could U.S. officials have been so wrong about
something so important -- the stockpiles of Iraqi
weapons of mass destruction that we now know never
Case of the Two Trailers may hold the answer.
may recall that when two oddly equipped flatbed
trailers were found in northern Iraq last spring,
U.S. officials jumped to claim them as mobile
labs used to make anthrax and other weapons.
found the weapons of mass destruction. We found
biological laboratories," President Bush boasted
at the time. "And we'll find more weapons as time
goes on. But for those who say we haven't found
the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons,
they're wrong, we found them."
reality, it was the president who was wrong. As
retiring chief weapons inspector David Kay admitted
last week, the trailers that we flaunted before
the world to justify our invasion have turned
out to be harmless facilities that produced hydrogen
to fill weather balloons.
could we make such an embarrassing mistake? Well,
the initial claim that Iraq possessed mobile weapons
labs came from the same source as so much of our
faulty intelligence: Iraqi defectors, a group
with a long history of telling us whoppers about
highly advanced nuclear programs, smallpox research
-- anything that might goad us into invading.
The CIA knew all too well that such sources were
often tainted, yet it went ahead and cited the
mobile labs as fact, with no physical evidence
to corroborate the claim.
Without a thorough investigation, we have only
conjecture. But mobile labs did serve a convenient
purpose for U.S. policy-makers, who were scrambling
to explain why U.N. inspectors weren't finding
anything in Iraq.
know that Iraq has at least seven of these mobile,
biological agent factories," Secretary of State
Colin Powell told the United Nations in February.
"The truck-mounted ones have at least two or three
trucks each. That means that the mobile production
facilities are very few, perhaps 18 trucks that
we know of. There may be more. . . . Just imagine
trying to find 18 trucks among the thousands and
thousands of trucks that travel the roads of Iraq
every single day."
skip ahead a few months to the discovery of the
two trailers. Here another glaring weakness in
U.S. intelligence comes into play. We did not
investigate to see what the trailers were; we
investigated to prove that they were weapons labs.
In other words, the conclusion was preordained.
who was a strong supporter of the war, offers
a compelling example of that blindness at work.
Last May, before his appointment to head the U.S.
weapons search, he was working as an expert analyst
for NBC News and was given the chance to inspect
one of the trailers firsthand. He immediately
proclaimed them proof that Saddam Hussein had
been producing biological weapons.
there's nothing else you would do this way on
a mobile facility," Kay told the world. He also
rejected the suggestion that the trailers might
have been simple hydrogen facilities, claiming
that it "didn't pass the laugh test."
a lack of trust and coordination among U.S. agencies
also plays a role, as it has throughout this episode.
In late May, the CIA released a "white paper"
admitting that it had no evidence that the trailers
were used to create germ weapons. "We nevertheless
are confident that this trailer is a mobile BW
[bioweapons] production plant," the agency said.
The CIA reached that conclusion without consulting
the State Department's intelligence bureau, and
a few days later, State concluded that the CIA
report had little basis in fact.
leads to one more question:
did CIA professionals release a white paper on
the trailers prematurely, a paper that even to
laymen seemed to ignore conflicting evidence and
distort the available data? Well, they were responding
to a request from the White House, which at the
time needed help in fending off doubts about our
failure to find WMD.
gives us the final piece of the puzzle: Intelligence
was corrupted for political purposes, not just
in the Case of the Two Trailers, but in almost
every aspect of our intelligence effort.
Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His
column appears Thursdays and Mondays.
Posted: January 31, 2004