MAXWELL: After pigeon inspections, Bush eats crow 

3/3/2004 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

If so many lives had not been lost and were not still being lost each day, the Bush administration’s weapons of mass destruction faux-intelligence campaign leading up to the invasion of Iraq would be laughable.

The report by the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) confirms what the U.S. government’s own inspectors, led by David Kay, found: Saddam Hussein did not have WMDs and had not had any of a threat to his neighbors or the United States since 1991. The maligned UNMOVIC inspectors, all U.N. diplomats and arms-control experts, are trying to keep straight faces.

Demetrius Perricos, acting head of the U.N. inspection team, is speaking to the press for the first time since Kay declared that Iraq had no banned weapons. Before the invasion, Perricos and his team were belittled by the Bush administration because they were not producing appropriate results.

“For a lot of people who were negative because they didn’t know, the impact from David Kay’s pronouncement has started them to realize that there was expertise in UNMOVIC, that we were not incompetent,” Perricos told USA Today.

UNMOVIC’s study is the first independent one to assess intelligence on Iraq’s WMDs. The group’s only job since 1994 was to keep an eye on Iraqi weapons, yet the Bush team dismissed UNMOVIC’s efforts.

“Of all the organizations that were looking at Iraq’s weapons capability, the group that got the closest to the truth were the U.N. inspectors _ by a long shot,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a weapons expert for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

UNMOVIC inspectors learned before the invasion that U.S. intelligence tips amounted to a comedy of errors. The tips were almost always flawed or outright wrong. In one case, the review states, U.N. inspectors tried to verify a U.S. tip that a WMD site was disguised as a chicken farm. After UNMOVIC agents descended on the site under cover of darkness, they learned a stinky truth: The site was a chicken farm, complete with the mess and stench of chickens. Again following a U.S. tip, U.N. inspectors raided a farmhouse, believing they would find a cache of WMDs because their detectors signaled traces of banned substances. The weapons they found were conventional munitions allowed by the U.N. As to the traces of banned substances, the inspectors’ equipment was reacting to sulfur from pigeons and their droppings.

Perricos and his colleagues have every right to feel vindicated by the new report, and they should be forgiven for gloating. USA Today reports that Perricos was in Iraq in November 2002, when the U.N. inspection team was part of the United States-led move to give Hussein one last chance to disarm. Before Perricos could prepare a report, Bush officials were on the Sunday morning talk circuit blasting Perricos and his inspectors for treating Hussein with kid’s gloves.

A mere six weeks before the invasion, Secretary of State Colin Powell intoned on ABC’s This Week that the president saw no further use for U.N. “inspectors to play detectives or Inspector Clouseau running all over Iraq.” Powell’s was a low blow because Clouseau is the blundering Peter Sellers character in the Pink Panther flicks.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld predicted in August 2002 that UNMOVIC inspections “will be a sham.” History has shown, however, that Rumsfeld and U.S. intelligence were the sham.

Still stinging from Kay’s report of several weeks ago, the president and his handlers are wary of the U.N. review, which was seven years in the making. Its findings also vindicate those that Hans Blix, former chief U.N. arms inspector, and Mohammed El-Baradei, head of the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring agency, submitted to the U.N. Security Council before the war.

Again, the administration’s comedy of errors would be laughable if so many lives and other resources were not invested. Perhaps Bush and his supporters will look back one day and realize that the United Nations, which the administration marginalized during the buildup to this war of choice, remains the world’s most important and viable institution for peace and stability.

Bush and his team of hawks now find themselves crawling before the Security Council, the same group that was declared irrelevant little more than a year ago. Ironically, even as the ink dries on Iraq’s first national constitution, the Bush administration must depend on the United Nations for success after America pulls out in June. This is a bitter pill for the president to swallow, but swallow it he must. He should have heeded the advice of the United Nations and its arms inspectors from the start. He deserves to eat crow.