U.S. Knew Trailers Weren't Bio Labs, Paper Reports
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
An article in this morning's Washington Post raises a new set of questions about the Bush administration's claims about Iraqi weapons programs in the first year of the war. At issue, two tractor trailers captured by U.S. and Kurdish troops in April of 2003. In May of 2003, a report from the CIA said the trailers were mobile biological weapons labs. The president said on May 29th of that year that “we have found the weapons of mass destruction.” And top administration officials repeated that line for months.
General COLIN POWELL (Former Secretary of State): The CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the DIA, are the ones who are on the scene and their judgment, as validated by the director of central intelligence, is that's what they are, they are mobile, biological warfare facilities.
NORRIS: That was Colin Powell speaking on this program in June of 2003. Vice President Dick Cheney repeated those claims again in September of that year. But it turns out that back in May of 2003, DIA analysts had already completed a field report stating the trailers were not for producing biological weapons.
Joby Warrick explained all this in today's Washington Post. He joins us now. Joby, first tell us why the government thought it had a bioweapons lab on its hands.
Mr. JOBY WARRICK (The Washington Post): Because for months, even before the start of the war, there had been a belief that these mobile labs existed and they had actually pieced together diagrams of what these things actually looked like. So when one of them appeared on the horizon in April of '03, they were very excited and thought they had found the real thing.
NORRIS: And this field report, which actually said they hadn't found the real thing, when was that made and what exactly did that report say?
Mr. WARRICK: Well, the report was made in the end of May of '03, because the Pentagon decided that we really need to vet these things real carefully. We'll send our top experts. And they spent three days looking at these trailers and within the first day, they concluded that they had nothing to do with biological weapons production, nothing to do with biology at all. They were clearly for something else. That something else turned out to be production of hydrogen for weather balloons.
NORRIS: And then before we go on, quickly, what are these trailers? What do they actually look like?
Mr. WARRICK: They're long flatbed trailers that you'd see on the back of a big truck on the highway and they were configured with a lot of apparatus, which looks suspicious to many people. And from first glance, they looked very much like the pictures of mobile biological labs that Colin Powell had shown to the United Nations when he sort of argued for military intervention in Iraq in 2003.
NORRIS: Now the CIA told us today that the president would not necessarily have known about that May report when he said that we have found weapons of mass destruction. And today, at the White House briefing, Spokesman Scott McClellan lashed out at your article. Let's hear him before we pick up our conversation.
Mr. SCOTT MCCLELLAN (White House Spokesman): The reporting I saw this morning was simply reckless and it was irresponsible. The lead in The Washington Post left this impression for the reader that president was saying something he knew at the time not to be true. That is absolutely false and it is irresponsible. And I don't know how the Washington Post can defend something so irresponsible.
NORRIS: To that, you say what?
Mr. WARRICK: That was very interesting. I think that there may be some misreading about what the article says. We don't say that the president was not stating his honest belief about the trailers on the day that he said it. We're just saying that at that time, even by that early date in May of 2003, the intelligence community was sitting on some very strong evidence, from highly qualified experts, that these trailers were not mobile biological labs. And yet, this information didn't seem to have raised red flags or caused anyone to sort of change their public stance on these trailers.
NORRIS: What's the explanation of that, that the report was filed somewhere but never found its way into the hands of people that might have alerted the president, the secretary of state, the director of the CIA?
Mr. WARRICK: I think when it first came in, there had been some preliminary attempts to evaluate these labs using people who were already on the ground in Iraq. And some of these people, who had less experience in some of the technical fields, saw features that they thought looked like biological weapons labs. And they also had a defector who was feeding them information about mobile labs. This defector turned out to have fabricated everything.
But there was, I gather, a real bias toward believing these were real biological weapons labs and there was sort of a hesitancy to accept this new information that seemed to contradict what everyone else believed.
NORRIS: So while the administration did not officially debunk this, if you look carefully at what key members of the administration were saying, were they actually starting at some point to back away from those initial assertions?
Mr. WARRICK: Over time, they were allowing at least some wiggle room. The director of the CIA, George Tenet's last official statement on this was in February of 2004 in which he said that there was no consensus on these trailers and that he still believed it was possible to use them as biological weapons labs, but he acknowledged that there was disagreement within the community about them.
NORRIS: And later, in 2004, Charles Duelfer, who was the head of the Iraq Survey Group, actually settled this matter.
Mr. WARRICK: Yes he did. He issued a report to Congress which said definitively what these trailers were, which was for production of hydrogen, and said they were not at all practical for making biological weapons.
NORRIS: Joby Warrick is with The Washington Post. Thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. WARRICK: Thank you.
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