The story of the 380 tons of explosives missing from a known base in Iraq is obviously big (and depressing), but that shouldn’t entirely obscure another important story. A few months ago, co-conspirator Jacob Levy noted the lack of response to an NBC Nightly News report asserting that the Pentagon had located Zarqawi’s camp in Iraq before the war began, but that the White House vetoed an attack on the camp because Zarqawi was more convenient as a living terrorist in Iraq who could help justify the war. Jacob followed up on the story here, and noted Robert Novak’s claim that this was an “urban legend” here. That’s the last I’d seen on any aspect of this story, and I assumed that there was nothing to it. But today’s Wall St. Journal has an article on page A3 (subscription required) that returns to the issue. The whole article is worth reading, but I’ll quote a few key paragraphs:
The Pentagon drew up detailed plans in June 2002, giving the administration a series of options for a military strike on the camp Mr. Zarqawi was running then in remote northeastern Iraq, according to generals who were involved directly in planning the attack and several former White House staffers. They said the camp, near the town of Khurmal, was known to contain Mr. Zarqawi and his supporters as well as al Qaeda fighters, all of whom had fled from Afghanistan. Intelligence indicated the camp was training recruits and making poisons for attacks against the West.
Senior Pentagon officials who were involved in planning the attack said that even by spring 2002 Mr. Zarqawi had been identified as a significant terrorist target, based in part on intelligence that the camp he earlier ran in Afghanistan had been attempting to make chemical weapons, and because he was known as the head of a group that was plotting, and training for, attacks against the West. He already was identified as the ringleader in several failed terrorist plots against Israeli and European targets. In addition, by late 2002, while the White House still was deliberating over attacking the camp, Mr. Zarqawi was known to have been behind the October 2002 assassination of a senior American diplomat in Amman, Jordan.
But the raid on Mr. Zarqawi didn’t take place. Months passed with no approval of the plan from the White House, until word came down just weeks before the March 19, 2003, start of the Iraq war that Mr. Bush had rejected any strike on the camp until after an official outbreak of hostilities with Iraq. Ultimately, the camp was hit just after the invasion of Iraq began.
Some former officials said the intelligence on Mr. Zarqawi’s whereabouts was sound. In addition, retired Gen. John M. Keane, the U.S. Army’s vice chief of staff when the strike was considered, said that because the camp was isolated in the thinly populated, mountainous borderlands of northeastern Iraq, the risk of collateral damage was minimal. Former military officials said that adding to the target’s allure was intelligence indicating that Mr. Zarqawi himself was in the camp at the time. A strike at the camp, they believed, meant at least a chance of killing or incapacitating him.
Gen. Keane characterized the camp “as one of the best targets we ever had,” and questioned the decision not to attack it. When the U.S. did strike the camp a day after the war started, Mr. Zarqawi, many of his followers and Kurdish extremists belonging to his organization already had fled, people involved with intelligence say.
Note that the story doesn’t discuss the allegation that the President vetoed an attack on the base in order to ensure support for the war in Iraq, but it does indicate that the Pentagon thought it had a good chance of taking out Zarqawi, and that the Administration chose not to do so. That fact alone is pretty distressing. We knew how dangerous he was, we knew where to find him, and apparently knew that the collateral damage would be minimal, and yet we failed to act. Ouch.
One small addendum: When asked about the NBC Nightly News story on June 27, Condoleezza Rice said “Let me just say we never had as far, as we know, we never had a chance to get Zarqawi.” (Jacob has the quote here, under his second update.) So, was she lying, or was she out of the loop on this? If the former, that’s pretty despicable (since it was an attempt to hide the truth simply to benefit her and her boss). If the latter, what kind of National Security Adviser is not getting this sort of information? If she’s not getting it, doesn’t that suggest that the NSC process is in pretty bad shape (and that the government is exhibiting the worst sort of stovepiping)?