WASHINGTON—The former chief U.S. arms inspector in Iraq said Wednesday that an independent inquiry was needed to identify the failures that led to erroneous U.S. intelligence reports that Iraq had hidden stocks of biological and chemical weapons.
Dr. David Kay, who resigned Friday after six months heading the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group, said he thought the flaws included a lack of American spies inside Saddam Hussein's regime and "limited data" that U.S. intelligence analysts didn't properly question.
He told the Senate Intelligence Committee that understanding the mistakes is crucial to ensuring "the best possible intelligence" for future efforts aimed at halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
"My personal view ... is that in this case you will finally determine that it is going to take an outside inquiry," Kay said. "It is for the future that you need this."
Senate Democrats, who are in the minority, have been demanding such an inquiry. They also want to examine whether President Bush and top officials exaggerated or lied about intelligence on Iraq's illicit weapons to justify their case for war. Republicans have rejected the demand, saying a nearly complete Senate Intelligence Committee review will be sufficient.
Kay said he didn't believe that Saddam had stockpiles of illicit weapons or had rebuilt the nuclear weapons program that United Nations inspectors destroyed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Democrats sought to use Kay's assessment to bolster their charges that Bush led the nation into a war that's killed more than 500 American troops on false pretenses.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., seized on Kay's assertion that most intelligence analysts thought that two trailers found in Iraq weren't mobile biological weapons labs. Levin demanded that the committee ask Vice President Dick Cheney to explain in writing the basis for his assertion last week that the trailers were weapons labs.
Republicans said the weapons hunt wasn't over. They pressed Kay to endorse the administration's current rationale for the war: that the world is safer without Saddam.
"Absolutely," Kay replied. He said Saddam had retained missiles and low-level "weapons activities" in violation of U.N. resolutions.
Kay rejected Democrats' charges that senior administration officials had pressured intelligence analysts into producing reports that supported their case for war. U.S. diplomatic, intelligence and military officials told Knight Ridder in 2002 and 2003 that some analysts were pressured.
Kay said intelligence analysts were "almost all wrong" about Iraq. "And I would certainly include myself here.
"I had innumerable analysts who came to me in apology that the world we were finding was not the world they thought had existed and that they had estimated," Kay said. "And never, not in one case, was the explanation, `I was pressured to do this.' The explanation was often the limited data we had."
Kay said U.S. intelligence agencies failed to recruit agents inside the regime, and had become "almost addicted" to receiving information from the U.N. inspection team that exposed Iraq's banned weapons programs between 1991 and 1998.
He traced the problem to decisions the CIA made in the 1970s to invest more heavily in high-tech spying methods at the expense of human sources and to rely more on intelligence from foreign spy services.
Another problem, he said, was that intelligence analysts had become complacent about questioning the nature and behavior of Saddam's regime.
"They cheated, they lied, we knew it," he said. "We got in the habit of new pieces of information accreted to this overall consensus view without challenging that consensus."
A senior intelligence official disputed Kay's assertions, saying the CIA did have agents within Saddam's regime. They included a man who provided the information on Saddam's whereabouts that led to the failed attempt to kill him with an airstrike in the opening salvo of the war.
"There is no doubt that we would like to have more human intelligence," said the senior intelligence official, who requested anonymity. "But it's hard to get."
He said that even recruiting an elite Republican Guard general probably wouldn't have brought better intelligence, because virtually all the top Iraqi officials also assumed that their country had secret arsenals of banned weapons.
Other senior U.S. officials, however, concurred with many of Kay's contentions.
The CIA and other American intelligence agencies were without effective agents inside the regime for nearly a decade, according to these officials. The last significant U.S. covert intelligence collection effort in Iraq collapsed in 1995, they said.
Iraqi security officers used classified communications gear the CIA had given to dissident Iraqi military officers to inform the CIA station in Amman, Jordan, that a U.S.- and British-backed plot by a group called the Iraqi National Accord had been terminated, as had the plotters themselves.
The plot, CIA and British officials later concluded, had been penetrated from the start by Saddam's intelligence services.
"After that, we never had any significant, high-level penetration of our own into the Iraqi regime," said one U.S. clandestine service officer, who requested anonymity because the information remains classified.
The U.N. inspection mission became the prime source of intelligence, raiding weapons sites or offices identified by American spy satellites or other high-tech methods, the officials said.
Exiled opposition groups such as Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress also provided information, but it often was mistrusted by U.S. intelligence officials because of the groups' self-interest in winning support for Saddam's ouster.
"Chalabi had some good information and some straight fabrications," said an administration official, who also asked not to be identified. "We've had similar problems with just about every other exile group."
The British, French and German intelligence services shared information with the United States, but none of them challenged the conventional wisdom that Saddam was hiding chemical and biological weapons and wanted to restart his nuclear program.
"The most alarmist stuff came from the Israelis," the administration official said. "But nobody argued that he didn't have WMD (weapons of mass destruction)."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): DAVIDKAY