Where are the promised arms of mass destruction?

Wednesday, June 4, 2003 at 1:00am

It's been seven weeks since the statue of Saddam Hussein toppled in Baghdad. And American forces have still found no weapons of mass destruction.

An embarrassed Bush administration keeps changing its story: Give us 12 years, we'll find 'em. Or: Saddam moved them all into Syria. Or, Donald Rumsfeld's latest lame excuse: He destroyed them all, just as we were crossing the border. But nobody's buying it.

So, unable to ignore the credibility gap any longer, the CIA has launched its own investigation of prewar U.S. intelligence. Good. It's about time we got an honest accounting of what we were told before the war compared to what we've learned since.

We remember the president's case for going to war: Saddam was linked to al Qaeda and therefore tied to Sept. 11, 2001; he was developing an arsenal of nuclear weapons; and he possessed tons of biological and chemical weapons. We had no choice but to invade Iraq, Bush insisted. And most Americans believed him.

So far, not one of his claims has proven to be true. Consider the evidence, or lack thereof.

In his State of the Union speech Jan. 28, President Bush warned the world: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Days later the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared the supporting documents were forgeries.

Next the president declared: "Our intelligence sources tell us that [Saddam] has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production." Once again, the IAEA spoiled his story. The tubes had nothing to do with nuclear weapons production.

Then Bush dropped the big bomb: "The United Nations concluded in 1999 that Saddam Hussein had biological weapons sufficient to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax." That's not all: "The United Nations concluded that Saddam Hussein had sufficient materials to produce 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin." Still not convinced? "Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent."

Flash forward. Having spent seven weeks searching, 1,400 specially trained U.S. military personnel have so far found not 1 liter of anthrax, not 1 liter of botulinum toxin, and not 1 ounce of sarin, mustard or VX nerve agent.

And then there's the alleged link to Osama bin Laden, which President Bush repeated in his victory speech from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln: "With those attacks [of Sept. 11], the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got." In other words, Iraq helped sponsor the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11

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