Waiting Game




An early draft of a C.I.A. report that started doing the rounds on Wednesday revealed no sign, after four months of exhaustive inspections, of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. (Those would be the weapons the U.S. invaded Iraq to destroy.)

The report, which is floating around official Washington and London, is the work of the Iraq Survey Group (I.S.G.), a 1,400-member group led by the U.S. intelligence agency and supported by British and Australian investigators. The I.S.G. interviewed Iraqi scientists and inspected suspected weapons sites for months and (so unnamed feds told Judith Miller and Douglas Jehl of the New York Times) found zilch. On the other hand, the inspectors did find some dual-use equipment that might have been destined for use in nuclear, chemical or biological weapons production. (Expect to hear a whole lot from the Bush administration about this dual-use stuff in the coming days and weeks.)

Britain’s Guardian reports that the document’s release has Washington so bummed out that the administration might not release the full report to Congress. (An amended version is expected to be made public next month.)

No sooner had word about the report gotten out than Washington and London were on the offensive, talking up the W.M.D. rationale for their pre-emptive strike against Iraq. In Washington the Bush administration was, at least, consistent. White House spokesmen, Scott McClellan, sounded straight out of Lewis Carroll: “We continue to believe that he possessed weapons of mass destruction and weapons of mass destruction programs.”

In London, a spokesman for Downing Street explained that it was too soon to draw any conclusions about the draft report.

“People should wait. The reports today are speculation about an unfinished draft of an interim report that has not even been presented yet. And when it comes it will be an interim report. The I.S.G.’s work will go on…Our clear expectation is that this interim report will not reach firm conclusions about Iraq’s possession of W.M.D.”

Translation: people should wait … a very long time; so long that they forget all about the W.M.D. rationale for war.

Former U.N. chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, who ought to know, said this week he doubted that much in the way of W.M.D. evidence will ever be found.

“The American government…has the tendency to reach hasty conclusions…I don’t think anything will come to light in Iraq that will justify the invasion.”

The Guardian reports that David Albright, another former U.N. weapons inspector, drew stern (and obvious) conclusions from the weapons news: “It’s clear that the U.S. and British governments wildly exaggerated the case for going to war.” But he thinks the inspections process has been flawed throughout. “I’m not surprised, given how incompetent this search has been. They’ve had bad relations with the [Iraqi] scientists from the start because they treated them all as criminals.”

David Kay, who headed up the I.S.G., is expected to report to Congress at the end of next week. He’ll no doubt be asked how his latest findings square with his claim, made to the Senate in July, that his team was turning up “solid evidence” of weapons.

The White House must have seen this coming. But that didnt’ stop President Bush from telling the U.N. General Assembly this week that Iraq’s W.M.D.s were a reason for going to war.

“The regime of Saddam Hussein cultivated ties to terror while it built weapons of mass destruction. It used those weapons in acts of mass murder, and refused to account for them when confronted by the world.”

Colin Powell, too, was on-message three weeks ago, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press. He assured Tim Russert that Kay’s report would settle all questions (which it certaintly seems to have done) on the existence of Hussein’s W.M.D.s.:

“We put forward to the world, and in my presentation on the 5th of February, the best intelligence information that we had, that he had weapons and that he had programs. David Kay is in charge of our effort now with some 1,500 inspectors and analyst and experts. He will provide an interim report later this month, and I’m confident when people see what David Kay puts forward, they will see that there was no question that such weapons exist, existed, and so did the programs to develop more.”

The Washington Post points out in a Thursday editorial that David Kay’s name has become a handy mantra for deflecting pesky W.M.D. questions.

“Over the past couple of months, the name David Kay has become something of a talisman for President Bush and his senior aides. Every time one of them is asked to explain why no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, Mr. Kay’s name is invoked, sometimes along with his 1,200-member Iraq Survey Group, and the suggestion is made that he will provide all the answers. Mr. Kay ‘will . . . over time produce the information that will respond to your question,’ Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said this month. ‘David Kay will find more evidence,’ promised Vice President Cheney. Mr. Bush himself told the United Nations Tuesday that the Kay group would ‘reveal the full extent of [Iraq’s] weapons programs and long campaign of deception.’

But with no new evidence from the talismanic Mr. Kay, we’ll be waiting on those inspectors to justify the war in Iraq. And while we’re at it, many of the American troops dodging bullets in Baghdad will be patiently joining us, waiting to find out when they can come home. And on the homefront, as the jobless wait for the economy to pick up (just wait till those “stimulus” tax cuts kick in), thousands of soldiers in the National Guard and Reserves wait to find out whether they will be sent to Iraq. With 130,000 Americans serving in Iraq, and a significant U.S. presence promised until 2004, the answer, for the reservists, would appear to be “yes.”

Meanwhile, President Bush won’t have to wait too long for the American public, patient so far but showing signs of strain, to deliver its verdict in the general election.

Now that will be worth the wait.