Search leader calls it too soon to say no weapons in Iraq

Testifying privately to senators, CIA official hints of long investigation

March 31, 2004|By Stephen J. Hedges | Stephen J. Hedges,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - The CIA's chief arms inspector in Iraq told a Senate panel yesterday that while no weapons of mass destruction have been found, evidence and statements from Iraqi scientists suggest Iraq was pursuing chemical and biological weapons up to the time U.S. troops invaded last year.

In sharp contrast to David Kay, his predecessor, Charles Duelfer said it was still too early to determine whether Iraq had concealed chemical and biological weapons and the investigation might be a long one.

Duelfer said the search for weapons has expanded to examine Iraq's intentions, its international pursuit of weapons technology and its extensive effort to conceal its weapons programs from the United Nations.

"I do not believe we have sufficient information and insight to make final judgments with confidence at this time," he said in a statement released by the CIA just before he met with the Senate Armed Services Committee in a closed session.

"Interim assessments could turn out to be misleading or wrong. I believe there is more work to be done to gather critical information about the regime, its intentions, and its capabilities, and to assess that information for its meaning."

The testimony of Duelfer, who from 1993 to 2000 worked as a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, differed markedly from that of Kay, who resigned in January after seven months as head of the Iraq Survey Group, the special unit searching for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq.

In January, Kay told the same Senate committee that Saddam Hussein apparently did not possess large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, as the Bush administration had charged in the months leading up to the Iraq war.

"There's a long record here of being wrong," Kay said at the time. He added that the work of the Iraq Survey Group was "85 percent" complete, suggesting that the likelihood of discovering the suspected weapons was slight.

Duelfer, however, said that interviews with scientists, document translation and site searches were expanding and that the Iraq Survey Group continues to "regularly receive reports, some quite intriguing and credible, about concealed caches."

His statement also noted that Kay left work Dec. 7, 2003, and the Survey Group was without a civilian leader for nearly two months. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton commands the military side of the group.

During those two months, Duelfer said, the search effort was reduced to scaled-back site visits and document organization and review.

Senate Republicans who met with Duelfer said they were still withholding judgment on whether the administration was right to characterize Iraq as an imminent threat because of the banned weapons that it allegedly possessed.

But Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said Duelfer's public statement contradicted information contained in the classified material given to the committee. He said the non-public material suggests that the prospect of finding banned weapons in Iraq is much lower than Duelfer's public statement suggests, and he accused the CIA of misleading the public by failing to release all of the material.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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