By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 6:51 PM
In his memoir "Decision Points," former president George W. Bush passionately defends his 2003 decision to invade Iraq, citing, among other things, a Jan. 27, 2003, report to the U.N. Security Council by Hans Blix, the Swedish director of the U.N. inspectors who had spent two months looking for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
But Bush makes selective use of Blix's January report, citing elements that support the idea that Hussein was not cooperating and leaving out parts that indicate his government was. More to the point, however, Bush fails to mention two subsequent Blix pre-invasion reports in February and early March, weeks before U.S. bombs struck Baghdad. Those show Iraq cooperating with inspectors and the inspectors finding no significant evidence that Hussein was hiding WMD programs.
A bit of context: In summer and fall 2002, Bush had to be talked into going to the United Nations for a new resolution that, when passed in November 2002, called on Iraq to submit a "currently accurate, full and complete declaration" of WMD. It also opened the way for Blix to begin inspections where, as Bush writes, "the burden of proof rested with Saddam. The inspectors did not have to prove that he had weapons. He had to prove he did not."
Bush's goal for the U.N. inspections was described to Bob Woodward by Bush during an on-the-record interview on Dec. 10, 2003, in the residence portion of the White House. Bush told Woodward, according to a transcript, that he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair "have crafted a very intrusive inspection regime . . . which Blair and I were hoping would cause there to be a crumbling within the regime." That did not happen.
Instead, after a slow beginning in late November 2002, Blix's inspectors began work in earnest in January 2003 with 100 inspectors in Iraq. His Jan. 27 report to the Security Council was Blix's first major update on what he had found. In his book, Bush summed up the findings, saying Blix's teams "had discovered warheads that Saddam failed to declare or destroy, indications of the highly toxic VX nerve agent, and precursor chemicals for mustard gas." He also wrote, "The Iraqi government was defying the inspection process," citing Baghdad's "blocking of U-2 flights and hiding three thousand documents in the home of an Iraqi official."
Bush concluded with Blix's statement that day: "Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance, not even today of the disarmament that was demanded of it." In fact, Blix made that statement introducing his Jan. 27 report and related it to Iraq's attitude toward the 1991 U.N. resolution and subsequent ones that dealt with inspections. He compared Iraq's past cooperation as "withheld or grudgingly given," to South Africa, which decided to eliminate its nuclear weapons and welcomed inspections, and in that context said Baghdad had not yet "come to a genuine acceptance . . . of disarmament."
Bush left out that Blix later said, "Iraq has on the whole cooperated rather well so far" with inspectors. "The most important point to make is that access has been provided to all sites we have wanted to inspect and with one exception it has been prompt."
Blix on Jan. 27 also made less of the discovered warheads that were designed to deliver chemicals but had no such agents in them. He noted that there were only "a number," reported as 11 when the find had been publicized earlier that month. Blix reported that the Iraqis said the warheads had been overlooked in 1991 when about 2,000 were stored at that ammunition dump during the Gulf War. Blix also said the Iraqis thereafter carried out their own investigation and later reported finding four additional chemical rockets at another site.
As for the VX, Blix said that "indications" pointed to Iraq having worked on problems of purifying and stabilizing the poison and perhaps weaponizing it, but none of the agent was found. The mustard gas precursor chemicals? Blix said inspectors found only one - "a laboratory quantity of thiodiglycol" at one site.
Blix called the U-2 issue "a problem" because the Iraqis would not guarantee the safety of the U.N. aircraft, but he added, "I hope this attitude will change." It did shortly thereafter. The 3,000 pages of documents, not 3,000 documents, found in the search of a nuclear scientist's home worried Blix. But he told the Security Council that the Iraqis said it represented a researcher bringing papers from the workplace. Bush's attempt in his book to say that Blix's Jan. 27 report proved inspections were failing omits the two later prewar inspection reports that raised serious questions about whether U.S. intelligence and that of other countries were correct about Iraq's having prohibited weapons programs.
Blix reported on Feb. 14, 2003, that he had conducted 400 inspections at more than 300 sites without advance notice and without Iraqi interference. Although many proscribed weapons and items had not been accounted for, so far his inspectors had "not found any such weapons, only a small number of empty chemical munitions, which should have been declared and destroyed."
In his March 7, 2003, report, 12 days before the first U.S. and coalition attack, Blix reported on a "significant Iraqi effort underway to clarify a major source of uncertainty as to the quantities of biological and chemical weapons which were unilaterally destroyed in 1991," including the names of those who participated. In addition, "no underground facilities for chemical or biological production or storage were found so far," he said.
Bush mentions none of this, focusing instead on the U.S. and British inability to get a second U.N. resolution passed that would justify invasion.
In one of several passages in the book where he questions his decisions, Bush writes that he should have pushed harder on the intelligence, but adds, "at the time the evidence and logic pointed in the other direction." His most interesting personal reflection follows: "If Saddam doesn't actually have WMD, I asked myself, why on earth would he subject himself to a war he most certainly will lose?"
Hussein did not have those weapons and the inspections were beginning to show it, but neither Bush nor most Americans at the time were prepared to accept the idea that it is almost impossible to prove a negative.
Back in 2005, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) accused the Bush administration of "cherry-picking intelligence" to justify going into Iraq. Bush responded by saying, "It is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began." He should have remembered that as he wrote this section of his book.
Washington Post staff writer Bob Woodward contributed to this report.
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