On March 15, 2003 then Vice President Dick Cheney was interviewed on NBC’s Meet The Press. The main topic of conversation was Iraq. Early on in the discussion host Tim Russert asked Cheney what he thought about the on-going United Nations weapons inspections, and the fact that they had failed to find Iraq’s nuclear program. The Vice President said that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had missed Iraq’s nuclear program in the 1990s, and that they weren’t doing any better this time. He warned that Iraq made so much money off of oil that it was only a matter of time before they got a nuclear weapon. He went on to say that the Iraqis were defying the inspections as they had in the past, and that the United Nations had never been able to deal with Saddam anyway. This was a typical administration attack on the inspections process at that time. The White House line was that Saddam had never complied with U.N. resolutions now or in the past, so therefore the inspections were a waste. Iraq still maintained its weapons programs, and therefore the United States needed to invade to disarm him.
Two months before in January 2003, IAEA director Mohamed El Baradei stated that he had heard American criticisms of his work. In an interview with Time magazine he expressed hope that the United States wasn’t keeping information from the inspectors when they kept saying Iraq was close to having a nuclear weapon. El Baradei said that his team had found no evidence of Iraq trying to produce uranium domestically for a bomb, and that it would be extremely hard for them to hide a nuclear program. He went on to say that they could stash away parts and equipment, but not enough to make a weapon.
This was based upon extensive IAEA inspections within Iraq from 2002-2003, but work that ultimately didn’t matter. They found no active nuclear program, and no fissile material or equipment to enrich uranium itself. The two major nuclear facilities at al-Qaim and Tuwaitha had been inspected several times by February 2003. Al-Qaim was destroyed and in a state of disrepair, while Tuwaitha was being used for civilian purposes. Other sites were also looked at. Dual use equipment like magnets had been investigated and were either unsuitable for a weapons program or were being used for civilian purposes. The IAEA was going through all the sites and materials mentioned by U.S. intelligence and turning up nothing incriminating. That didn’t register with the administration because their perception was that Iraq possessed a nuclear weapons program. That was the reality to the Bush White House, who had already made the decision to go to war in 2002. President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair had given up on the inspectors finding anything by the end of January 2003, and the war was set for later in March. Saddam had painted himself into a corner. His earlier objections to the inspections in the 1990s convinced Cheney and others that Iraq had nefarious programs no matter what the IAEA said.
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El Baradei, Mohamed, “The Status of Nuclear Inspections in Iraq,” International Atomic Energy Agency, 2/14/03
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Meet The Press, “Interview with Vice-President Dick Cheney,” NBC, 3/16/03
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Rangwala, Glen, “Claims and evaluations of Iraq’s proscribed weapons,” University of Cambridge, 2004