WASHINGTON—The head of a CIA team hunting for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction told Congress on Thursday that he had not found any stockpiles of the chemical or biological arms that President Bush cited as the primary reason to invade Iraq in March.
David Kay, whose teams have been scouring Iraq and interviewing captured Iraqi officials for three months, also reported that specialists found no evidence that Iraq's nuclear weapons program had progressed beyond a rudimentary stage.
That program was cited by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others as perhaps the most fearsome threat posed by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Kay's report is likely to intensify the debate over whether the administration intentionally misled the public on the threat posed by Iraq's weapons programs.
But Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector, cautioned the House and Senate intelligence committees that his report was an interim one and that it was still possible weapons would be found. He said he found evidence that Iraq continued weapons development in violation of U.N. strictures.
"We have not yet found stocks of weapons, but we are not yet at the point where we can say definitively either that such weapons stocks do not exist or that they existed before the war, and our only task is to find where they have gone," Kay said in an unclassified version of his testimony released by the CIA.
Members of his Iraq Survey Group, Kay said, have discovered weapons "activities" and equipment that were concealed from U.N. inspectors when they returned to Iraq late last year. Those include apparent biological weapons research and Iraqi attempts between 1999 and 2002 to import technology for 900-mile range missiles from North Korea, he said.
Reaction from intelligence committee members ranged from support for Kay's work to frustration over the meager findings to dismay that one of the central justifications for war had not been proved.
"This raises real questions about the doctrine of pre-emption," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "You just don't make decisions like we do and put our nation's youth at risk based upon something that appears not to have existed."
The committee chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., declared himself "not pleased with what I heard today."
"Everybody involved in this effort would have hoped by now there would have been a breakthrough," he said.
But Rep. Porter Goss, chairman of the House panel, said Kay's report showed Bush's decision to remove Saddam was justified. "From the information uncovered to date, it is clear that the threat Saddam presented to the region and to the world was real, growing and grave," said Goss, R-Fla.
The report came during a difficult week for Bush.
House members have charged that the U.S. intelligence community relied on dated information in preparing an October 2002 assessment of Iraq's programs for building weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has opened a criminal probe into whether administration officials leaked the name of a CIA officer to intimidate her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of Bush's Iraq policy.
Bush aides said Thursday that they still expect to find proof that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.
"I have not seen anything that leads me to believe that the intelligence that I relied on is necessarily, in the aggregate, inaccurate," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "I believed it then. I believe it now."
Kay said interviews with Iraqi scientists confirmed that the Iraqi leader remained committed to acquiring atomic arms, perhaps after U.N. sanctions were lifted.
But Kay, speaking to reporters after his testimony, said evidence to date indicated "a restart" of the nuclear program—which was halted by the 1991 Persian Gulf War—was only "at the very most rudimentary level."
"It clearly does not look like a massive resurgent program," he said.
The comments contradicted earlier statements from Bush and Cheney. In August 2002, Cheney said Saddam "will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon." And in an October 2002 speech on Iraq, Bush said threats to the United States "could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
Kay's testimony paints a picture of an Iraqi leader who never gave up his lust for mass destruction weapons and who continued banned weapon work under a veil of elaborate deception. But absent is any evidence of factories churning out poison gas, toxins or fissile material for nuclear arms.
Kay said that his team's efforts have been complicated by numerous factors. These include attacks on his team; an elaborate Iraqi deception program that continued even after the U.S.-led invasion; and the possibility that scientists and weapons material crossed Iraq's borders before or during the conflict.
In May 2003, after major combat ended, someone entered the locked vaults of the Baath party intelligence building in Baghdad and selectively destroyed hard drives and burned binders, he said.
Kay's report did not clear up the mystery of the mobile tractor-trailers discovered after the war, which the CIA has said were intended for use as mobile biological weapons production facilities.
"We have not yet been able to corroborate the existence of a mobile BW production effort," Kay said in his testimony. Two trailers found in northern Iraq in April could be for biological weapons or for less nefarious uses, such as producing hydrogen or rocket propellant, he said.
Rockefeller said Kay suggested his work could take six to nine months to complete. The administration reportedly has requested $600 million more for the weapons search.
But some critics said the report shows that the U.N. weapons inspection program that had been derided by the Bush administration had been successful and that the U.N. specialists should be brought back.
"As it turns out, the threat was effectively contained by inspections and by sanctions," said Joseph Cirincione, a weapons expert for the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As for U.N. inspections, "it will cost a lot less than $600 million," Cirincione said.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.