By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 1, 2006
Do the 20-year-old Iraqi chemical munitions found by U.S. and coalition forces support the prewar contention that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and justify the invasion of Iraq?
That question divided Republicans and Democrats again this week, this time at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on the estimated 500 rockets and artillery shells containing degraded mustard gas or sarin nerve agent.
Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) contended that an April report by the U.S. Army's National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC) is clear evidence of Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
"Some may want to play down the significance of this report or even deny that WMD have been found in Iraq," Hunter said at Thursday's hearing, using the abbreviation for weapons of mass destruction.
Citing the United Nations resolutions that called for destruction of all of Hussein's banned weapons, Hunter added that "the verified existence of such chemical weapons" proves they were not destroyed and "in part because of such violations, we voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq."
But Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), the senior Democrat on the committee, countered that the NGIC report did not address Baghdad's prewar chemical weapons program. Rather, he said, it was "written to address the force protection concerns of our service members in Iraq."
"Yes, these certainly are munitions," Skelton added, "but they are not the evidence of prewar assertions made by the administration."
The classified overview of chemical munitions says that U.S. forces have found about 500 shells, canisters or other munitions containing the chemical weapons. Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the committee the shells were produced in the 1980s for the Iran-Iraq war but were not used.
Last week, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a strong supporter of the war, touted the findings, provoking protests from some Democrats.
In his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address, President Bush said that U.S. intelligence indicated "Saddam Hussein had upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents. Inspectors recently turned up 16 of them -- despite Iraq's recent declaration denying their existence. Saddam Hussein has not accounted for the remaining 29,984 of these prohibited munitions. He's given no evidence that he has destroyed them."
The NGIC study was conducted, Maples said, to allow commanders in Iraq to prepare their troops for potential hazards when they came across the old shells or rockets. Hunter recalled an incident "several years ago," when soldiers disposing of an old artillery round became ill from exposure to chemicals while transporting it.
Maples was caught in the verbal crossfire between Republicans and Democrats but proved adept at avoiding answers that aided either side.
Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) asked whether the munitions could be characterized as "the Golden Oldies of weapons of mass destruction." Maples said he was "not sure what Golden Oldies are" but added that the munitions were "dangerous. . . . even in a degraded mode, they will produce hazardous and potentially lethal effects and that we would categorize them as weapons of mass destruction."
But under questioning, Maples acknowledged that the shells were "a potential risk to our service members in Iraq" but not to 275 million Americans.
Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who believes the shells represent weapons of mass destruction, asked: "If you took that material and got it out of the country and took it to a metropolitan area, what would be the impact?"
Maples replied, "I think conceivably it would have a very large impact."
That caused Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.) to ask, "If some bad guys got this stuff and sneaked it into New York City and put it [into] the subways there, would it kill people?" Taken aback slightly, Maples responded, "Potentially . . . yes, sir, it would."
Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) noted that the administration's prewar rhetoric, including a remark by then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice that "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," helped push Congress's October 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq.
That kind of language, Larsen said, "always has seemed to be much bigger than the facts that we end up reviewing in retrospect."
The smoking gun and mushroom cloud image, he said, "sounds a lot better than 500 artillery shells of various amounts of degraded material that fit the technical definition of chemical weapons . . . buried in various bunkers in various states of disrepair that we are not even sure Saddam Hussein knew about."