Is Anybody Looking For Any Facts?

It’s been 11 days since President Bush in his State of the Union message amended his prior contention that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction” to the softer assertion that Saddam Hussein, pre-invasion, had been working on “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.”

Are we the only ones who’d like to know exactly what this circumlocution — let’s call it WMDRPA — refers to? So it seems. For, in those 11 days, apparently nobody in the media has been curious enough to ask the White House for a definition.

A search of LexisNexis shows 336 references (it keeps growing) to the term since the President addressed the nation. (Rest assured, nobody strings together a phrase like that in any other context.) Yet, no one in the media has done the logical thing: Demand a definition. (For the record, Jon Stewart did ask “Weapons of mass destruction related program activities? What the f—- is that?” on Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” on the 21st, and Jac Wilder VerSteeg of the Palm Beach Post nominated the phrase for the “Weasel-Word Hall of Fame.”)

With national security and the Iraq war certain to be dominant issues in the upcoming Presidential election (see the excellent analysis by Janet Hook of the Los Angeles Times), the failure by the White House press corps to follow up on Bush’s backpedal is dismaying; after all, they’re getting paid to be reporters, not stenographers.

A little research — remember research, guys ? — reveals that the term “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities” wasn’t coined by the White House speechwriters. It was first used in an interim report last October by David Kay, lead weapons inspector for the Iraq Survey Group. Kay recently resigned, with the observation that U.S. intelligence about Iraq’s capacity for mass destruction of any sort was suspect and that he frankly doubted that those weapons had existed.

When Kay testified Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee about his findings in Iraq and his decision to leave his post, he was asked by Sen. Ben Nelson (D., NE), “I have to ask you, what does that mean? What are weapons of mass destruction-related program activities?”

Kay responded: “That includes, for example … a program to develop a substitute for a major precursor for [the chemical weapon] VX using indigenous production capability and indigenous chemicals so they would not have to import it. It includes a study, for example, on a simulant [sic] for anthrax … They [the Iraqis] had looked at lethality of various agents and classified them. That’s WMD-related work.”

At the same hearing, Sen. Mark Dayton (D., MN) asked Kay “how many countries … would you say in the world today would qualify under the category of developing weapons of mass destruction and related program activities, or having such activities?”

Probably about 50, replied Kay.

Let’s get this straight: About 50 countries are doing what Iraq was doing? And in an election year in which Iraq is a hot topic, no one in the Washington press corps wants any more of an explanation than that?

—Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.