WASHINGTON, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- Top Bush administration officials took to the airwaves for a week to explain why immediate action against Iraq is vital, but experts on Iraqi military capabilities said there is nothing new in these reports.
"What we have here is an appallingly bad job of public diplomacy," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a conservative Washington think-tank. "It takes months or even years to build an effective case -- and they haven't done that; they haven't taken the time."
Cordesman said there is a case to be made, but President George W. Bush and his team haven't made it. He also said the administration has not offered any strong new evidence against Iraq in its push over the past few days -- only "petty details."
"The problem you have in analyzing any new evidence is that we haven't had any," he said.
The irony of the administration's failure to make its case, said Cordesman and other experts, is there is no shortage of evidence that Iraq poses a mortal threat to regional and U.S. interests. Declassified documents compiled in reports this year by Cordesman and other military analysts show that Iraq is working to rebuild its conventional, biological and nuclear capabilities.
To the extent that they have made it, the administration's case, as given on television talk shows Sunday and Monday by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, is so far based on the same information that has been publicly available for months or years, experts said.
Most of that information has been cobbled together from declassified intelligence reports more than a year old, U.N. Special Commission weapons inspection reports from before 1998, reports from Iraqi defectors, foreign intelligence reports and independent military analyses.
"The administration has done a wonderful job of quoting things that have come up in other sources -- such as The New York Times," said Kenneth Allard, a former Army colonel and CSIS expert. "But they have not yet made the case, and I do not expect them to before Bush's address to the U.N. on Thursday."
Bush officials' core argument against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is that he is a risk due to his brutality as a dictator who has used chemical weapons against his enemies both inside and outside Iraq, his possession of weapons of mass destruction, and his history of deception and evasion of U.N. weapons' inspections.
Iraq is considered a state sponsor of terror by the U.S. State Department and has close ties to Palestinian militant groups. Saddam is known to award $25,000 to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Iraq has provided bases to several militant groups including the Palestine Liberation Front, and the Abu Nidal organization, and those involved with its own Kurdish minority -- the Mujahedin-e-Khalq and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, the State Department says.
But making the case that Iraq has close ties with al Qaida and the Sept. 11 attacks has been more difficult. Cheney repeated an administration assertion on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that the alleged Sept. 11 head terrorist Mohammed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague, the Czech Republic, in April 2001, but this assertion has recently been challenged. Cheney has also said that al Qaida has operated in Iraq since Sept. 11, but details have not been released.
The Washington Post Tuesday quoted unnamed intelligence officials who said they had scrutinized photographs, communication intercepts and information from foreign informants and have concluded they cannot validate links between Saddam and al Qaida members who have taken refuge in northern Iraq. They also told the Post they could not definitively confirm the meeting between Atta and the Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague.
The Post said CIA officials scrutinized the source of the report of the Atta-Iraq meeting -- an Arab student not considered particularly reliable who relayed the information to the Czech government -- and concluded there is no evidence to support the claim.
Iraq's continued possession of weapons of mass destruction puts it in clear violation of post-Gulf War U.N. resolutions, providing the most compelling legal rationale for action. Bush officials also say that Iraq has actively been seeking to expand its biological and nuclear capabilities, especially since U.N. inspections ended in 1998. However, little hard evidence on this front has been made available by administration or intelligence sources.
On Sunday, Cheney said Iraq is only being held back from making a nuclear bomb by a shortage of nuclear fuel. This is the same conclusion reached by a number of independent analyses released about Saddam's nuclear capabilities in the past year.
A report released Monday by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, for example, states that Iraq could assemble nuclear weapons within months if it could obtain enriched uranium from foreign sources. Iraq is still years away from creating such materials itself, the report stated.
While Iraq's nuclear weapons program was heavily damaged by the Gulf War, it was not completely devastated, a number of Iraq threat assessment reports agree. Most importantly, Iraqi nuclear scientists and technical know-how still exist in the country, and Iraqi nuclear teams have been kept in place working on civilian projects.
Iraq had two workable nuclear bomb designs at the start of the Gulf War, and was less than a year away from making a workable bomb in 1991, according to publicly available analyses. While Iraq does not appear to be capable of putting a nuclear warhead on a missile, it can design large bombs to be dropped by an Iraqi military bomber or fighter jet, reports state.
Cheney said Sunday that additional urgency has been added to the fight against Saddam because he "is now trying through his illicit procurement network, to acquire the equipment he needs to be able to enrich uranium to make the bombs."
The vice president confirmed a Times report that U.S. intelligence had intercepted a shipment of aluminum tubes used in the creation of enriched uranium. He also mentioned an Iraqi media report, quoted in U.S. newspapers, that top Iraqi nuclear scientists had recently met with Saddam.
Cordesman, who recently updated his assessment of Iraqi war fighting capabilities for CSIS, said both administration revelations were "of the 'so-what' variety," without more context to make them meaningful.
Cheney also said that Saddam is actively working to develop his existing stockpile of biological weapons. He said new evidence had arisen in the area in the "last 12 to 14 months." However, he did not give details.
Iraq is widely thought to have retained significant stores of biological weapons materials since the end of the Gulf War, according to analyses and reports from Iraqi defectors. The London-based IISS assessment, for example, states that U.N. inspectors failed to account for all of Iraq's pre-Gulf War stocks and adds that Iraq has the capability to produce thousands of liters of biological weapons agents, including botulinum toxin and anthrax, with its existing facilities, equipment and materials.
Reports also indicate that Iraq can deliver biological agents by short-range munitions and sprayer planes. Its long-range delivery capability, however, is less certain.
The great unknown in the biological weapons field is whether Iraq is in possession of viral agents or smallpox. The Bush administration has not offered additional details.
In the area of chemical weapons, Iraq is known to have used mustard gas and other chemical weapons in its battles against Iran and the northern Kurdish minority. Airstrikes during the Gulf War devastated Iraq's chemical weapons capabilities, and U.N. weapons' inspection teams also destroyed many of its surviving stock, reports say.
However, Iraq has continued to smuggle in precursor chemicals for weapons during the inspection period and since 1998, said Cordesman in his report for the CSIS. It is widely thought by analysts that Iraq may have retained materials necessary to make hundreds of tones of sarin and cyclosarin nerve gas, as well as the ability to make and weaponize the advanced nerve agent VX.
As with biological weapons, Iraq's key challenge appears to be in the area of long-range delivery, reports state. While Iraq is believed to be in possession of at least a dozen Scud long-range missiles, it is not believed to have the ability to effectively deploy chemical agents in their warheads.
"Iraq still presents a major threat in terms of proliferation. It is all too clear that Iraq may have increased this threat since active UNSCOM and IAEA efforts ended in December 1998," Cordesman's report states. "It is known to have continued to import precursors for chemical weapons and increased its holdings of biological growth agents."
Overall, though evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is compelling, major questions remain. However, perhaps the most important thing to come out of the administration's recent comments on Iraq is that irrefutable evidence, or a proverbial "smoking gun," will not be a necessary part of an administration case to justify an invasion.
When asked if the administration would hold off until a smoking gun of Iraqi nuclear capability is uncovered, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America" Monday, said no.
"That implies that what we are doing here is law enforcement, that what we're looking for is a case that we can take to a court of law and prove beyond a reasonable doubt," he said. "The problem is that the only way one gains absolute certainly as to whether a dictator like Saddam Hussein has a nuclear weapon is if he uses it -- and that's a little late."