Iraq's Hidden Mustard Gas
Jude Wanniski
May 4, 1998


Memo To: The News Media
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The UNSCOM scam

There is a case to be made that when the United States is at war with a life-threatening foreign power, the news media should withhold from the public any information that would aid the enemy’s war effort if the information were broadcast. There were many times in WWII and in the Korean War when the press corps had access to important, unpublished material and decided to keep the lid on. In the Vietnam war, at a time when an average of 500 Americans were dying on the battlefield every week, The New York Times decided to publish “The Pentagon Papers,” which revealed some of the high-level bungling that had led into the “quagmire,” as that conflict came to be called. The publishing event led to a political uproar, but a unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court upheld the NYTimes’ right to publish the material.

Why do I bring this up at this time? It is because I do not understand why the national press corps, which is several times larger than it was 30 years ago when these issues were debated, now decides to be selective on the news it reports on the United Nations’ debate concerning Iraq. We are not at war with Iraq. No Americans are dying on that battlefield. Indeed, more than seven years after the Gulf War ended, several thousand Iraqi civilians die each month from malnutrition and disease. We all know this is the direct result of the economic sanctions we imposed in 1991 on the condition that Baghdad divest itself of all weapons of mass destruction that it had acquired and developed during its long war with Iran, a war we encouraged, by the way. As far as I can tell, the Iraqi government is telling the truth when it says the United Nations inspection team (UNSCOM) has found no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) since November 1991, and that no WMD has been discovered by UNSCOM without the cooperation of the Baghdad government.

The Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations, Nizar Hamdoon, has made these points on national television a number of times in recent months, although I have not seen anyone in the press corps even attempt to challenge his assertion. The print media has not deigned to report this critical fact to the American people. Instead, national editors and reporters act as if Iraq were a free-floating target of opportunity which enables them to write and publish only those comments from U.S. officials and politicians that further the idea that Iraq is evil and UNSCOM is good. The American people are, of course, under the impression that the inspectors have been finding and destroying WMD week in and week out, until Saddam Hussein decided not to let them look into his palaces. I’ve spoken to elected political leaders in both parties who express amazement when I tell them that UNSCOM has found nothing since 1991, and that our government simply decided to keep sanctions on Iraq no matter what it does to comply with UN resolutions. The U.S. says the deaths of 1.4 million civilians, including 600,000 children under the age of 5, are because of Saddam’s truculence and their blood is on his hands. Yet you know it has been our policy to bring him down no matter how submissive he is to UN resolutions. In a recent memo I sent to many of you, “Richard Nixon vs. Kofi Annan,” I quoted from Nixon’s 1991 book wherein he stated that under no circumstances should the economic embargo be lifted.

Last Wednesday, imagine my chagrin when I read in the NYT that in this latest round of inspections one clever Russian technician discovered an Iraqi missile which he had been assured was inert, but which yielded a deposit of live mustard gas when he drilled a hole into it. My goodness, this was almost literally a smoking gun! “Nizar Hamdoon had lied to the American people when he said there are no WMD laying around and that we are simply making up one excuse after another to provoke the Iraqi people into doing away with their President.” Gotcha! Mustard Gas!! Discovered by a Russian, no less!!! 

Still, I asked, what’s going on here? The NYT reporter, Barbara Crossette, is one of the best in the business. Remember when I published an annual MediaGuide that rated journalists on their accuracy and objectivity and talent? Ms. Crossette routinely got three-star ratings and once rated three-and-a-half. Yet her story indicated that the case seemed open-and-shut. This would be clear evidence that UNSCOM might have to inspect Iraq forever, if almost seven years after WMD are supposedly gone, live stuff is discovered by a clever inspector. Anyway, I called the Iraq mission at the UN and it sent me the following press release, which I did not see in the NYT or in any other newspaper, periodical or broadcast. Ladies and gentlemen of the press, I hate to be a spoilsport, but I have to say you are not doing your job.

Permanent Mission To The United Nations

For immediate release N.Y. April 30, 1998

In a press conference held on April 28, 1998 at the United Nations Headquarters, Amb. Richard Butler, Executive Chairman of UNSCOM, followed the same negative approach contained in his report of April 16, 1998 to the Security Council.

In his remarks, Mr. Butler, attempted to erase the fundamental progress achieved by UNSCOM over 7 years of intensive work in implementing resolutions 687 (1991) and 715 (1991).

Mr. Butler stated in his press conference that UNSCOM recently discovered in Iraq significant quantities of shells filled with mustard gas of the highest purity.

The facts on these shells are as follows:

In 1991, the Iraqi side declared a quantity of chemical ammunition in the (Al-Oukhaydir) site in the southern desert of Iraq. The bunkers containing this ammunition were partially damaged during the U.S.-led bombing of Iraq in 1991. UNSCOM team inspected the site and its bunkers thoroughly in 1991 and tagged all the equipment in the site. The team, upon their own decision, did not extract the shells from the bunkers for analysis due to safety concerns. The team requested the Iraqi side to keep the site as is without any changes. Later, many inspection teams visited the site and checked the tags on the shells. The site remained under the control of UNSCOM until the recent visit of an inspection team that conducted an analysis of four shells from the site.

The results of the analysis, though we think it need to be complemented by a thorough analysis of all the quantity of mustard gas in the shells, does not indicate any shortcomings from the Iraqi side, nor can they be qualified as a “discovery.” The only conclusion to be made from Mr. Butler's “discovery” is that it is a distortion of the facts aimed at prolonging the inhumane sanctions imposed on the people of Iraq.

* * * * *

What I mean to suggest by all this, editors, is that at least some of you make the hard decision to report both sides of this story. Reporters have to be advised that it is okay for them to be objective and that when they show up with balanced stories, they will not be punished for engaging in “moral equivalence,” the new code word among journalists. The reasoning is that because we know Iraq is not on the high moral plain we inhabit, it is perfectly all right for us to be subjective in our reporting and tilt everything in a way that is pleasing to our political establishment. There should be no reason why I have to write memos such as this one, but I’m forced to do so when I see such an enormous departure from the minimum standards of journalism I was taught as a youth, in bygone days. If we have to kill another 1.4 million Iraqis in order to keep the embargo in place against Saddam Hussein, let us at least get our facts straight. Even though there are minuscule numbers of Protestants and Jews, and only a small community of Catholics among the 1.4 million, Muslims are people too.