Weapons Of Mass Disappearance

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Soldiers of the 25th Infantry rummage through a bombed-out house in Mosel looking for weapons

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--FUDGING MISTAKES. One of the most dramatic charges came from Bush in his State of the Union speech this year when he said Saddam had sought to buy uranium from an African nation, later identified as Niger. It wasn't long before the claim, lifted from a British intelligence report, was revealed to be bogus. The documents on which the charge was based were discovered to be forged and faked. But rather than withdraw the charge, the White House claimed instead that Bush omitted any reference to Niger because reports that Saddam had sought uranium had come, an official explained, "from more than one country and more than one source." The other nation, if it exists, has yet to be named. But the mystery has led the Senate Intelligence Committee to ask the CIA for an investigation.

But if the Bush team overreached, one nagging question is, Why? A defense expert who has spent 20 years watching Republicans argue about foreign policy from the inside believes the hard-liners' agenda isn't about Iraq or even oil. It's simply that the most zealous defenders of America's role in the world are congenitally disposed to overreact to every threat — which leads them to read too much into the intelligence. "They came in with a world view, and they looked for things to fit into it," says Lawrence Korb, who served in the Reagan Pentagon and now works at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If you hadn't had 9/11, they would be doing the same things to China."

The U.S. does appear to have one solid argument on its side: those mysterious mobile biowarfare labs. The CIA shared its findings with reporters last week about two tractor-trailer trucks seized in Iraq that it claims were designed for the production of biological weapons. The agency published a nine-page white paper on its website about the mobile labs — allegations that are very similar to charges made by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his U.N. speech on Feb. 5. President Bush pointed to the trucks last week as the best evidence yet that the intelligence wasn't overheated. And en route to Europe, Powell ventured to the back of Air Force One and explained to reporters a bit more about how the U.S. learned of the vans' purpose. "We didn't just make them up one night. Those were eyewitness accounts of people who had worked in the program and knew it was going on, multiple accounts." Powell sarcastically dismissed alternative explanations: "'Oh, it was a hydrogen-making thing for balloons.' No. There's no question in my mind what it was designed for." But even Powell acknowledged that there were no signs of pathogens in the trucks.

Top U.S. officials believe the missing weapons are so well hidden that it will take months or perhaps years to find them — an explanation that has the added virtue of giving them a lot more time. G.I.s have searched only about a third of the 900 suspected sites across the Iraqi countryside. Even the Administration's positions are in flux. Saddam, according to Rumsfeld, could have destroyed the weapons right before the war or even moved them out of the country. "I don't know the answer," Rumsfeld said last week, "and I suspect we'll find out a lot more information as we go along and keep interrogating people."

After a war, the victors always write the history, and that means they can rewrite the war's causes. Even without WMD, the mass graves discovered in Iraq prove that Saddam was a despot worthy of toppling. For many — including some in the Administration — that did not seem a sufficient reason to launch the last war. But until the missing weapons are found, it could be a long time before an American President will be able to rely on his interpretation of intelligence data to launch another war.

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