A blockbuster story in Sunday's New York Times reports that, during the height of the Iraq War in 2005 and 2006, the CIA secretly purchased decades-old Iraqi chemical weapons from an undisclosed seller, in an effort to prevent those weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. This follows up on an October New York Times investigation that found that American troops in Iraq "repeatedly encountered, and on at least six occasions were wounded by, chemical weapons remaining from years earlier in Saddam Hussein's rule."
The American invasion of Iraq was premised on Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and chemical weapons are WMDs. So these stories finally vindicate President George W. Bush and his decision to invade Iraq, right?
Wrong. The stories, while important, are being widely misrepresented by Iraq war advocates — including Karl Rove himself — seeking to exonerate Bush. Just as they did in October when the initial investigation came out (and when an earlier version of this post ran), those Iraq war advocates are also attempting to re-write history, misrepresenting the Bush administration's widely-publicized rationale for invading.
These stories comes nowhere close to backing up Bush's claims — and nothing ever has
The world has always known that Saddam had a chemical weapons program in the late 1970s and 1980s — American companies helped him build it — but that he shut it down in 1991. In 2002, Bush argued that the US had to invade because Saddam was actively developing new chemical, biological and nuclear WMDs, in a secret and ongoing program, with an explicitly aggressive purpose: "to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons, and diseases, and gases, and atomic weapons."
Bush was explicit in claiming that Saddam had an active weapons program: "Saddam Hussein still has chemical and biological weapons, and is increasing his capabilities to make more. And he is moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon." (Bizarrely, a number of conservatives now insist that Bush never made any such claim.)
The Bush administration hit this argument repeatedly. Then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice claimed that Saddam was running a clandestine nuclear program that was only "six months from a crude nuclear device." She argued that this program was so imminent, and so clearly designed to target the United States, that a US invasion was the only option: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
Those claims have never been proven, including by these New York Times reports (the October Times article is very clear about this). Rather, these stories reveal only that Iraq was sprinkled with aging, forgotten, and long-discarded warheads from Saddam's shuttered 1980s chemical weapons program — and that the Bush and Obama administrations have systematically covered up discoveries of those warheads, including the wounds they've caused American soldiers.
The timeline of Saddam's WMDs makes this all extremely clear
It can help to look at this in a timeline. Here are the major, relevant events:
1980s: Saddam Hussein's Iraq, at war with Iran, develops chemical and biological weapons, which Saddam uses against Iran and against his own people. The US, which opposes Iran, is Saddam's ally; American companies help build the chemical weapons.
1988: The Iran-Iraq War ends. Saddam has expended most of his chemical and biological weapons.
1991: The US and its allies defeat the Iraqi army, which had invaded Kuwait. Saddam agrees to shut down his WMD programs and to allow the United Nations to dismantle his remaining arsenal and production.
Oct. 31, 1998: President Bill Clinton signs the Iraq Liberation Act, which announces that US policy is to sponsor Iraqi rebel groups to overthrow Saddam Hussein. That day, Saddam kicks out the UN WMD inspectors. The US and UK bomb Iraq in retaliation. Some of the abandoned chemical weapons remain decaying in old bunkers and warehouses, where US soldiers will find them years later.
2002-2003: The Bush administration claims that Saddam has restarted his chemical and biological weapons programs, and is six months from a nuclear bomb. These claims have never been proven. The US and its allies invade Iraq and find no active WMD programs.
2004-2011: American troops stumble on thousands of discarded and forgotten chemical weapons from Saddam's 1980s program (this was first reported in 2004); several troops are injured. The US covers up these discoveries. The CIA buys up old stockpiles of 1980s-era chemical weapons, to keep them from falling into terrorists' hands.
So why are these new New York Times stories such a big deal?
There are four reasons, by far the biggest of which is the cover-up. As if American troops in Iraq had not suffered enough, soldiers who stumbled on to chemical weapons — and in some cases were injured by them — were shushed and denied recognition or medical treatment for their injuries, the October Times investigation reported. The Times says the US did this "for multiple reasons, including that the government bristled at further acknowledgment it had been wrong."
The second reason is that the October report documented that troops often disposed of these chemical weapons improperly, in the process exposing themselves, the environment, and especially Iraqi civilians to harm. This is likely a symptom of the cover-up; the Pentagon could not develop and disseminate WMD disposal instructions for WMDs it refused to acknowledge existed.
The third reason is the least surprising but perhaps most worrying: a number of the old chemical weapons are clustered around an old production facility in a part of Iraq now controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While the weapons are decades old, most likely rotten beyond conventional use, the fear that ISIS could repurpose them for terrorism is real.
And, fourth, is the good news: as Sunday's investigation recounts, the CIA-led effort to buy up old chemical weapons was a significant success, meaning that there were few old sarin warheads lying around Iraq, waiting to injure Iraqi civilians or troops, or to be discovered by terrorists.
Still, to be extremely clear on this: at no point do these New York Times stories go anywhere near, nor claim to go anywhere near, even a little bit vindicating Bush's justification for the Iraq War. Anyone who tells you otherwise is distorting not just today's story but the well-recorded history of the war itself.