U.S. Hedges on Finding Iraqi Weapons
Officials Cite the Possibility of Long or Fruitless Search for Banned Arms
By Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 29, 2003; Page A01
Pressed in recent
congressional hearings and public appearances to explain why the United
States has been unable to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,
senior Bush administration officials have begun to lay the groundwork
for the possibility that it may take a long time, if ever, before they
are able to prove the expansive case they made to justify the war.
In the months leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq,
administration officials charged that Iraq's Saddam Hussein had spent
billions of dollars developing chemical, biological and nuclear
weapons, and was poised to hand them over to international terrorists
or fire them at U.S. troops or neighboring countries.
Nearly two months after the fall of Baghdad, officials continue to
express confidence that the weapons will be found. "No one should
expect this kind of deception effort to get penetrated overnight,"
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said in an interview
yesterday. Wolfowitz said the administration's prewar emphasis on the
existence of weapons of mass destruction stemmed from "one of the most
widely-shared intelligence assessments that I know of. . . . We're a
long way" from exhausting the search.
But in speeches and
comments in recent weeks, senior administration officials have begun to
lower expectations that weapons will be found anytime soon, if at all,
and suggested they may have been destroyed, buried or spirited out of
The U.S. invasion force moved so quickly into
Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday in response to
questions at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, that the
Iraqis "didn't have time to . . . use chemical weapons. . . . They may
have had time to destroy them, and I don't know the answer."
back at the spotlight the administration cast on the weapons issue in
building its case for war, Wolfowitz said, "There was no oversell." But
he acknowledged yesterday that there "had been a tendency to emphasize
the WMD [weapons of mass destruction] issue" as the primary
justification for war because of differences of opinion within the
administration over the strength of other charges against the Iraqi
government, including its alleged ties to al Qaeda.
issue of WMD has never been in controversy," Wolfowitz said, "where
there's been a lot of arguing back and forth about whether the Iraqis
were involved in terrorism."
In a briefing for reporters
yesterday, senior intelligence officials released what they said was
the "strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological
warfare program." After examining two tractor-trailers found last month
in Iraq, the officials said they found no trace of biological agents
but added they are "highly confident" the high-tech equipment built
into them was intended to produce biological weapons.
pressing for international approval of war, President Bush and his top
aides said that Iraq possessed weapons that posed an immediate threat
to its neighbors and to U.S. territory, and that U.N. inspectors were
unlikely to find them in time. Since the Iraqi government collapsed
April 9, U.S. military teams have been unsuccessful in finding any
proscribed weapons. The teams are being replaced by a much larger
weapons survey group that has yet to arrive in Iraq.
Pentagon has rejected suggestions that U.N. inspectors who left Iraq
before the war be allowed to reenter the country and resume their
search, although agreement has been reached with the International
Atomic Energy Agency to send its experts to secure the Tuwaitha Nuclear
Research Center, a nuclear storage site 30 miles south of Baghdad that
had been under IAEA seal for years. The site has been looted by Iraqis,
and U.S. military teams found high levels of radiation there.
the agreement restricts the IAEA to a small area within the facility,
and specifically prohibits the agency's emergency teams from
investigating reports that some of the material has been removed and
may be causing radiation sickness in some local communities. "The U.S.
has informed us that, as the occupying powers, they have the
responsibility for the welfare of the Iraqi people, including the
nuclear health and safety issues," an IAEA spokesman said.
mild words mask a dispute between the administration and the
international agency, which first raised the danger posed by potential
looting of the Tuwaitha site and others April 10.
rejected the efforts of U.N. inspectors as insufficient before the war,
the administration was not about to let them back in to look for
weapons now, a senior administration official said, suggesting that the
IAEA was looking for a pretext for a wider role in Iraq. "Make no
mistake, the IAEA wanted to get back in and do its former inspection
role," the official said. "And they were told, in no uncertain terms,
The administration has also rejected the readmission
into Iraq of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection
Commission (UNMOVIC), which had responsibility for finding chemical and
biological weapons, as well as production facilities. Before the war,
U.S. officials expressed strong doubts the U.N. inspectors would be
able to locate, among other things, the mobile biological laboratories
that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell first described to the U.N.
Security Council in February.
The two trailers cited by
intelligence officials yesterday have been under examination since they
were found in northern Iraq last month. The officials said that key
equipment in the trailers -- fermenters needed to produce biological
agents -- was manufactured in 2002 and 2003, indicating that the units
were recently built. They said Iraqi employees at the al-Kindi
Research, Testing, Development and Engineering facility where the
fermenters were constructed told them they were used to produce
hydrogen gas for weather balloons and other purposes.
an intelligence official called that "a cover story," and said it would
be an "inefficient" use of the facilities. Instead, U.S. officials said
the labs closely resembled the description of mobile biological
trailers provided in 1999 by an Iraqi defector whose information was
the basis for Powell's presentation.
president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a
former U.N. weapons inspector, said yesterday that "the government's
finding is based on eliminating any possible alternative explanation
for the trucks, which is a controversial methodology under any
circumstances." In the absence of "conclusive evidence," Albright
suggested that an independent, international investigation was needed,
and that "the logical group to perform this investigation is UNMOVIC."
with Vice President Cheney last August, administration officials
delivered a series of speeches expressing absolute certainty the Iraqi
weapons existed. "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein
now has weapons of mass destruction," Cheney said in an Aug. 26 address
to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In October, Wolfowitz
said, "Saddam Hussein is not going to easily give up the horrible
weapons that he has worked so hard to obtain and paid such a high price
to keep," using a phrase that he and Rumsfeld were to repeat often.
"This is a man who has shown that he'll give up billions and billions
of dollars every year," Rumsfeld said in November, "so that he can be
free to develop those weapons and to have those weapons and to use
those weapons to terrorize other countries."
congressional testimony last week, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J.
Feith said he was "confident that we will eventually be able to piece
together a fairly complete account of Iraq's WMD programs, but the
process will take months, and perhaps years." In the interim, the House
Select Committee on Intelligence has asked CIA Director George J. Tenet
to review the intelligence underlying administration statements about
Iraqi weapons. A similar request has come from the Senate committee,
which has asked about specific claims regarding an Iraqi nuclear
"I think there are a whole lot of other
questions about WMD which are very, very unclear," Sen. John D.
Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "They
may have overestimated."
2003 The Washington Post Company
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