WHERE’S THE WMD?….Asked about the infamous 16 words and how they got into the State of the Union address, White House press spokesman Scott McClellan asked everyone to take a step back yesterday:

You have to go back to the bigger picture. That was one piece of a much broader case against Saddam Hussein….

That might be good advice, so let’s ask the broader ? and far more important ? question: where is the WMD?

I’m reminded of this by a couple of things. First, I noticed this sentence about special ops teams in Iraq from Max Boot’s article “The New American Way of War” in Foreign Affairs (summary only online):

They had been operating in Iraq for several months, focusing especially on the search for weapons of mass destruction and missile launcher sites in western Iraq.

I had forgotten about that, but he’s right. In addition to the UN inspectors, who may have been doing an inadequate job in the view of the Bush administration, we had our own troops searching for WMD in Iraq for several months before the war. But they came up empty handed. Did that cause any doubts in Washington?

Today in the Globe and Mail, Canadian analyst Sunil Ram goes further and says directly that Iraq didn’t have a nuclear program and didn’t have chemical or biological weapons of any significance either. What’s more, he said American officials had been told this in early 2001:

“The people doing the presentation were weapons inspectors and former weapons inspectors and senior members of (U.S. government) agencies,” Mr. Ram said in an interview.

….The conclusion they reached, he said, was that “Iraq’s nuclear weapons program (didn’t exist) because (the Iraqi government) had dismantled it.”

He said the message of experts at the meeting was heard loud and clear by many U.S. military and political officials.

….The Washington meeting dealt specifically with nuclear weapons, but Mr. Ram said it also addressed chemical and biological weapons to a smaller extent. Even there, he said, the danger to the world from such weapons was dismissed by the presenters.

If there were such weapons in Iraq at that time, he said, “they were negligible in quantity and militarily meaningless.”

After 9/11, however, apparently the Bush administration no longer wished to believe this.

So: where is the WMD? In March Donald Rumsfeld said not just that Iraq had WMD, but pointed out their exact location:

We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.

So it’s not the entire country we need to search, it’s just the areas around Baghdad and Tikrit. Except that there’s nothing there.

I have long thought that Saddam did indeed have chemical and biological weapons and that the Bush administration is genuinely surprised that we haven’t been able to find them. But the more I read, the more I wonder about that. I wonder if the intelligence regarding those weapons was far less compelling than we’ve been led to believe and the Bushies aren’t quite as surprised as they pretend to be.

This is indeed the bigger picture. But it looks no better for the Bush administration than the 16 words. In fact, it looks considerably worse.

UPDATE: Tim Dunlop suggests that Sunil Ram’s recollections are not entirely accurate. After looking at a transcript of the conference’s keynote address, he says:

Yes, it definitely puts a huge question mark over Saddam’s nuclear capability, but it leaves no doubt that he was trying to pursue such devices, as he was other weapons, including conventional weapons. It also indicates that they thought inspections were essential to confirm their intelligence reports.

He also thinks that the Bushies really did think their suspicions about WMD were correct and really are surprised that they haven’t found any yet. Despite what I said above, I imagine he’s probably right about that.

Transcripts of the entire conference are here.