I'm not going to say that yesterday's announcement by Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Pete Hoekstra — that National Intelligence Director John Negroponte confirmed that coalition forces have found "approximately 500 weapons munitions which contain degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent"— completely changes the terms of debate about the Iraq war. (Get the full update from a great collection of links from K-Lo here
But it does raise some interesting questions for war opponents. First, notice that there is nothing about the lawakers' announcement in the New York Times, at least from my searches. Second, the Washington Post puts the story on page A10 and declares:
The lawmakers pointed to an unclassified summary from a report by the National Ground Intelligence Center regarding 500 chemical munitions shells that had been buried near the Iranian border, and then long forgotten, by Iraqi troops during their eight-year war with Iran, which ended in 1988...Last night, intelligence officials reaffirmed that the shells were old and were not the suspected weapons of mass destruction sought in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
"They were not the suspected weapons of mass destruction sought in Iraq"? Wait, isn't mustard gas mustard gas? Were we looking for a particular flavor of mustard gas? ("Oh, nevermind, we were looking for Blistering Heat, and this is Spicy Dijon.")
I'd ask this of critics and opponents of the Iraq war: It was a safe and legitimate argument when coalition forces found a sarin shell here and a mustard gas shell there that these quanitities of WMDs didn't rise to a level of threat that would justify the invasion. So the question is, what quantity does?
500 shells? Because that's what we're learning today. 700 shells? 1000?
How many of these shells are required before a war opponent rethinks the conclusion that Iraq posed no threat? (Recall that about 15 were used in the massacre of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988.)
How many have to be found before the talking point "there were no WMDs in Iraq" gets retired? (I know, never. That will be repeated, and repeated, no matter how many shells get found.)
How much has to be found before a war opponent will say, "Okay, this clearly was a potential threat to the United States and its allies, and we did have to take some action"? I can see how some would say that 500 shells isn't enough. But some amount is enough, and I'd like the anti-war folks to give us a sense of how much is enough by their criteria. If they say that no amount of WMDs could justify the invasion, then we know where they stand.
I hear that last night Alan Colmes said:
“Jim Angle, who reported this for FOX News, quotes a defense official who says these were pre-1991 weapons that could not have been fired as designed because they’d already been degraded and the official went on to say these are not the WMD’s this country and the rest of the world believed Iraq had and not the WMD’s for which this country went to war.”
Okay, so the sarin and mustard gas in these shells can't be used effectively if fired from an artillery cannon. Could it be released in some other manner? An IED? A bomb? Just open the shell in an enclosed space, like a building or subway car? Are all 500 of these shells now inert and harmless? Or does any one of 'em still have the capacity to kill or harm someone who is exposed to the agents within?
Another interesting note — yesterday, during the press conference:
QUESTION: And can you talk at all about where these munitions were found, where in the country?
SANTORUM: I can't.
HOEKSTRA: I can tell you, but then we couldn't leave the room.
The Post story above gives at least a little context, saying it was "near the Iranian border."