War and Conflict

The War on Terror

What are WMD?

WMD are weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons that can cause extensive casualties. The term emerged during World War II (1939–45); the abbreviated “WMD” became part of everyday language in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as the world’s superpowers and the United Nations turned their attention to serious threats posed by rogue states and terrorists in a post Cold War society.

Following the launch of the 2003 Iraq war, WMD were regularly in the news. The Bush administration and its chief ally, British prime minister Tony Blair (1953-), faced sharp public criticism when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. The presence of WMD in that rogue state had been the justification for the controversial invasion. In 2004 President Bush appointed a bipartisan commission to look into why U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that Iraq possessed WMD. In late March 2005 the commission released to the public an unclassified version of its report. The conclusion: Intelligence errors had overstated Iraq’s WMD programs. It stated, “The daily intelligence briefings….before the Iraq war were flawed…. This was a major intelligence error.” The commission outlined 74 recommendations to improve intelligence-gathering among the United States’s 15 spy agencies. The classified version of the report contained information on the intelligence community’s assessments of the nuclear programs of many of the “world’s most dangerous actors.” It also provided more details on intelligence concerning the al Qaeda terrorist network.

In Britain, the intelligence failures concerning Iraq spurred a years-long controversy, which damaged Blair’s approval ratings and posed tragic consequences. In addition to the loss of life in Iraq, British weapons inspector David Kelly took his own life after publicly accusing the government of overstating the need for war. As in the United States, Britain took steps to tighten controls on its intelligence-gathering to prevent errors in judgment.

Despite the fact that no WMD were found in Iraq, the White House stood firm on the decision to invade Iraq. On September 11, 2004, the Office of the Press Secretary released a fact sheet titled, “Three Years of Progress in the War on Terror.” The document stated in part, “We were right to go into Iraq. We removed a declared enemy of America, who had defied the international community for 12 years, and who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder, and could have passed that capability to the terrorists bent on acquiring them. Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, in the world after September 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take.”


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