Syria's admission Monday that it has chemical weapons has revived a controversial theory about one of the biggest intelligence failures in American history: The non-existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The theory holds that Saddam Hussein did in fact have huge stockpiles of chemical weapons all along, but they were never uncovered by U.S. forces because he secretly smuggled them out to Syria days before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. If true, it's the type of revelation that would recaste the Iraq War in the history books, which is why neocons have begun reviving it as evidence of the "wisdom of Bush's Mideast policies." But that's one ginormous "if," and it's a theory many media observers have dismissed. Still, because Syria's admission Monday was the most "direct confirmation" of the stockpiles' existence, reporters have begun revisiting their notes and re-exploring the facts of that fateful period. Here's the case for and against the Saddam chemical weapons handoff.
Saddam Smuggled the Stockpile to Syria and Hoodwinked the World. Last night, a smug Victor Davis Hanson at Investors Business Daily said the media was wrong to so eagerly dismiss the story of Hussein's 11th hour smuggling adventure. "Although the story was met with general neglect or scorn from the U.S. media, the present director of national intelligence, James Clapper, long ago asserted his belief in such a weapons transfer," he writes. That's true. As director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, Clapper said in 2003 that satellite images showing a heavy flow of traffic from Iraq to Syria "unquestionably" show that illicit weapons were moved out of Iraq. Another frequently cited believer in a Saddam smuggling effort is former Iraqi general George Sada, an adviser to the late dictator. "They were moved by air and by ground, 56 sorties by jumbo, 747, and 27 were moved, after they were converted to cargo aircraft, they were moved to Syria," he told Fox News in 2006. That account differed from Clapper's who said the smuggling occurred in March of 2003, not 2002, as Sada claimed. While Sada's story perhaps just adds more confusion to the theory, one thing is definitely clear: There was a large buildup of traffic between Syria and Iraq in March 2003. This week, journalist Harvey Morris opened up his old notes and gave corroborating facts to Clapper's claim in an account for The New York Times:
As I drove east from Damascus in mid-March 2003 to cross the border into Iraq, my Iraqi Kurdish companion said he had spoken to Kurdish truck drivers who regularly used the road.
They reported an unusual build-up of traffic out of Iraq in previous days. Closed convoys of unmarked trucks, which other drivers were forbidden from approaching or overtaking, had been streaming across the border into Syria.
My companion was a former Kurdish peshmerga militia leader. A survivor of thallium poisoning by agents of Saddam Hussein, he was returning from Europe in time for the impending war. What did he make of the truck drivers’ tales? Were the convoys carrying weapons? Who knew? The story died in the general plethora of war preparations.
While Morris is convinced the smuggling effort will remain a "mystery," others think the idea is much too silly to leave as an open-ended question.
Saddam Did No Such Thing Because That Would Be Ridiculous One of those people is Kris Alexander, an officer in the U.S. Army, writing in Wired's Danger Room today. Alexander says if you think about this theory logically, it makes no sense.. First, it's illogical to think that in 2003 with the U.S. on the brink of invading, Saddam would give up the one thing that would raise the stakes of a U.S.-led invasion. But that's not the only reason this theory is illogical, he argues:
Second, let’s say that Saddam wasn’t so concerned about the Americans — a miscalculation that Saddam seems to have made. That’s actually not a rationale for transferring weapons to Syria. Just like in 1991, he faced the collapse of his regime. Except back then, he slaughtered jubilant Shiites and used chemical weapons on the Kurds. Why, in 2003, would Saddam give up the worst threat he could make against his people?
Third, the Iraqi Ba’athists and Syrian Ba’athists are far from allies. Syria’s Allawites are minority Shiites and proxies to Iraq’s arch-enemy Iran. They fought on the allied side against Iraq during Desert Storm. Why would Saddam turn over his deadliest weapons Iran’s best friend in the region? Remember: Saddam says he made his WMD threats to cower the Iranians.
Fourth, from a U.S. military perspective, the transfer would have been impossible to hide. I worked at U.S. Central Command’s Mideast headquarters before, during, and after the invasion, which gave me a good understanding of what was going on at the time. The region was blanketed by U.S. military assets. Operation Enduring Freedom was in full swing in Afghanistan, and Operations Northern and Southern Watch were still in place over Iraq. If something moved — like, say a convoy of Winnebagos of Death heading for Syria — it could be detected and killed.
While Alexander makes a number of persuasive points, this 9-year-old theory clearly isn't going to be settled by a debate. Intriguingly, it might not have to be. With Assad's regime in limbo, and claims from global figures that it's just a "matter of time" before Assad is gone, some international body could theoretically investigate the stockpile in the next year if the Assad regime crumbles. Wouldn't that be interesting...
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.