The White House's acknowledgement last month that the United States has formally ended its search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq brought to a close the most calamitous international deception of modern times.
This decision was taken a month after a contentious presidential election in which the issue of WMD and the war in Iraq played a central role. In the lead-up to the invasion, and throughout its aftermath, President Bush was unwavering in his conviction that Iraq had WMD, and that this posed a threat to the US and the world. The failure to find WMD should have been his Achilles heel, but the Democratic contender, John Kerry, floundered, changing his position on WMD and Iraq many times.
Ironically, it was Kerry who forced the Bush administration to acknowledge that it was WMD that solely justified any military action against Iraq. Before the US Senate in 2002, secretary of state Colin Powell responded to a question posed by Kerry about what would happen if Iraq allowed UN weapons inspectors to return and they found the country had in fact disarmed.
"If Iraq was disarmed as a result of an inspection regime that gave us and the security council confidence that it had been disarmed, I think it unlikely that we would find a casus belli."
When one looks at the situation in Iraq today, the only way that it would be possible to justify the current state of affairs - a once secular society now the centre of a global anti-American Islamist jihad, tens of thousands of civilians killed, an unending war that costs almost £3.2bn a month, and the basic principles of democracy mocked through an election process that has generated extensive violence - is if the invasion of Iraq was for a cause worthy of the price.
The threat to international peace and security represented by Iraqi WMD seemed to be such a cause. We now know there were no WMD, and thus no justification for the war. And yet there are no repercussions.
The culpability for the war can be traced to those same Senate hearings in 2002, when Colin Powell said:"We can have debates about the size of the stockpile ... but no one can doubt two things. One, they [Iraq] are in violation of these resolutions ... And second, they have not lost the intent to develop these weapons of mass destruction."
Politicians, the mainstream media and the public alike accepted this line of argument, without debate, thus setting the stage for an illegal war.
UN weapons inspections were never given a chance. Ever since the Clinton administration ordered them out of Iraq in 1998, the US has denigrated the efficacy of the inspection process. This was a policy begun by Clinton, but perfected by Bush in the build-up to war. In October 2002, a month after Saddam Hussein agreed to the unfettered return of weapons inspectors, the US defence department postulated the existence of secret production facilities, protected by a "concealment mechanism" designed to defeat inspectors. Thus, even if they returned, a finding of no WMD was meaningless.
Inspectors did return, and they found nothing. Iraq submitted a complete declaration of its WMD holdings, which was dismissed as lies by the Bush administration. Everyone seemed to accept this rejection of fact. "Intelligence information" wasassumed to be infallible. And yet it was all just hype.
There was never any serious effort undertaken by the Bush administration to find Iraqi WMD. Prior to the invasion, the US military re-designated an artillery brigade as an "exploitation task force" designed to search for WMD as the coalition advanced into Iraq.
It did little more than serve as a vehicle for its embedded reporter, Judith Miller of the New York Times, to recycle fabricated information provided by Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, creating dramatic headlines that had no substance. Once Iraq was occupied, Miller was sent home, and the taskforce disbanded.
A new organisation was created, the CIA-led Iraq survey group (ISG), led by David Kay. His job was not to find WMD but to spin the data for the political benefit of the White House. He hinted at dramatic findings, only to suddenly reverse course once Saddam Hussein was captured. Kay told us that everyone had got it wrong on WMD, that it was no one's fault. He was replaced by Charles Duelfer, whose task was to extend the WMD cover-up for as long as possible. Duelfer was very adept at this, having done similar work while serving as the deputy executive chairman of the UN weapons inspection effort.
I witnessed him manipulate reports to the security council, rejecting all that didn't sustain his (and the US government's) foregone conclusion that Iraq had WMD.
As the head of the ISG, he was called upon to again manipulate the data. As it was virtually impossible to conjure up WMD stockpiles where none existed, he did the next best thing - he re-certified Colin Powell's pre-war assertion that Saddam Hussein had the "intent" to re-acquire WMD. Duelfer provided no evidence to support this supposition. In fact, the available data seems to reject the notion of "intent". But once again, politicians, the mainstream media and the public at large failed to let facts get in the way of assertions. The ISG had accomplished its mission - not the search for WMD, but the establishment of a viable alibi. Its job done, the ISG slipped quietly away, its passing barely noticed by politicians, media and a public all too willing to pretend that no crime has been committed.
But, through the invasion of Iraq, a crime of gigantic proportions has been perpetrated. If history has taught us anything, it is that it will condemn both the individuals and respective societies who not only perpetrated the crime, but also remained blind and mute while it was being committed.
Scott Ritter was a senior UN weapons inspector in Iraq between 1991 and 1998 and is the author of Frontier Justice: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Bushwhacking of America.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Inc.