Bush chemical weapons cover up restarts old beef
WASHINGTON – The New York Times report that the George W. Bush administration discovered old chemical bombs and rockets in Iraq and withheld the knowledge “from troops it sent into harm’s way” is an echo of the discussion over alleged new weapons of mass destruction that triggered its 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The report, based on Times interviews with wounded American soldiers and on intelligence obtained through Freedom of Information Act inquiries, does not challenge Bush’s old acknowledgment that no evidence was found of new chemical weapons being made there.
But it does accuse his administration of covering up the fact that at least 17 U.S. and 7 Iraqi military personnel suffered serious injuries from exposure to “roughly 5,000” nerve or mustard gas weapons from the remnants of previous stockpiles of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Furthermore, the report says the Iraqi complex where the old weapons were manufactured is in territory now under control of the Islamic State, the Obama administration’s declared target for destruction.
But the Pentagon has said there is no evidence the terrorist group has possession of such weapons.
In a rather bizarre way, the Times report revisits the 11-year argument over the necessity and wisdom of Bush’s invasion.
It also raises new questions about the lack of candor and responsibility on the part of the U.S. military in coping with the safety of the Americans called on to fight that war.
The disclosures add another layer to the saga of public skepticism toward what Americans were told about the U.S. involvement in Iraq and what they are being told now, as President Obama strives to work his way through the political and military chaos remaining there.
He removed American combat forces from Iraq in 2011 but is now obliged to deal with an even more threatening and complicated military situation in Iraq and Syria.
The whole issue of whether Saddam Hussein was still manufacturing weapons of mass destruction that imperiled the United States was at the heart of the U.S. invasion in 2003.
When Bush finally admitted that no facilities for making them then had been found, he essentially kissed off the fact.
In a television interview with ABC News reporter Diane Sawyer in December 2003, she told him that “50 percent of the American people have said that they think the administration exaggerated the evidence going into the war,” and asked: “Were the American people wrong, or misguided?”
Bush peevishly replied: “Well, you can keep on asking this question, and my answer’s gonna be the same. Saddam was a danger, and the world is better off because we got rid of him.”
Sawyer persisted: “But stated as a hard fact, that there were weapons of mass destruction as opposed to the possibility that he could move to acquire those weapons still -“
Bush replied: “So what’s the difference? … If he were to acquire weapons, he would be the danger. … And so we got rid of him.”
Thus did Bush try to dispose of the contention that he had brought the country into a war based on flawed intelligence and a false premise.
Now, according to the Times investigation, his administration whitewashed the fact that in the course of pursuing his war, American forces were subjected to wounds caused by old chemical weapons and were denied proper medical care in the cover-up.
Some of the infected soldiers said that they had been denied award of the Purple Heart on grounds their injuries did not occur in combat. One who had already received the medal, the Times story said, was told he did not qualify to wear it.
In the scheme of things, it could be argued that all this is water over the dam now, and that Obama can rectify the injustice if he so chooses.
It can be argued, too, that the war has been prolonged by him in the face of a new threat by his premature withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.
It’s a bitter pill for the president who entered the White House vowing to end two wars, one of which he considered never should have been started, and now must find a way to get out with honor, if not total victory.
Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is, “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.