When it comes to unconventional weapons, Iraq may have been far from the most dangerous country in the world after all. In recent days a string of surprising revelations has scrambled the world's proliferation threat assessments.
Iraq's weapons programs were apparently in shambles, for instance, while Libya's were surprisingly advanced. Pakistan's nuclear scientists might have been rogue agents, proffering secrets for cash. And it appears that North Korea may be the most advanced rogue nuclear nation of all, with an advanced capacity to produce fissile material.
The bottom line: In the shadowy world of intelligence, judging capacities to produce biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons is among the most difficult estimating jobs of all.
"These intelligence estimates are not good enough to support a policy of preemptive war," says Joseph Cirincione, of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C.
It is still possible that traces of weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq. The capture of Saddam Hussein might convince cowed scientists that the old regime is never coming back, leading to new tips, documents, or even buried equipment.
But after months of weapons hunting, the US right now is coming up with little. This was underscored over the weekend by forceful comments from the CIA's former chief weapons inspector, David Kay, who characterized Iraq's unconventional weapons programs as being in "disarray" under a leadership that was increasingly out of touch with reality.
Mr. Kay said that almost certainly Iraq had no stockpiles of such weapons, as the administration said it likely did prior to its invasion of the country last year. Iraq did maintain some test capability in regards to chemical weapons, said Kay, and may have been continuing research and development on biological weapons prior to its downfall.
The Hussein regime had made some effort to restart a nuclear program dismantled in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, but it had made little progress, according to Kay. And he said one dominant feature of all Iraq's unconventional weapons programs was corruption, in the sense that scientists and lower-level officials fooled higher-ups about the real lack of progress, solely to reap money and other benefits.
"The regime was no longer in control. It was like a death spiral," Kay told The New York Times.
Critics of the administration's use of weapons intelligence prior to the Iraq war said Kay's findings should have come as no surprise to anyone. "My reaction? I told you so," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
IN the run-up to war, the administration clearly took the worst-case scenario for almost all aspects of unconventional weaponry when building its case for invasion, according to Mr. Kimball. It ignored other evidence, including fresh intelligence produced by UN inspectors.
"The [unconventional weapons] programs were essentially in a state of suspension," says Kimball.
It shouldn't be surprising that Iraq's leaders were themselves in the dark about the program, says Kimball. That same dynamic may have been at work in Pakistan, where nuclear scientists apparently sold weapons technology without the central government's knowledge.
Pakistani offiicals indicated over the weekend that several scientists - who they declined to name - had large bank accounts tied to technology sales.
Thus the most dangerous weapons proliferator in Iraq's region might not have been Iraq itself, but an ally of the United States. Libya's uranium enrichment technology, for instance, is very similar to that used by Pakistan. Now that Libya has pledged to give up its unconventional weapons programs, it turns out its equipment was much better than believed, according to international inspectors who have visited the country.
And North Korea may have the most dangerous programs of all. A group of private experts that recently toured North Korea's nuclear sites said last week that they were shown evidence that Pyongyang is at least producing plutonium metal.
Siegfried Hecker, a senior fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told Congress that he handled a small sample of what was alleged to be plutonium during the trip, and that its color and weight seemed about right.
In addition, the 8,000 spent fuel rods stored in the Yongbyon nuclear facility appear to have been withdrawn, perhaps in preparation for reprocessing for plutonium extraction.
"For all intents and purposes ... those fuel rods are gone," Dr. Hecker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.