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Hidden Truths

The Report of the Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Dr. David Kelly, CMG

by Lord Hutton
Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 740 pp., £70.00

The first four years of the twenty-first century have produced enough strange and unsettling developments to haunt a far longer period. They include the September 11 attacks and widespread terrorism by suicide bombing; the descent into savage despair of that wellspring of hatred and violence, the Israeli–Palestinian problem; the opening of a dangerous gulf of misunderstanding between the United States and much of the rest of the world; the growing, and terrifying, threat of nuclear proliferation; and the proclamation by the United States of the policy of preventive and preemptive war and at least one questionable experiment with it. The relative optimism that attended the beginning of the century has largely evaporated.

That the actual threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) was, as it turns out, flagrantly misrepresented continues to preoccupy the Western press and to erode the reputations of several Western leaders. The two books under review are both retrospective studies of aspects of this complex subject, the one a memoir of the attempt to deal with the Iraqi threat by inspection and disarmament, the other an inquiry into a single tragic episode that transfixed the United Kingdom and threatened the career of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Both books raise important questions about the conduct of national as well as international affairs in the future.


Hans Blix is a seventy-five-year-old Swedish lawyer and public servant, who for sixteen years until 1997 was director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In March 2000 he was called out of retirement—he was on his way to Antarctica with his wife—to lead the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), which was created by the UN Security Council in 1999 to resume weapons inspections in Iraq. Blix, before he was vindicated by the postwar search for weapons in Iraq, was systematically treated with contempt by leading members of the Bush administration. In view of this, his book is remarkably even-tempered and magnanimous. He has no doubt that without the American military buildup his inspectors would never have been allowed to return to Iraq, and under far better working conditions than the previous UN inspectors. He makes no secret of the fact that until a late stage he was himself inclined to believe that Iraq might still be concealing some stocks of chemical and biological weapons, as well as some illegal missiles.

Saddam Hussein agreed to let the UNMOVIC inspectors back into Iraq on September 16, 2002, when the American and British military buildup in Kuwait and elsewhere was already well under way. The conclusions of Western intelligence agencies at the time were generally hedged. The agencies said that they were “inclined to believe” weapons existed or that the evidence “strongly suggests” their presence. Such qualified claims nevertheless were the basis for the dogmatic statements pouring out of Washington and London about the monstrous and imminent threat of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs—statements “as firm as [they were] unfounded,” as Blix puts it. UNMOVIC’s mission was to find hard evidence of Iraq’s suspected WMDs.

After September 11, strategies for containment and deterrence were unpopular in Washington, as was the United Nations, so Blix’s mission was unlikely to be welcome there. In the last, vitriolic debates in the Security Council before the war, Blix himself was resented and criticized by some US officials and commentators. “It is an interesting notion,” he comments on these debates, “that when a small minority has been rebuffed by a strong majority, it is the majority that has failed the test.”

Blix was aware from the beginning that he was caught in a paradoxical situation. The US buildup was undoubtedly the reason why Saddam Hussein agreed to let the inspectors return on September 16, 2002. But by the time the inspectors could actually start work, the beginning of the hot season in Iraq—and the presumed deadline for starting military operations—would be only four months away and would put an impossible time limit on their mission, which might provide an alternative to military action. Sometimes Blix could not avoid the suspicion that UNMOVIC’s work was intended largely to fill in the time until the military buildup was complete; the unfinished work of his inspectors would then be used—as in fact it was—as the pretext for military action.

The comments of leaders in Washington were not reassuring. Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld lost no opportunity to say that UNMOVIC was useless. Rumsfeld was quoted as saying that “things have been found [in Iraq] not by discovery, but through defectors.” The chief witness for this simplistic statement was, ironically, Hussein Kamal, Saddam’s son-in-law, who had defected in 1995 and had told his interrogators that he had ordered the destruction of all Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in 1991. The belatedly discovered truth of Hussein Kamal’s assertion became one of Blix’s main problems, because the Iraqis had not kept records of the 1991 destruction of WMD stocks; the stocks could not be found by the inspectors since they no longer existed; and the 12,000-page Iraqi declaration to the Security Council in December 2002 that there were no longer any weapons did not describe the stocks or their destruction, and was therefore denounced as incomplete and duplicitous.

If further proof of antipathy to UNMOVIC was needed, The Washington Post reported that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had requested a CIA investigation of Blix’s performance at IAEA and had “hit the ceiling” when nothing could be found to undermine Blix and the inspection program. According to the Post, Wolfowitz allegedly feared that the inspections could “torpedo” plans for military action against Saddam Hussein.

As director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Blix had been responsible for the IAEA team that worked on nuclear sites with UNSCOM, the original UN inspection group.1 Blix believed that what he regarded as the Rambo tactics of some UNSCOM inspectors had, on balance, antagonized the Iraqis and, by humiliating them, made them more obstinate.2 The IAEA team in Iraq had called the UNSCOM inspectors “cowboys” and in turn were christened “bunny-huggers” by the UNSCOM people. Before UNSCOM was withdrawn from Iraq in 1998, its integrity and international credibility had been badly damaged because, contrary to UN practice, US intelligence agencies had exploited its information.3 Still, before it left, UNSCOM succeeded in destroying chemical warfare stocks, missiles, and other illegal weapons. The IAEA team had also effectively countered a possible nuclear threat by destroying installations at which nuclear weapons development may have been pursued and flying all fissionable material out of the country.

Blix was determined to heed the lessons of UNSCOM. He told the UNMOVIC inspectors, he writes, to be dynamic in their approach but not angry, firm but correct, ingenious but not deceptive. They were to be calm but somewhat impatient, keeping some distance but not arrogant or pompous, respectful of those they dealt with but also demanding respect for themselves. Unlike UNSCOM, whose inspectors were loaned to the UN by a few governments, Blix’s team was on the UN payroll and was drawn from a far wider group of countries. Blix was determined that UNMOVIC should remain a UN mission under his control and avoid the exploitation by Western intelligence agencies of privileged information obtained by UNSCOM. He soon found that the resulting paucity of US intelligence was not a disadvantage. “Considering,” he writes, “how misleading much of the intelligence given us eventually proved to be, it was a blessing that we did not get more. What we came to discover was that no sites given to us by intelligence were ever found to harbor weapons of mass destruction.” Not coincidentally, UNMOVIC was routinely referred to in the US press and in Washington as being notably inferior to UNSCOM.

Although UNMOVIC had an exceptionally strong Security Council mandate for its inspections in Iraq, the Iraqis were slow to seize the opportunity to avert disaster that it offered them. In Baghdad, Blix was at first referred to as a spy when he took a firm line about the way UNMOVIC would work. However, his chief interlocutor, General Amir al-Saadi, who later on would be the first senior Iraqi to give himself up to the coalition, soon realized the necessity, and the difficulty, of proving the nonexistence of things that either had never existed or did not now exist. These included Colin Powell’s favorite, mobile biological warfare units (which al-Saadi said would have been an unjustifiable danger on the roads), as well as the fictitious yellowcake from Niger and the stocks that had been destroyed in 1991. For once in agreement with Donald Rumsfeld, Blix quotes his quip, “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” That, in brief, was UNMOVIC’s dilemma.

If illegal Iraqi activities or materials still existed, they had to be found and eliminated, and this would inevitably take time. Even so, with its staff of 260 people from sixty countries, UNMOVIC made three hundred inspections at 230 sites. They turned up some probably illegal missiles, which were destroyed, some old cluster bombs that conceivably could have been loaded with tiny amounts of chemical weapons, a rudimentary experimental drone aircraft that the New York Times Baghdad correspondent called “farcical.” Blix’s staff laboriously assessed this very meager harvest of information, while the United States desperately seized on it as evidence of Iraqi “noncompliance,” on occasion accusing Blix of trying to conceal it. Of the people Blix talked to, President Jacques Chirac of France was almost alone in believing that the UN inspections had disarmed Iraq long ago. Intelligence services “intoxicate each other,” Chirac told Blix.

Saddam Hussein refused to see Blix and his IAEA colleague Mohamed ElBaradei, and, until it was much too late, the Iraqis continued to haggle over matters like U-2 flights and producing Iraqis for unmonitored interviews by UNMOVIC. Blix was exasperated and puzzled. Was Saddam Hus- sein’s reluctance to provide proof that Iraq had no weapons a matter of self-respect, national pride, a reaction to feelings of humiliation, or just a dangerous and self-destructive lack of common sense?4

On February 5, 2003, Colin Powell made his now famous statement to the UN Security Council. At the time it was almost universally hailed as convincing, and at least it omitted the fraudulent claim that Iraq had obtained yellowcake from Niger. Blix wondered, he writes, how there could be “100-percent certainty about the existence of weapons of mass destruction but zero percent knowledge about their location,” and he felt obliged to caution the Council about the evidence coming in from US and other intelligence services.5 UNMOVIC had found nothing at any of the sites pointed out by US intelligence. Blix comments that if intelligence agencies “fail to report something that later turns out to pose a danger or result in disaster, they will be faulted. If they overreport, on the other hand, they are not likely to be criticized.” He quotes, as a typical result of this tendency, Powell’s remarks to the Senate Budget Committee: “This is not just an academic exercise…. We’re talking about real weapons. We’re talking about anthrax. We’re talking about botulinum toxin. We’re talking about nuclear weapons programs.” None of which, of course, existed. On the other hand, the destruction of a number of al- Samoud 2 missiles under UNMOVIC’s supervision was later characterized by Powell as a sham.

  1. 1

    David Kay had been a spectacularly successful and dashing IAEA inspector in 1991, although he was not a scientist. However, in later years Kay had always called himself an UNSCOM inspector, and Blix believed that he had been a constant critic of the IAEA and of Blix himself in Washington and had strengthened the local skepticism about inspections. “He did not know how successful the pursuit of inspections and sanctions supported by military pressure had been,” Blix comments.

  2. 2

    Blix refers to the New Yorker report which describes the pep talk UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter was said to have given his team. “You work for me, so every one of you are alpha dogs. When we go to a site, they’re gonna know we’re there, we’re gonna raise our tails and we’re gonna spray urine all over their walls—that’s the equivalent of what we are doing. So, when we leave a site they know they’ve been inspected.” See Peter J. Boyer, “Scott Ritter’s Private War,” The New Yorker, November 9, 1998.

  3. 3

    See my “How Not to Deal with Bullies,” The New York Review, September 21, 2000.

  4. 4

    In a report on the interrogation of Saddam Hussein, he denies having weapons of mass destruction and is asked why, in that case, he blocked the inspectors from some sites. “We didn’t want them to go into the presidential areas and intrude on our privacy,” he replied. (Brian Bennett, “Notes from Saddam in Custody,” Time, December 14, 2003.)

  5. 5

    Recently The New York Times reported that the CIA was changing its procedures to ensure that in future its analysts are informed when reports they are analyzing come from defectors linked to exile organizations. See “Stung by Exiles’ Role, CIA Orders a Shift in Procedures,” February 13, 2004.

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