Issue date: 5/11/04
On Dec. 24, 2002, nearly three months before fighting in Iraq began, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused Saddam Hussein's regime of transferring key materials for his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs to Syria in convoys of 18-wheel trucks to hide them from U.N. weapons inspectors. "There is information we are verifying, but we are certain that Iraq has recently moved chemical or biological weapons into Syria," Sharon told Channel Two television in Israel.
Before talking about this on Israeli television, Sharon gave detailed information to the Bush White House on 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 of Intelligence and Research (INR) swept it aside as lacking credibility.
In May 2003, just as major combat operations in Iraq were winding down, new reports surfaced in Israel, this time alleging that convoys of Iraqi water tankers carrying WMD components crossed the border into Syria repeatedly between Jan. 10 and March 10. The tankers reportedly were met by Syrian special forces and escorted to the heroin poppy fields of a Syrian-controlled area in Lebanon's BekŠa Valley, where their contents were dumped into specially prepared pits and buried. Again, INR discounted the reports, U.S. officials tell Insight.
Reports of Iraqi WMD winding up in Syria were not just coming from the Israelis. In October 2003, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, head of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, revealed that vehicle traffic photographed by U.S. spy satellites indicated that material and documents related to Saddam's forbidden WMD programs had been shipped to Syria before the war. It was no surprise that the United States and its allies had not found stockpiles of forbidden weapons in Iraq, Clapper told a breakfast briefing given to reporters in Washington. "Those below the senior leadership saw what was coming, and I think they went to extraordinary lengths to dispose of the evidence," he said.
"We have had six or seven credible reports of Iraqi weapons being moved into Syria before the war," a senior administration official tells Insight. "In every case, the U.S. intelligence community sought to discount or discredit those reports."
This January, after he returned to Washington from Iraq, where for six months he had served as the CIA's top gun with the Iraq Survey Group hunting for Saddam's banned weapons, David Kay said he had uncovered evidence that weapons material had been moved to Syria shortly before the war. "We are not talking about a large stockpile of weapons," he told the Sunday Telegraph in London. "But we know from some of the interrogations of former Iraqi officials that a lot of material went to Syria before the war, including some components of Saddam's WMD program. Precisely what went to Syria, and what has happened to it, is a major issue that needs to be resolved."
Another piece of this puzzle was provided by a Syrian intelligence officer in letters smuggled to an antiregime activist living in Paris named Nizar Nayouf. In one letter the source identified three locations in Syria where WMD materials had been buried 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 the village of Tal Sinan, located between the cities of Hama and Salimiyyah. In a follow-up letter dated Jan. 7, Nayouf's source provided more details on these locations, along with a map, and alleged that some of the weapons had been moved out of Iraq in ambulances.
So are Saddam's WMD stockpiles in Syria? When Insight asked the CIA if it was investigating these and other reports, a spokesman acknowledged there was "some evidence that way" and that the United States was "looking at all types of possibilities," but vigorously discouraged further inquiries. Administration officials tell Insight that the refusal to report on Syria's complicity with Saddam's regime stems from a "pro-Syria bias in the State Department and some elements of the intelligence community, whose threshold for evidence on Syria is suspiciously high."
Shoshana Bryen regularly escorts groups of retired U.S. military flag officers (admirals and generals) to Israel for meetings with senior Israeli political and military leaders, as well as intelligence officials. "We went to Israel just before the war and just after," she tells Insight. "Both times, Israeli intelligence officials told us, yes, WMD were definitely in Iraq, and that they had been sent to Syria." The Bush administration was trying to downplay these reports, she believes, "because if Iraqi weapons are in Syria, we're going to have to do something about it, and they don't want another war."
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Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight and author of The French Betrayal of America, just released from Crown Forum.