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Iraq: Powell, Kay Concede WMD Threat Was Overstated

  • Ron Synovitz

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has conceded that deposed President Saddam Hussein's regime might not have possessed any banned weapons at the time the U.S.-led coalition launched its war in Iraq last year. Powell's remarks come after David Kay, the retiring chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, said he thinks Iraq probably got rid of its chemical and biological weapons after the first Gulf War.

Prague, 26 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has admitted that the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may not have possessed the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that Washington had claimed as justification for invading Iraq last year.

Speaking to reporters aboard a flight to Tbilisi during the weekend, Powell said: "The open question is how many stocks they had, if any. And if they had any, where did they go? And if they didn't have any, then why wasn't that known beforehand?"

Powell's remarks follow the 23 January resignation of David Kay as the head of U.S. and British weapons inspectors in the so-called Iraq Survey Group. As he stepped down, Kay said he does not think there are any large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. He repeated that view in an interview yesterday on National Public Radio in the United States.
"This administration has hyped the intelligence to get us into Iraq. The president still didn't admit the truth in the State of the Union speech that there aren't any weapons of mass destruction there. David Kay said there weren't when he gave up his position.... We've damaged our national credibility on this issue of weapons of mass destruction."


"My summary view, based on what I've seen, is that we're very unlikely to find stockpiles, large stockpiles, of weapons. I don't think they exist," Kay said. "But that's my personal view based on the evidence as of when I left. The search is going to go on. And, indeed, one shouldn't be surprised in Iraq by surprises. You continue to be surprised by what you find. I personally think we're going to find program activities. And some of them were quite substantial, as in the missile area. We're not going to find large stockpiles [of chemical or biological weapons]."

Some political analysts have described Kay's remarks as a direct challenge to U.S. President George W. Bush. But Kay said he thinks it is not the U.S. president who owes the American people an explanation. Rather, Kay says the U.S. intelligence community owes Bush an explanation about the faulty information it provided to officials in Washington.

Kay says it is clear that the CIA's basic problem in Iraq was its lack of human intelligence -- its own spies on the ground who could provide credible information about Iraq's weapons programs before the war. He also says he does not think intelligence experts were pressured by the Bush administration into making reports that conformed to the agenda of a White House that was already determined to invade Iraq.
White House officials have not responded to Kay's remarks other than to restate their assertion that illegal biological or chemical weapons eventually will be found in Iraq.

Kay did say yesterday that he thinks Hussein had a large number of WMD program-related activities -- including scientists and engineers who were working on "developing weapons or weapons concepts" that never moved ahead into actual production.

In some areas, such as the blister agent known as mustard gas, Kay says it would have been a relatively simple step for Iraq to quickly start production. But he said he thinks the Iraqis had not decided to begin producing such weapons at the time of last year's invasion.

Kay also says chaos in Iraq after the conclusion of major combat operations last year made it impossible to be certain whether Iraq actually had possessed the banned weapons. "One has to be cautious in this regard. Because of the breakdown of social and political order at the end of the war, and rioting and looting [that continued] unchecked for at least two months, we're going to be left with ambiguity as to what we've found."

Ian Kemp, editor of the London-based journal "Jane's Defense Weekly," told RFE/RL he expects public skepticism to increase as long as the search in Iraq fails to turn up a major weapons stockpile or production laboratory. And although he says the issue is still unresolved, Kemp says it will become increasingly difficult for the public to believe anything remains to be found once most of Hussein's leading officials are captured.
Kemp concludes that Hussein himself may have been misled by his own officials about the extent of his chemical and biological weapons arsenals.

"Many of these Iraqi officials, during the period between the 1991 conflict and the buildup to the last conflict, probably exaggerated the extent of the progress that was being made on the different programs -- particularly those programs for which they were responsible. Iraqi officials would have been exaggerating to Saddam himself. So it's probably going to be a very interesting question if we will ever know the true extent of Iraq's programs," Kemp said.

In the United States, politicians hoping to become the Democratic Party's candidate for the presidency later this year have seized on the recent remarks by Kay and Powell. U.S. Senator John Kerry leads the polls in the state of New Hampshire ahead of tomorrow's Democratic Party primary there. Kerry says Kay has confirmed what he, himself, has been arguing for a long time. "We were misled -- misled not only in the intelligence, but misled in the way that the president took us to war," Kerry said.

Kerry, a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested that accurate information on Hussein's chemical and biological arsenals might have convinced the legislature not to authorize the Bush administration's request to go to war. "Colin Powell came to our committee. And we went down the list of 16 resolutions at the UN that they'd give as a reason to go to war. He eliminated every one of them, with the exception of one. The only rationale for going to war -- according to Colin Powell, who spoke for the administration -- were weapons of mass destruction. That was the license he was given by the United States Senate. Now, we had inspections going [at that time]. The United Nations, [chief UN weapons inspector] Hans Blix said, 'They haven't complied completely, but we'd like to inspect a little further.' The president cut off that process. He chose the date to start this war. He said the time for diplomacy is over," Kerry said.

Wesley Clark, the retired U.S. general who also is seeking the Democratic Party nomination, puts the blame squarely on President Bush's shoulders. Clark has accused the Bush administration of "hyping" intelligence. "This administration has hyped the intelligence to get us into Iraq. The president still didn't admit the truth in the State of the Union speech that there aren't any weapons of mass destruction there. David Kay said there weren't when he gave up his position. And we've damaged the credibility of the presidency. We've damaged our national credibility on this issue of weapons of mass destruction," Clark said.

For his part, Kay concludes that the real issue in the debate should focus on the ability of U.S. intelligence officials to collect valid and truthful information. The CIA would not comment on Kay's remarks, though one official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that Kay was initially vocal in predicting he would find weapons. Kay said he was stepping down because of a "complex set of issues." Part of that appears to be a reduction in resources and a change in focus for the Iraqi Survey Group. He said he was frustrated that his team in Iraq had been diverted from hunting for weapons in order to contribute to the fight against Iraqi insurgents. Kay is being replaced by Charles Duelfer, a former UN weapons inspector who has also expressed doubts about finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
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