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April 12, 2006

Guest Post By Seth Ackerman

I'm very happy to present a guest post below by Seth Ackerman on the new Washington Post story about the supposed "bio-labs" found in Iraq. Impressively enough, it turns out the post-war WMD lies were just as vigorous as the pre-war WMD lies.

You've probably seen Seth's writing before in Harper's, Mother Jones, and FAIR's Extra! Now a graduate student in history, he's one of the most knowledgeable people there is on the Iraq-WMD issue. In particular, you can't understand what happened without reading his 2004 article "A Legacy of Lies."

Please give him a warm welcome, and he may be willing to return.


by Seth Ackerman

Today's Washington Post is reporting that a secret team of Pentagon inspectors concluded way back in May 2003 that the briefly famous Iraqi "bio-weapons trailers" were in fact nothing of the kind. As you'll recall, the Bush administration responded by immediately calling a press conference to admit that they were wrong.

Sorry, I mean they immediately buried the inspectors' report and then spent the next six months lying about the trailers.

The day after the Pentagon team's findings were transmitted to Washington, the CIA released a white paper on its website insisting, as the Post puts it, "that U.S. officials were 'confident' that the trailers were used for 'mobile biological weapons production.'" Then,

Throughout the summer and fall of 2003, the trailers became simply "mobile biological laboratories" in speeches and press statements by administration officials. In late June, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declared that the "confidence level is increasing" that the trailers were intended for biowarfare. In September, Vice President Cheney pronounced the trailers to be "mobile biological facilities," and said they could have been used to produce anthrax or smallpox.

It wasn't until David Kay released the final Iraq Survey Group report in September 2004 -- which he summarized in Congressional testimony with the deliciously satisfying sentence, "It turns out we were all wrong" -- that the administration finally admitted the trailers were actually intended for making weather balloons (no, I'm serious).

But my favorite part of the Post article is where reporter Joby Warrick quotes Kay:

Kay said he was not apprised of the technical team's findings until late 2003, near the end of his time as the group's leader. "If I had known that we had such a team in Iraq," Kay said, "I would certainly have given their findings more weight."

Now, what makes this funny to me is this. Despite being forced to finally tell the truth in the end, Kay was hardly a good guy in the WMD saga. In the run-up to the war, he became one of those As-Seen-On-TV celebrity weapons inspectors. He was constantly on the news telling us how *terrifyingly huge* Saddam's schlong -- I mean *arsenal* -- was. Of course, it's true, there were a lot of ex-inspectors on TV back then. And a lot of them were talking about Saddam's huge, veiny arsenal. But Kay was one of the most gung-ho. He always used the latest talking points. It was clear that he was on the team. That's why the administration eventually picked him to lead the investigation.

So here's the thing. When the war ended and the weapons hunt started, Kay was an official "NBC News Analyst," always on call in case a big, throbbing cache of WMD was discovered. In May 2003, when they first found the trailers, Kay raced to Baghdad, where NBC's Baghdad correspondent Jim Avila filmed him triumphantly standing in front of the trailers with a pointer:

AVILA: A mobile lab capable of manufacturing anthrax or botulism from the back of a truck, with equipment manufactured as late as 2003. Former UN Chief Weapons Inspector David Kay, now an NBC News analyst, went over the lab firsthand.

Mr. DAVID KAY: This is a compressor. You want to keep the fermentation process under pressure so it goes faster. This vessel is the fermenter. You took the nutrients--think of it as sort of the chicken soup for biological weapons. You mixed it with the seed stock, which came from this gravity flow tank up here into the fermenter. And under pressure with heat, it fermented.

AVILA: The other two mobile labs are secured here at the Baghdad Airport. They're said to be in better condition. Military intelligence officers have visited the factory where they're made and now believe there are eight mobile labs in country. Military inspectors say these labs look very similar to those in the UN presentation made by Colin Powell before the war. And according to Kay, any claims they had any legitimate use makes little sense.

Mr. KAY: Literally, there's nothing else you would do this way on a mobile facility. It is it.

Kay was in fact pointing at a giant weather-balloon machine.

It's hard to know what to say about this whole story. One thing I'd note is that when the administration announced the discovery of the trailers, UNMOVIC immediately asked for permission to inspect them -- they were still legally mandated to oversee Iraq's disarmament -- but the administration refused. Yet David Kay and his NBC cameras managed to get permission. Somehow I suspect he regrets that now.

Posted at April 12, 2006 02:10 AM | TrackBack

Cal, excellent point. And don't overlook the fact that if Saddam had inflated several million balloons off the east coast and then popped them simultaneously, he could have done incredible damage to America's eardrums.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at April 12, 2006 07:14 AM

I'm deathly afraid of balloons, whether they be filled with air or water. In fact, I find the ones that are made to assume some kind of pleasing shape (a cute weiner doggie for example), usually created by some evil clown not known by the name Vice President, to be the most frightening of all.

Posted by: wkmaier at April 12, 2006 08:03 AM

In fact, I find the ones that are made to assume some kind of pleasing shape (a cute weiner doggie for example), usually created by some evil clown not known by the name Vice President, to be the most frightening of all.

This raises another important aspect of this: what if Saddam had blown up hydrogen balloons in the shape of nuclear weapons? Wouldn't we have then been required by international law to deal with this terrifying threat?

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at April 12, 2006 08:07 AM

A "veiny" WMD threat?! Uh-oh! Best lock up the womenfolk in South Dakota!

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at April 12, 2006 09:08 AM

Exactly right, Aaron. But it's just as important to prevent them from seeing the satellite imagery.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at April 12, 2006 09:10 AM

Hi Seth, wonderful post.

I had seen the WaPo story, but your additional find of this NBC TV segment is really the icing on this confection from the Bush kitchen.

That's the kind of stuff that connected with people, I think -- the pictures and images. Not that the lies in print weren't doing their job well, but TV's still the place to get your war on, even today.

I only don't understand this: 'Yet David Kay and his NBC cameras managed to get permission. Somehow I suspect he regrets that now.' Are you suggesting Kay's a reader of ATR?

Posted by: Half at April 12, 2006 09:25 AM

As excited as I was to welcome the word "schlong" to this particular Tiny Revolution, I think I have to take issue with the same chunk that Half does.

Kay took us to war and he kept the support pumping. That's exactly what he wanted to do; I don't think he regrets a damn thing.

Posted by: Sully at April 12, 2006 09:35 AM

Your chronology is a bit off. Kay resigned from the ISG in January, 2004, which is when he made his "We were all wrong" statement. The ISG's final report was released by Charles Duelfer in September, 2004.

Also, while I'm always in favor of learning the truth, discrediting Kay at this point is just reopening the door for the wingnuts. Something along these lines: "So Kay thought weather-balloon trailers were bioweapons labs? Obviously he wouldn't know a bioweapons lab if he did see one--which he probably did." (Of course, a real wingnut would have included spelling and grammatical errors.)

The idea that the ISG was headed by a Bush-supporting ideologue was actually reassuring after he had reported that they'd found nothing. The idea that he was incompetent for the task he led is not good in any way.

Posted by: Bob at April 12, 2006 10:16 AM

The Observer on 6/8/03,6903,973012,00.html
explained both the extreme unsuitability of the labs for chemical weapons work and that their real purpose was likely the manufacture of artillery balloons.

But I must agree with previous commenters as to the dangers of balloons. Have you seen the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade? Weapons of Mass Snoopies.

And do we really want the smoking gun to come in the form of a mushroom-cloud-shaped balloon?

Posted by: WIIIAI at April 12, 2006 10:25 AM

I'm not entirely clear why this trailer thing represents a bust. Irregardless of the fact that they're not nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, I think there's a rich body of literature and cultural experience suggesting that weather machines (even ones based on balloon technology) are dangerous weapons of mass destruction in the hands of cartoonish supervillains like Madass Insane. In fact, considering the erratic behavior of the weather recently, it's entirely possible that Saddam DID respond to our invasion by using his nefarious device.

Posted by: saurabh at April 12, 2006 10:26 AM

So instead of going to war we just needed to call up Luke and Laura? Damn.

Posted by: Saheli at April 12, 2006 12:02 PM

One inspector called these trailers "the biggest sand toilets in the world."
Saddam had to go down. Toilet envy.
USA, still #1.

Posted by: donescobar at April 12, 2006 04:17 PM

Lincoln was right--you really can fool some people all of the time.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at April 12, 2006 04:24 PM