I’m just now catching up to the Joby Warrick “explanation” of the Syrian chemical weapons scare from two weeks ago. Particularly coming on the heels of the NYT’s replay of its old Iraq A1 cutout play (see Moon of Alabama on that), I expected to react to it as propaganda first and foremost.
But mostly, I think the story is an awful mess.
A very central part of the story is that no one (“Western” and “Middle Eastern” sources are cited) knows whether Syrians began to mix the chemicals because of an order of Bashar al-Assad or because a rogue officer ordered it.
Intelligence analysts said the orders to prepare the weapons were issued about two weeks ago. They said it was not clear whether the decision came from senior Syrian leaders, possibly including President Bashar al-Assad, or from a field commander acting on his own, the officials said.
Since concerns surfaced in the summer that Syria was moving chemical weapons among several sites across the country, officials in Damascus have repeatedly pledged not to use the banned munitions. After the warnings last week from Obama and other foreign leaders, the Syrian Foreign Ministry repeated that it would not use chemical weapons against the rebel forces.
Still, the discovery that steps had been taken to activate weapons at at least one military base alarmed intelligence officials, because of fears that a single commander could unleash the deadly poisons without orders from higher up the chain of command.
In spite of this reported uncertainty, sources (including Leon Panetta, on the record) act like Assad “got the message.”
“We haven’t seen anything new indicating any aggressive steps to move forward in that way,” Panetta told reporters during a visit to Kuwait. Referring to Obama’s warning to Assad, the defense secretary said, “I like to believe he’s got the message.”
That would seem to indicate a belief, perhaps within the US, that Assad gave the order.
Nevertheless the possibility that a rogue officer might launch a CW attack allows Warrick’s sources to entertain the possibility that a rogue officer would use the weapons while Assad would not because the officer might believe he has nothing left to lose.
“Once you’ve used the weapons, you know the world is coming after you,” the official said. “But if you’re a general and you think you’re not going to survive this, you might not care.”
The standard treatment by the US for vanquished dictators these days–given the recent history of Saddam and Qaddafi–is a sloppy, humiliating death. Is it really possible that all the anti-Assad intelligence agencies have failed to think through the implications of this? Assad, far more than a rogue General, would have to believe he wasn’t going to live.
Not to mention that the latter half of Warrick’s article suggests why CW would be hard to use effectively in a civil war, with rebels and the regime mixed in close proximity.
Now, for the record, someone (I forget who) floated the idea that if Assad were to use CW, he might be more interested in using them against Turkey, which is the launching pad for this war. None of Warrick’s sources seem to consider that fairly out of the box suggestion. (There’s always the possibility he’d use them as a threat against Israel).
But then there’s the issue I brought up shortly after this happened. The CW mixing happened on November 28. The next day, Syria’s Internet went down (something that goes unmentioned in Warrick’s piece). I suggested in my earlier article that Western assertions that the outage had nothing to do with the CW mixing suggested we, not Assad, brought the Toobz down.
Whether we did or Assad did, though, you’d think this now central concern about rogue officers would have made the Internet outage a really fucking big deal, given that it would have disrupted the command and control that Western intelligence were purportedly already worried about. Nope! We had great visibility, we said.
Oh, did I mention that just after this went down Syria’s Foreign Ministry (the folks who supposedly reassured us on the CW) spokesperson, Jihad Makdissi, defected? You think he might have something to say about the broken Toobz and the alleged CW prep? You think it’s possible he was an asset getting out just after he had carried out two big ops for us, one an InfoOp, the other tactical?
Now, obviously the CW and the Scud missile allegations are designed to gin up a coalition of the willing (and persuade Russia and other members of the coalition of the unwilling) so we can go to war in Syria.
But their narrative is so problematic and dodgy I can’t make sense of whether they really are that stupid or just their narrative is.
In a little noticed piece (best as I can tell, only NYPost picked it up in the US), AFP reports that the last Iraqi WMD scientist still held in prison, Mahmud Faraj Bilal Al Samarrai, is set to be released.
“The judicial authorities have decided to free Mahmud Faraj Bilal al Samarrai,” he said.
That’s welcome news for Bilal al Samarrai, I’m sure. But here’s the detail that ought to interest American taxpayers even more:
In a letter to the CIA in 2006, made public by his lawyer, the former head of research and development at the military industries ministry recalled that he had given himself up to the CIA on March 2, 2003.
Samarrai said his immediate superior, General Faez Abdullah Shahin, was never jailed and Saddam scientific adviser General Hammudi al Saadi was freed in 2005, as was deputy premier and military industries minister Abdel Tawab Mullah Hawaish.
The AFP provides the evidence of the bombshell there, but doesn’t make it explicit. This guy “gave himself up” to the CIA on March 2, 2003, more that two weeks before the war started.
Which is all the more troubling paired with the Iraq Survey Group report, which makes clear Bilal al Samarrai (whom they refer to as Bilal) is the guy who destroyed undeclared chemical weapons in response to IAEA inspections in 1991.
Following a particularly invasive IAEA inspection in late-June 1991, Saddam ordered Dr. Mahmud Faraj Bilal, former deputy of the CW program, to destroy all hidden CW and BW materials, according to an interview with Bilal after OIF
A senior Iraqi scientist who directed the destruction of chemical and biological munitions contends that the decision to destroy the hidden materials was made at the end of June 1991. David Kay’s inspection and the ensuing controversy prompted Iraqi concerns about renewed war with the United States, according to Dr. Mahmud Firaj Bilal. Amir Rashid contacted Dr. Bilal and ordered that all hidden chemical and biological munitions be destroyed within 48 hours. When Bilal responded that this was impossible, Rashid directed that Bilal use the resources of the Iraqi Air Force and the surface-to-surface missile force to accomplish the task. Dr. Bilal gathered his colleagues from Al Muthanna State Establishment, went to the locations of the stored munitions, and began the destruction.
ISG interviewed Dr. Mahmud Firaj Bilal, the Iraqi scientist who supervised the destruction of Iraq’s undeclared chemical munitions, along with a number of Iraqi higher officials who were knowledgeable of the weapons destruction. Although other sources have corroborated parts of Dr. Bilal’s account, ISG’s understanding of Iraq’s chemical and biological warfare agent unilateral destruction is heavily dependent on Dr. Bilal’s information, which is a weakness in our analysis. Nevertheless, as with Iraq’s long range missiles, we obtained a reasonably coherent account of the disposition of the CW munitions, though we were not able physically to verify the story. The UN has, however, verified some of it.
- Iraq likely destroyed all 20 concealed CW Al Husayn missile warheads in the summer of 1991, according to Dr. Bilal based on UN-sponsored excavations. All were “binary” GB/GF nerve agent warheads filled with a mixture of isopropanol and cyclohexanol and MPF. Continue reading
After David Kay determined that there were no WMDs in Iraq, Charles Duelfer was brought in to create the appearance of a casus belli by focusing on Iraq’s ongoing intent to develop WMDs and on the Oil for Food scandal. Ultimately, Duelfer achieved the former goal with this claim.
Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq’s WMD capability—which was essentially destroyed in 1991—after sanctions were removed and Iraq’s economy stabilized, but probably with a different mix of capabilities to that which previously existed. Saddam aspired to develop a nuclear capability—in an incremental fashion, irrespective of international pressure and the resulting economic risks—but he intended to focus on ballistic missile and tactical chemical warfare (CW) capabilities.
- Iran was the pre-eminent motivator of this policy. All senior level Iraqi officials considered Iran to be Iraq’s principal enemy in the region. The wish to balance Israel and acquire status and influence in the Arab world were also considerations, but secondary.
- Iraq Survey Group (ISG) judges that events in the 1980s and early 1990s shaped Saddam’s belief in the value of WMD. In Saddam’s view, WMD helped to save the Regime multiple times. He believed that during the Iran-Iraq war chemical weapons had halted Iranian ground offensives and that ballistic missile attacks on Tehran had broken its political will. Similarly, during Desert Storm, Saddam believed WMD had deterred Coalition Forces from pressing their attack beyond the goal of freeing Kuwait. WMD had even played a role in crushing the Shi’a revolt in the south following the 1991 cease-fire.
- The former Regime had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after sanctions. Neither was there an identifiable group of WMD policy makers or planners separate from Saddam. Instead, his lieutenants understood WMD revival was his goal from their long association with Saddam and his infrequent, but firm, verbal comments and directions to them.
For that reason, it was critically important to Duelfer to get Saddam to personally admit his intention to develop WMD after sanctions. Here’s how Duelfer described that "admission" in his book.
It was the second week in June when [Saddam's FBI interrogator George] Piro came to me, beaming. Continue reading
The National Security Archive has posted a bunch of FBI interview reports from Saddam’s interrogation. As the NSA notes, this record is not complete.
Not included in these FBI reports are issues of particular interest to students of Iraq’s complicated relationship with the U.S. – the reported role of the CIA in facilitating the Ba’ath party’s rise to power, the uneasy alliance forged between Iraq and the U.S. during the Iran-Iraq war, and the precise nature of U.S. views regarding Iraq’s chemical weapons policy during that conflict, given its contemporaneous knowledge of their repeated use against Iranians and the Kurds.
This series of interviews also does not address chemical warfare in Kurdish areas of Iraq in 1987-1988, although an FBI progress report says Saddam was questioned on the topic. One interview, #20, is redacted in its entirety on national security grounds, although it is not clear what issues agents could have discussed with Saddam that cannot now be disclosed to the public.
While they don’t say it specifically, there are interview notes specifically excluded. Not noted by the NSA, for example, is that the CIA interrogated Saddam from the time he was captured in mid-December until when the FBI took over in February. As Charles Duelfer describes in his book, Hide and Seek, they weren’t the best equipped to conduct this interrogation.
While the team was expert, only one analyst had spent much time in Iraq and personally knew senior Iraqis. (389)
Furthermore, as NSA does suggest, there are more "Casual Conversations" than have been turned over to NSA. Duelfer, for example, describes Special Agent Piro, Saddam’s interrogator, finally getting Saddan to open up in April.
Saddam began to open up with Piro in April, at least in his informal meetings. (402)
As you can see from the NSA list of interview materials, there’s a gap in what NSA got from the end of March through May–precisely the period when Duelfer describes Saddam beginning to open up.
I’m still reading these reports, but for the moment I’m interested in a paragraph from the June 11 Conversation (it is mislabeled June 1 in the NSA list).
Hussen commented he allowed the UN inspectors back into Iraq to counter allegations by the British Government. Hussen stated this was a very difficult decision to make, but the British Government had prepared a report containing inaccurate intelligence. It was this inaccurate intelligence on which the United States was making their decisions. Continue reading