Jeffrey LewisIraqi WMD Move Themsevles, Maybe to Syria

The Iraq Survey Group has released the last addendum to its report. Here are two headlines:

  • “CIA can’t rule out WMD move to Syria” (Rowan Scarborough, Washington Times April 27, 2005)
  • “Report Finds No Evidence Syria Hid Iraqi Arms” (Dana Priest, Washington Post April 26, 2005)

Actually, both Scarborough and Priest are guilty of lazy writing. The central claim of the Duelfer report regarding prewar movement of WMD material out of Iraq, as I read it, is a distinction between official and unofficial transfers of WMD to Syria. (1) Official transfers are “unlikely”, while (2) limited, unofficial transfers cannot be ruled out.

Needless to say, friends of the Bush Administration have been claiming numero uno.

That distinction is obliterated in lead paragraphs of both articles, which employ the passive voice to obscure just who is transferring the WMD. Take a look at the lead from the Times:

The CIA’s chief weapons inspector said he cannot rule out the possibility that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were secretly shipped to Syria before the March 2003 invasion, citing “sufficiently credible” evidence that WMDs may have been moved there.

And the Post:

U.S. investigators hunting for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have found no evidence that such material was moved to Syria for safekeeping before the war, according to a final report of the investigation released yesterday.

Seriously, people, the WMD didn’t transfer themselves.

Let me add that Priest’s article is clearly the more accurate of the two. Her opening paragraph posits a motive—safekeeping—which implies her article concerns official transfers. My complaint is with her editor, not her story.

Scarborough, on the other hand, misleads the reader by claiming Duelfer found “sufficiently credible evidence that WMDs may have been moved” to Syria. The report actually says “sufficiently credible [evidence] to merit further investigation”—for which the ISG had a totally different burden of proof.

I mean, “sufficiently credible to merit further investigation” should be an easier burden to meet than, say, “sufficiently credible to launch an invasion.”

Of course, that’s just old freedom-hating me.

Here is the relevant section of the addendum:

Prewar Movement of WMD Material Out of Iraq

ISG formed a working group to investigate the possibility of the evacuation of WMD-related material from Iraq prior to the 2003 war. This group spent several months examining documents, interviewing former Iraqi offi cials, examining previous intelligence reports, and conducting some site investigations. The declining security situation limited and fi nally halted this investigation. The results remain inconclusive, but further investigation may be undertaken when circumstances on the ground improve.

The investigation centered on the possibility that WMD materials were moved to Syria. As is obvious from other sections of the Comprehensive Report, Syria was involved in transactions and shipments of military and other material to Iraq in contravention of the UN sanctions. This indicated a flexibility with respect to international law and a strong willingness to work with Iraq—at least when there was considerable profi t for those involved. Whether Syria received military items from Iraq for safekeeping or other reasons has yet to be determined. There was evidence of a discussion of possible WMD collaboration initiated by a Syrian security offi cer, and ISG received information about movement of material out of Iraq, including the possibility that WMD was involved. In the judgment of the working group, these reports were sufficiently credible to merit further investigation.

ISG was unable to complete its investigation and is unable to rule out the possibility that WMD was evacuated to Syria before the war. It should be noted that no information from debriefing of Iraqis in custody supports this possibility. ISG found no senior policy, program, or intelligence officials who admitted any direct knowledge of such movement of WMD. Indeed, they uniformly denied any knowledge of residual WMD that could have been secreted to Syria.

Nevertheless, given the insular and compartmented nature of the Regime, ISG analysts believed there was enough evidence to merit further investigation. It is worth noting that even if ISG had been able to fully examine all the leads it possessed, it is unlikely that conclusive information would have been found. At best, barring discovery of original documentary evidence of the transfer, reports or sources may have been substantiated or negated, but firm conclusions on actual WMD movements may not be possible.

Based on the evidence available at present, ISG judged that it was unlikely that an official transfer of WMD material from Iraq to Syria took place. However, ISG was unable to rule out unofficial movement of limited WMD-related materials.


  1. Phila (History)

    I’d like to know how these materials would’ve been transferred, especially given the massive volumes of nerve gas Saddam was alleged to have had.

    Unless I’m mistaken, we had U-2s, Mirages, Predators, Global Hawks, and tons of spy satellites scouring Iraq hourly in the months before the war. It seems to me that an administration worried about the transfer of WMD would’ve maintained close surveillance of Iraq’s borders, and that allowing the transfer of thousands of gallons of nerve gas to Syria would be as just as shocking an example of incompetence as going to war on the basis of nonexistent WMDs is. But I’m no expert.

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    A wise colleague of mine notes:

    What bothers me about this entire line of inquiry — besides the absence of a clear definition of WMD, although I assume that’s in the report somewhere — is the apparent belief that anyone could engineer a “transfer” of Iraqi WMD to Syria (or anywhere else) so complete as to include all traces of its existence: materials, plans, facilities, knowledge inside people’s heads.

    If ISG had uncovered a huge infrastructure, with (let’s say) 100 sarin-filled warheads missing from an inventory, then it would be rational to wonder where they were, and whether they hadn’t been carried over the border into Syria, Iran, etc. But they found nothing of the sort. So why should we assume that something is missing to begin with?

    Am I missing something? Are we discussing pre-Gulf War stocks?

    Regular readers know that I strongly favor empiricism and — as a consequence — bureaucratic explanations. This regular reader offers the perfect example of that kind of inquiry that I advocate.

  3. Arrigo (History)

    I am really mistified by this renewed attention on Syria: I thought the plan was to go and bring peace and democratic values to North Korea next!

    Who changed the script?

    Is it a cunning plan to ride the coattails of the events in Lebanon? Perhaps since they already had to retreat now is a good time to go and “retreat them” for once and for all?

    My obviously naive assumption was that Iran was not a very good target because of Europe’s unalignment over the issue (which includes on the “wrong side” all of European “coalition of the willing”) and that Syria was now not much fun since the original round of claims of major international removals from Iraq had not stuck.

    So, I was wrong, but do they really want to go into Syria? The only key international objective (i.e. retreat from Lebanon) is happening without any need for major threats – can they really sustain another invasion using the “they are storing Iraq’s WMDs”?