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WMDs Are Overrated as a Threat to America

Weapons of Mass Destruction Are Overrated as a Threat to America

By Ivan Eland*
January 28, 2004

David Kay, the president’s handpicked weapons of mass destruction snoop in Iraq, has resigned and criticized U.S. intelligence for not realizing that Iraqi weapons programs were in disarray. He now thinks that the stocks of chemical and biological weapons were destroyed in the 1990s — out of fear that U.N. weapons inspectors would discover them — and that new production was not initiated. He also believes that Iraq’s nuclear program had been restarted but was only at a very primitive stage — hardly the imminent threat alleged by the Bush administration as a justification for immediate war. So with the final nail being driven into the coffin of the administration’s main rationale for war against Iraq, Iraqi weapons programs are not the only things in disarray. After Kay’s initial comments, Secretary of State Colin Powell had to admit that the Iraqi government may no longer have had such arms.

Perhaps Kay’s findings will finally cause the American public to heed the Iraq war critics call to hold the administration accountable for the deaths of more than 500 American service personnel and countless innocent Iraqis (which, strangely, the American government cannot seem to estimate). But let’s not hold our breath. The September 11 tragedy gave the Bush administration body armor that is only now developing chinks. And Kay’s findings help debunk the Iraqi threat but may actually cloud other issues. First, Kay blames U.S. intelligence for not realizing that Iraq’s weapons programs were in shambles. This conclusion is valid, but fits into the administration’s desire to scapegoat U.S. spy agencies to hide its own twisting and embellishing of the already faulty intelligence information.

Second and important to remember during propaganda campaigns preceding any future invasions of “axis of evil” nations: despite all of the government hoopla surrounding weapons of mass destruction prior to and subsequent to September 11, the threat has been hyped. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, the Department of Defense noted “extant and emerging threats” from 12 nations with nuclear programs, 13 countries with biological weapons, and 16 nations with chemical weapons.

Although nuclear, chemical and biological weapons usually fall under the scary (it’s done on purpose) WMD label, only nuclear weapons should be in that category. (As the September 11 attacks showed, high casualties could be inflicted without using WMD.) Chemical weapons have a much smaller area of contamination than do biological and nuclear arms and historically have been less deadly than even conventional bombs. Chemical weapons are best employed by the defending side — if the attacking side uses them, friendly troops would likely have to advance through the gas. Although chemical weapons are probably the easiest of the three to produce, al Qaeda’s efforts to date have been very crude. Some infrastructure is needed to produce chemical weapons so detection of production may be possible.

Although biological weapons are better for terrorizing civilian populations than for battlefield use (they take effect slowly and the battle probably will be over by then), weaponizing biological agents takes a great deal of scientific expertise. Aum Shinrikyo, a well-funded Japanese terror group, hired scientists to do so but was unsuccessful. Although small pox could cause casualties on the scale of a nuclear detonation, only a few countries have the virus. A successful attack with either chemical or biological weapons is heavily dependent on favorable weather conditions. Missiles are not the ideal delivery systems for either type of weapon because the agent can be incinerated by heat from the explosive impact.

No one would argue that nuclear weapons are incapable of causing mass destruction. But building nuclear weapons requires a large infrastructure, scientists, engineers and strictly controlled fissile material (plutonium or enriched uranium). Terrorists are probably not capable of building even a crude nuclear weapon. Many countries aren’t either. Iraq and Libya both failed to get such weapons.

But some clearly undesirable governments — for example, North Korea — eventually may get nuclear weapons and the long-range missiles to deliver them to the United States. North Korea always has been a bigger WMD threat than Iraq. But the United States could rely on its world dominant nuclear arsenal to deter attacks from the small arsenals of nascent nuclear powers, rather than conducting unnecessary preventative invasions. The United States took this route when the totalitarian Soviet Union and the even more radical Maoist China were developing nuclear weapons. Deterrence has worked in the past and will most likely work in the future because the remaining destitute “rogue” states have home addresses that could be wiped off the map—albeit with massive casualties — with thousands of U.S. nuclear warheads. Moreover, even though those nations disagree with intrusive U.S. foreign policy in their regions, they have no incentive to give such costly weapons to unpredictable terrorist groups. If such assistance were discovered, the superpower might be motivated to incinerate their countries. Before the war, the president’s own CIA reported that Iraq would be unlikely to use WMD or give them to terrorists unless the United States invaded.

Although the unnecessary and continuing deaths of Americans and Iraqis are tragic, most alarming for the republic may have been the absence of public outcry to halt the administration’s rush into a war that its own intelligence agency predicted would be counterproductive.


*Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism and

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