.
The controversy goes back to Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2003. In the speech, he said the British government learned Saddam had “recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” This became one of several justifications leading to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq two months later — and one about which, Bush critics later claimed, he lied.
British intelligence had determined an effort was made by Iraq to obtain “yellowcake” — a uranium concentrate extracted from ores for use as material in higher-grade nuclear enrichment — from Niger. The waters separating fact from fiction over this allegation were muddied after various claims and counter-claims followed.
In July 2003, former U.S. career diplomat Ambassador Joe Wilson, in a New York Times op-ed, claimed he had been sent to Africa by the Bush Administration in 2002 — and had debunked the yellowcake claim. While Wilson reported he had met with a former Niger prime minister, who said he knew of no such sales, that prime minister also recalled a 1999 visit by the Iraqis seeking to buy yellowcake. Despite Wilson’s claim, a 2004 bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report found his visit actually supported evidence Saddam was undertaking a WMD effort, based on the 1999 incident.
The 2003 Iraq invasion by U.S. forces also launched a massive effort to find WMDs. By late 2003, as determined in a review by a Wired Magazine editor of WikiLeaks documents on the issue, the Administration was losing faith WMDs would be found. But, as Wired reports, the WikiLeaks documents clearly show “for years afterward, U.S. troops continued to find chemical weapons labs, encounter insurgent specialists in toxins and uncover weapons of mass destruction. . . . Chemical weapons, especially, did not vanish from the Iraqi battlefield. Remnants of Saddam’s toxic arsenal, largely destroyed after the Gulf War, remained. Jihadists, insurgents and foreign (possibly Iranian) agitators turned to these stockpiles during the Iraq conflict — and may have brewed up their own deadly agents.”
A September 2004 New York Times op-ed by the former head of Saddam’s nuclear research program supported this, as well. He wrote:
“[T]he West never understood the delusional nature of Saddam Hussein’s mind . . . he lived in a fantasy world . . . . giving lunatic orders . . . he kept the country’s Atomic Energy Commission alive . . . Saddam fooled . . . the world . . . . [O]ur nuclear program could have been reinstituted at the snap of Saddam Hussein’s fingers.”
Of note too is a January 2004 revelation by Syrian journalist defector Nizar Nayuf. He reported there were three locations in Syria where Iraqi WMDs had been transported prior to the 2003 invasion and were being stored. He also revealed some of these sites were being built with North Korean cooperation. This explained why three years later Israel attacked a nuclear facility being built in Syria by Pyongyang — and Syria’s subsequent failure to criticize Israel for fear of drawing further international attention to what Damascus had been doing.
Five years after Joe Wilson’s op-ed claimed no yellowcake was sold to Iraq — the ease with which Saddam could have snapped his fingers and reinstituted his nuclear program became apparent. In July 2008, in an operation kept secret at the time, 37 military air cargo flights shipped more than 500 metric tons of yellowcake — found in Iraq — out of the country for further transport and remediation to Canada.
The U.S. government is committed to efforts to make the world a safer place by seeking the removal of WMD threats. One would think a press undermining that effort at the time under the guise of freedom of the press would feel an obligation to accurately report the success of such a governmental effort. This should especially be the case after those same media contributed to the false perception Saddam possessed no WMD capability and, therefore, never really posed a serious threat.
As evidenced by the WikiLeaks disclosures, apparently no such obligation is felt.