The White House document released yesterday as evidence that it is time to overthrow Saddam Hussein is a concise summary of his regime's abuses of Iraqis and its past use or possession of chemical and biological agents.
But it contains little new information -- and no bombshells -- showing that Hussein is producing new weapons of mass destruction or has joined with terrorists to threaten the United States or its interests abroad.
Administration officials, seeking to persuade the public, Congress and foreign allies that it is time to go to war, had indicated recently that their strongest case rested on evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program and its efforts to develop ballistic missiles to launch them beyond its borders.
But experts on Iraq's weaponry say that on this subject the report, with few exceptions, recycles a mix of dated and largely circumstantial evidence that Hussein may be hiding the ingredients for these weapons and is seeking to develop a nuclear capability and to weaponize chemical and biological agents.
The 20-page paper, "A Decade of Deception and Defiance," concludes Iraq harbors stockpiles of chemical and biological weapon it created before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as well as a limited number of missiles and other systems for delivering them. The stockpile includes highly lethal VX, a nerve agent so potent that a few drops on the skin can kill, as well as anthrax and other staples of germ warfare.
The report concludes that Iraq retains the expertise and infrastructure to build new weapons and is seeking to acquire critical parts and supplies. On Iraq's nuclear program, it repeats a British think tank's finding last week that Iraq could likely build a nuclear weapon within a few months, but only if it managed the difficult feat of acquiring enriched uranium from an outside source.
The bulk of the report's assertions were attributed to reports by U.N. weapons inspectors who scoured Iraq for outlawed weapons programs from 1991 to 1998. Although the inspectors destroyed large amounts of weaponry and equipment, there were unable to account for all the chemical and biological warheads and bombs Iraq has admitted making. They disputed Iraq's claims that it destroyed the weapons to hide evidence.
Other claims in the report were attributed to Iraqi defectors or to surveillance imagery that showed new construction in places where Iraq once manufactured weapons.
Weapons experts who reviewed the document noted a few previously undisclosed details, such as a new test platform reportedly built for longer-range missiles at Iraq's al-Rafah-North facility. But several expressed surprise at the lack of fresh revelations.
"Given the high priority for knowing what is going on in Iraq, I'm stunned by the lack of evidence of fresh intelligence," said Gary Milhollin, executive editor of Iraq Watch, a Washington-based nonprofit institution that tracks developments in Iraq's weapons program. "You'd expect that, for the many billions we are spending on intelligence, they would be able to make factual assertions that would not have to be footnoted to an open source."
The document's evidence of Iraq's "support for international terrorism" is one-page long and lacks any reference to al Qaeda or to a purported meeting in Prague between Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent. The document confirms that the last terrorism operation by Hussein's regime was the 1993 attempt to kill then-President George H.W. Bush during his visit to Kuwait. It cites Iraq's shelter of various anti-Iran and extremist Palestinian terrorist groups and says Hussein has increased from $10,000 to $25,000 his compensation to families of Palestinian suicide bombers.
President Bush has been under pressure to reveal why he is pressing for a war with Iraq in the near future, and many analysts believed the document would make his case with new information of a more urgent nature. The absence of evidence, they say, suggests Bush will rely on what he believes are Hussein's intentions and potential actions, rather than on concrete, current activities.
"This is a glorified press release that doesn't come close to the information the U.S. government made available on Soviet military power when we were trying to explain the Cold War," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert who has participated in many major studies of Iraq's capabilities. "It's clumsy and shallow when what we need is sophisticated and in-depth . . . as an overall grade, I'd give it a D-minus."
White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said yesterday that the document was meant to show Hussein's violation of U.N. resolutions. "It was never meant to be a smoking gun . . . this is a debate that's going to continue for weeks. There will be more documents and briefings that will be offered."The most detailed case made in the paper is that Hussein's regime routinely tortures and abuses its citizens, including children. Citing already published State Department, U.N. and Amnesty International human rights reports, the document contains seven pages of examples covering executions, torture, rape, disappearances, forced military training of children and crimes against Muslims, particularly the majority Shiite Muslim population.
For more information on the White House report, go to washingtonpost.com.