Issue date: 5/11/04
On Dec. 24, 2002, nearly three months beforefighting in Iraq began, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accusedSaddam Hussein's regime of transferring key materials for his weaponsof mass destruction (WMD) programs to Syria in convoys of 18-wheeltrucks to hide them from U.N. weapons inspectors. "There isinformation we are verifying, but we are certain that Iraq hasrecently moved chemical or biological weapons into Syria," Sharontold Channel Two television in Israel.
Before talking about this on Israelitelevision, Sharon gave detailed information to the Bush White Houseon what Israel knew and what it suspected. Insight has learned,however, that once the information was handed over to the U.S.intelligence community, officials at the State Department's Bureau ofIntelligence and Research (INR) swept it aside as lackingcredibility.
In May 2003, just as major combat operationsin Iraq were winding down, new reports surfaced in Israel, this timealleging that convoys of Iraqi water tankers carrying WMD componentscrossed the border into Syria repeatedly between Jan. 10 and March10. The tankers reportedly were met by Syrian special forces andescorted to the heroin poppy fields of a Syrian-controlled area inLebanon's Bekáa Valley, where their contents were dumped intospecially prepared pits and buried. Again, INR discounted thereports, U.S. officials tell Insight.
Reports of Iraqi WMD winding up in Syria werenot just coming from the Israelis. In October 2003, retired Air ForceLt. Gen. James Clapper, head of the National Imagery and MappingAgency, revealed that vehicle traffic photographed by U.S. spysatellites indicated that material and documents related to Saddam'sforbidden WMD programs had been shipped to Syria before the war. Itwas no surprise that the United States and its allies had not foundstockpiles of forbidden weapons in Iraq, Clapper told a breakfastbriefing given to reporters in Washington. "Those below the seniorleadership saw what was coming, and I think they went toextraordinary lengths to dispose of the evidence," hesaid.
"We have had six or seven credible reports ofIraqi weapons being moved into Syria before the war," a senioradministration official tells Insight. "In every case, the U.S.intelligence community sought to discount or discredit thosereports."
This January, after he returned to Washingtonfrom Iraq, where for six months he had served as the CIA's top gunwith the Iraq Survey Group hunting for Saddam's banned weapons, DavidKay said he had uncovered evidence that weapons material had beenmoved to Syria shortly before the war. "We are not talking about alarge stockpile of weapons," he told the Sunday Telegraph in London."But we know from some of the interrogations of former Iraqiofficials that a lot of material went to Syria before the war,including some components of Saddam's WMD program. Precisely whatwent to Syria, and what has happened to it, is a major issue thatneeds to be resolved."
Another piece of this puzzle was provided by aSyrian intelligence officer in letters smuggled to an antiregimeactivist living in Paris named Nizar Nayouf. In one letter the sourceidentified three locations in Syria where WMD materials had beenburied under an agreement between the Syrian and Iraqi leadership.Two of the sites were specially dug underground bunkers and tunnels.The third site was a factory operated by the Syrian air force in thevillage of Tal Sinan, located between the cities of Hama andSalimiyyah. In a follow-up letter dated Jan. 7, Nayouf's sourceprovided more details on these locations, along with a map, andalleged that some of the weapons had been moved out of Iraq inambulances.
So are Saddam's WMD stockpiles in Syria? WhenInsight asked the CIA if it was investigating these and otherreports, a spokesman acknowledged there was "some evidence that way"and that the United States was "looking at all types ofpossibilities," but vigorously discouraged further inquiries.Administration officials tell Insight that the refusal to report onSyria's complicity with Saddam's regime stems from a "pro-Syria biasin the State Department and some elements of the intelligencecommunity, whose threshold for evidence on Syria is suspiciouslyhigh."
Shoshana Bryen regularly escorts groups ofretired U.S. military flag officers (admirals and generals) to Israelfor meetings with senior Israeli political and military leaders, aswell as intelligence officials. "We went to Israel just before thewar and just after," she tells Insight. "Both times, Israeliintelligence officials told us, yes, WMD were definitely in Iraq, andthat they had been sent to Syria." The Bush administration was tryingto downplay these reports, she believes, "because if Iraqi weaponsare in Syria, we're going to have to do something about it, and theydon't want another war."
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Kenneth R. Timmerman is a seniorwriter for Insight and author of TheFrench Betrayal of America,just released from Crown Forum.