By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2006
The assertion by two Republican lawmakers that a new intelligence study proves that chemical weapons were found in Iraq has triggered sharp criticism from Democrats that the GOP is distorting intelligence for political purposes.
At issue is a classified overview of chemical munitions found in Iraq since 2003 that was completed in April by the Army's National Ground Intelligence Center. One of the report's key findings was that since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, coalition forces have recovered about 500 shells, canisters or other munitions that contain degraded mustard gas or sarin nerve agent.
That finding was seized on by Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a strong supporter of the war who is trailing his Democratic opponent in his reelection bid. The two said that the study indicated that Saddam Hussein, as president of Iraq, possessed weapons of mass destruction.
"Iraq was not a WMD-free zone," Santorum told reporters earlier this week. "We have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, chemical weapons." He added that he had been chasing the intelligence report "for 2 1/2 months."
Yesterday, however, Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel, said the study contained "nothing new" and questioned the timing of its release, coming as it did in the midst of congressional debates on the war in Iraq.
That assertion was backed up by representatives of three intelligence agencies who told reporters that the study differed little from a 2004 report of a team of American weapons inspectors led by Charles A. Duelfer that concluded that Hussein was not in possession of significant stocks of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons at the time of the U.S.-led invasion.
The intelligence officials also said that the munitions referred to in the report were produced before the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and that they had degraded and could not be used as designed. "There is no evidence today of any post-1991 WMD munitions," said the official, who agreed to speak with reporters only if his identity and his agency were not disclosed.
The officials said that the study was conducted to analyze the hazards that arose from the aging chemical munitions being discovered in small caches throughout Iraq to alert troops of the potential dangers of moving or destroying the weapons without realizing the hazards they posed if someone tried to move or destroy them without realizing their contents.
One of the intelligence officials added that there was "no evidence insurgents in Iraq had possession of these munitions" but if they did they might be able to make use of them. "We have seen improvisation by insurgents," the official said in refusing to describe to what use they could be put.
Harmon, noting the age of the munitions said that the 20-year-old degraded chemical weapons were "being spun up to support a political argument for the war and the public won't buy it for second."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, asked about the study, told reporters yesterday the munitions and canisters found are dangerous to coalition forces. "So obviously to the extent we can locate and destroy them it's important to do so." Rumsfeld also said there was concern "if they got into the wrong hands" because "they are weapons of mass destruction," and he added that the former Iraqi ruler did not declare or destroy them.
The intelligence officials also suggested that they were pressured by Hoekstra into declassifying the study in recent weeks. Hoekstra first sought its release June 15 and June 19 and made the request again giving John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, 48 hours to declassify it, according to a senior intelligence official.
Hoekstra, in an interview, said that people had been saying there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and "while news there were 500 might not be much of a surprise to some, revelation of the number may be news to others." He added: "It was one more piece of the puzzle . . . and who knows what else may be in Iraq. There is still a lot we don't know."
He and Santorum want the entire report released so that the public could learn how many more munitions may exist, where they had been found and what lethality they had. On the Fox News Channel yesterday morning, Santorum said that "these are still lethal weapons" and noted that when used by Hussein in the 1980s "three killed 5,000 people."