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Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Reconstructing the WaPo's Timeline

(Welcome, Pajamas Media and Protein

The Washington Post presents a story today that might be summed up as "Bush lied, thousands died." It's a long story and it's hard to keep track of the timelines, so I thought I'd rearrange the story in chronological order.


As early as the mid-1990s, weapons inspectors from the United Nations chased phantom mobile labs that were said to be mounted on trucks or rail cars, churning out tons of anthrax by night and moving to new locations each day. No such labs were found, but many officials believed the stories, thanks in large part to elaborate tales told by Iraqi defectors.


The CIA's star informant, an Iraqi with the code name Curveball, was a self-proclaimed chemical engineer who defected to Germany in 1999 and requested asylum. For four years, the Baghdad native passed secrets about alleged Iraqi banned weapons to the CIA indirectly, through Germany's intelligence service. Curveball provided descriptions of mobile labs and said he had supervised work in one of them. He even described a catastrophic 1998 accident in one lab that left 12 Iraqis dead.

February 5, 2003:

"We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails," Powell said in the Feb. 5, 2003, speech. Thanks to those descriptions, he said, "We know what the fermenters look like. We know what the tanks, pumps, compressors and other parts look like."

April 2003:

The trailers discovered in the Iraqi desert resembled the drawings well enough, at least from a distance. One of them, a flatbed trailer covered by tarps, was found in April by Kurdish fighters near the northern city of Irbil. The second was captured by U.S. forces near Mosul. Both were painted military green and outfitted with a suspicious array of gear: large metal tanks, motors, compressors, pipes and valves.

May 25, 2003:

The technical team was assembled in Kuwait and then flown to Baghdad to begin their work early on May 25, 2003. By that date, the two trailers had been moved to a military base on the grounds of one of deposed president Saddam Hussein's Baghdad palaces. When members of the technical team arrived, they found the trailers parked in an open lot, covered with camouflage netting.

May 27,2003

Leaders of the Pentagon-sponsored mission transmitted their unanimous findings to Washington in a field report on May 27, 2003, two days before the president's statement.

May 28, 2003:

A day after the team's report was transmitted to Washington -- May 28, 2003 -- the CIA publicly released its first formal assessment of the trailers, reflecting the views of its Washington analysts. That white paper, which also bore the DIA seal, contended that U.S. officials were "confident" that the trailers were used for "mobile biological weapons production."

May 29,2003

On May 29, 2003, 50 days after the fall of Baghdad, President Bush proclaimed a fresh victory for his administration in Iraq: Two small trailers captured by U.S. and Kurdish troops had turned out to be long-sought mobile "biological laboratories." He declared, "We have found the weapons of mass destruction."

June 2003:

Kay, in an interview, said senior CIA officials had advised him upon accepting the survey group's leadership in June 2003 that some experts in the DIA were "backsliding" on whether the trailers were weapons labs.

Spring and Summer 2003:

Intelligence analysts involved in high-level discussions about the trailers noted that the technical team was among several groups that analyzed the suspected mobile labs throughout the spring and summer of 2003. Two teams of military experts who viewed the trailers soon after their discovery concluded that the facilities were weapons labs, a finding that strongly influenced views of intelligence officials in Washington, the analysts said. "It was hotly debated, and there were experts making arguments on both sides," said one former senior official who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

Summer and Fall 2003

Throughout the summer and fall of 2003, the trailers became simply "mobile biological laboratories" in speeches and press statements by administration officials. In late June, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declared that the "confidence level is increasing" that the trailers were intended for biowarfare. In September, Vice President Cheney pronounced the trailers to be "mobile biological facilities," and said they could have been used to produce anthrax or smallpox.

October 2, 2003:

David Kay, the group's first leader, told Congress on Oct. 2 that he had found no banned weapons in Iraq and was unable to verify the claim that the disputed trailers were weapons labs.

February 5, 2004:

Still, as late as February 2004, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet continued to assert that the mobile-labs theory remained plausible. Although there was "no consensus" among intelligence officials, the trailers "could be made to work" as weapons labs, he said in a speech Feb. 5.

September 2004:

The survey group's final report in September 2004 -- 15 months after the technical report was written -- said the trailers were "impractical" for biological weapons production and were "almost certainly intended" for manufacturing hydrogen for weather balloons.

If you look at this timeline, one thing jumps out. Bush's May 29, 2003 statement, which certainly appears to be wrong based on what we know now, was not clearly a lie or a mistake at the time. The fact that there was some dispute over whether the trailers were mobile bio-weapons labs does not alter the fact that the day before the President spoke, the CIA and DIA had issued a report concluding that:

U.S. officials were "confident" that the trailers were used for "mobile biological weapons production."

Let's remember as well, that this was post-invasion, not pre-invasion.


James Joyner:

These facts certainly seem to exonerate Bush’s May 29 statement. It is highly unlikely that he read the raw reports from the field; the CIA summary would indeed have been what he relied upon. As most of the bloggers mentioned above noted, they also belie the assertion in the opening paragraph that the findings were “unanimous.”

Captain Ed:

Sounds damning, and if that was the only report on the trailers, it certainly would be. What the Post neglects to mention in its sensationalist zeal is that this was one of several teams that investigated the trailers, and the totality of their evaluations came to a different conclusion that that of the leakers who supplied this story.

Blue Crab Boulevard:

If you read past the sensationalist first page (most won't) the article paints a damning picture of the CIA bureaucracy, making it pretty obvious where the problem really is. Hint, it's not Bush, folks.


No cigar, righties. The Administration didn’t say, we think these trailers might be mobile labs. It said they were, unequivocally. And the evidence that they weren’t was then suppressed. That was dishonest. And it’s part of the now-familiar pattern — the Bushies cherry-picked intelligence, believing what they wanted to believe, discarding anything that didn’t support their conclusions.

Martin's Musings:

If the administration was guilty of anything, it was for announcing the consensus opinion at the time--hardly ground for ignoring "powerful evidence that it was not true". As Captain's Quarters states, the findings of the inspection team highlighted by the Washington Post was the "minority report".

Also, check out this terrific post for skepticism on the "hydrogen-producing" issue.

I researched this at the time, and found it to be completely fraudulent. Why? Well because commercially available systems for hydrogen production did not look like these trailers one bit. Not only that, but as pictures of the trailers showed, many of the parts in the trailers were made long after 1987, as late as 2003! Further, an AMETS system does not contain a hydrogen generator. An AMETS is the system that is made up of the balloons, the radar, and the vehicle this is directed from. Hydrogen is provided by hydrogen tanks - not produced on-site.
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