On May 29, 2003, 50 days after the fall of Baghdad, President Bush proclaimed a fresh victory for his administration in Iraq: Two small trailers captured by U.S. and Kurdish troops had turned out to be long-sought mobile “biological laboratories.” He declared, “We have found the weapons of mass destruction.”
When Bush made the above comment I found it annoying. It seemed like a flippant response. We didn’t invade Iraq because of two trailers, regardless of whether they could be used to make some kind of biological weapon. We went to war with Iraq, supposedly, so that a mushroom cloud would not suddenly appear in an American city. But, Bush’s remark was not only flippant, it was not only wrong…it was knowingly wrong. It was a lie.
A secret fact-finding mission to Iraq — not made public until now — had already concluded that the trailers had nothing to do with biological weapons. Leaders of the Pentagon-sponsored mission transmitted their unanimous findings to Washington in a field report on May 27, 2003, two days before the president’s statement.
The three-page field report and a 122-page final report three weeks later were stamped “secret” and shelved. Meanwhile, for nearly a year, administration and intelligence officials continued to publicly assert that the trailers were weapons factories.
For nearly a year…the administration stuck to their story. How long did it take the team of experts to debunk their story?
“Within the first four hours,” said one team member, who like the others spoke on the condition he not be named, “it was clear to everyone that these were not biological labs.”
And how did the government react?
News of the team’s early impressions leaped across the Atlantic well ahead of the technical report. Over the next two days, a stream of anxious e-mails and phone calls from Washington pressed for details and clarifications.
The reason for the nervousness was soon obvious: In Washington, a CIA analyst had written a draft white paper on the trailers, an official assessment that would also reflect the views of the DIA. The white paper described the trailers as “the strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological warfare program.” It also explicitly rejected an explanation by Iraqi officials, described in a New York Times article a few days earlier, that the trailers might be mobile units for producing hydrogen.
But the technical team’s preliminary report, written in a tent in Baghdad and approved by each team member, reached a conclusion opposite from that of the white paper.
Oops. So, what to do? Publish the white paper anyway.
The technical team’s preliminary report was transmitted in the early hours of May 27, just before its members began boarding planes to return home. Within 24 hours, the CIA published its white paper, “Iraqi Mobile Biological Warfare Agent Production Plants,” on its Web site.
And those pesky scientists that went all the way to Iraq to do some…science?
In the end, the final report — 19 pages plus a 103-page appendix — remained unequivocal in declaring the trailers unsuitable for weapons production.
“It was very assertive,” said one weapons expert familiar with the report’s contents.
Then, their mission completed, the team members returned to their jobs and watched as their work appeared to vanish.
“I went home and fully expected that our findings would be publicly stated,” one member recalled. “It never happened. And I just had to live with it.”