AUSTIN, Texas -- The sour joke is: "Of course we know the Iraqis have weapons of mass destruction. We have the receipts." At this point, the administration would probably be delighted if it could find the WMDs the Reagan administration gave Saddam Hussein. At least it could point to some WMDs.

This is a "what if ..." column, since I have no idea whether Saddam Hussein was or was not sitting on great caches of chemical and biological weapons. What is clear is that not finding the WMDs is getting to be a problem -- and if we don't find any, it's going to be a bigger problem. And if we do find some, we'd better make plenty sure they come with a chain-of-evidence pedigree, or no one is going to believe us.

You don't have to be an expert on WMDs in the Middle East to know that when the administration starts spreading the word that "it wouldn't really make any difference if there were WMDs or not," it's worried about not finding any.

In the weeks before Gulf War II, the United States told the world Saddam Hussein was hiding mobile chemical laboratories, drones fitted with poison sprays, 15 to 20 Scud missile launchers, 5,000 gallons of anthrax, several tons of VX nerve gas agent and between 100 tons and 500 tons of other toxins, including botulinun, mustard gas, ricin and Sarin. Also, we said he had over 30,000 illegal munitions. So far, we have found bupkes.

The United States, which insisted it could not give United Nations weapons inspectors so much as 10 days more to search, so dangerous were these WMDs, now says it needs months to find them. In the meantime, we are clearly being set up to put the whole issue of WMDs down the memory hole. Here are the lines of argument advanced by the administration so far:

-- Saddam did have WMDs, but in a wily plot, he poured them all down a drain right before we invaded, just so he could embarrass Bush.

-- The WMDs are still there, but in some remote desert hiding place we may never be able to find. "Just because we haven't found anything doesn't mean it wasn't there," one Pentagon source told the Los Angeles Times. Right.

-- Saddam had WMDs, but he handed them off to the Syrians just before we came in. Or maybe it was to the Iranians.

-- Well, maybe Saddam didn't have huge stores of WMDs, but he had critical blueprints, weapons parts and, most ominously, "precursor chemicals," so he could have manufactured WMDs.

-- Well, maybe he didn't have WMDs ready to deliver. The Pentagon has already backtracked on the Scud-missile claim.

So far, U.S. "mobile exploitation teams" and other special forces have visited 90 of the top 150 "hot" sites identified by U.S. intelligence. No wonder Hans Blix, head of the U.N. inspection team, says what he got from American intelligence was "garbage."

I'm sorry, but this does make a difference. The problem is called credibility. Tom Friedman of The New York Times, in a rush to be the first on his block to adopt the "it makes no difference" line, announced the other day it made no difference because Saddam Hussein was such a miserable s.o.b. on human rights. As one who long argued that there was a good case to be made for taking out Saddam Hussein on human rights grounds back when we were still sending him WMDs, think how pleased I am.

Unfortunately, that was not the case Bush made. Of the various shifting rationales advanced for this war, human rights was way, way down there, and WMDs were way, way up there.

If there are no WMDs, I would seriously advise this administration NOT to try to spin its way out of the problem. Bad idea. Will not fly. There's plenty of evidence that we believed in the WMDs -- took along chemical suits, antidotes, etc. So if there are no WMDs, it's time for a blame-game witchhunt. I really hate those things, but someone needs to go around roaring, "WHOSE FAULT WAS THIS?!" It's a splendid opportunity to fire half the CIA, which has needed to be done for years anyway. Let it be a lesson to all intelligence analysts not to let political pressure sway them on evidence. As a minor plot point: It would be interesting to see if George Tenant, a skillful warrior in intra-bureaucracy turf wars, could survive this one.

Maybe the American people can be brainwashed into forgetting why we supposedly went to war. Near as I can tell, our national memory span is down to about two weeks, and the media have been spectacularly unskeptical on this issue. But the rest of the world is not going to forget that WMDs were our primary reason for an unprovoked, pre-emptive war.

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