WASHINGTON -- As the hunt for weapons of mass destruction continues, the United States has begun to map out a backup strategy to justify possible military intervention in Iraq if U.S. intelligence tips, U.N. inspections and Iraqi scientists fail to produce solid evidence of a forbidden arsenal, according to American officials.
The new strategy centers on a simple premise: Nothing is something.
If inspectors fail to uncover hard proof of covert Iraqi weapons programs, the U.S. hopes to convince the U.N. Security Council -- or at least what President Bush has called a "coalition of the willing" -- that what President Saddam Hussein left out of a declaration on his deadliest arms and Baghdad's subsequent actions are enough justification for war, administration officials say.
"The chances that the U.N. will find something are slim. The chances that the Iraqis will tell us anything are slim. So it's quite possible after three or four months of no real progress in inspections that President Bush will simply say: 'That's it. We're not satisfied, and the U.N. shouldn't be satisfied either,' " said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity.
That is likely to be a tough sell at the United Nations, but U.S. officials say Resolution 1441, which authorized the current round of weapons inspections in Iraq, requires no more.
The resolution says that "false statement or omissions" in Baghdad's declaration and "failure by Iraq at any time to comply with and cooperate fully in the implementation of this resolution" will constitute a material breach of the regime's obligations.
As a result, Washington is increasingly focusing on what Hussein hasn't shown, declared or admitted -- the sins of omission -- instead of flashy new evidence.
"The fact that the inspectors have not yet come up with new evidence of Iraq's [weapons of mass destruction] program could be evidence in and of itself of Iraq's noncooperation," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday. "We do know that Iraq has designed its programs in a way that they can proceed in an environment of inspections, and that they are skilled at denial and deception."
Rumsfeld asserted that the inspectors have neither the duty nor the ability to uncover concealed weaponry. Their responsibility, he added, is only to confirm the evidence of voluntary and total disarmament by a "cooperative country."
The State Department is taking an equally tough line, warning that "superficial" cooperation and inadequate disclosures mean that the Security Council has the right to take further action against Iraq.
"We've seen a declaration that leaves out numerous questions from the past, everything from mustard gas shells to rocket tests that they've done. We've seen a list of scientists that was deficient at best. And we've seen some open doors. But we haven't seen the kind of disclosure -- the kind of 'Here's what I've got, let's get rid of it' attitude -- that the Security Council was looking for when it said Iraq has a final opportunity," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
The effort to develop a backup plan reflects the realization that even the best U.S. intelligence may not lead to the kind of discoveries that would win global backing for military intervention to force Iraq to disarm. Although the intelligence is considered valuable, some of it may be dated, with Baghdad constantly moving materiel, documents and personnel to elude detection.
Other material boils down to "best guess" data based on fragmentary snippets culled from electronic intercepts and information channeled through opposition groups, some of which have had credibility problems and have their own political agendas. And some intelligence amounts to only a few pieces of a much larger puzzle, U.S. officials say.
"Time is the worst enemy of intelligence," said a well-placed U.S. official, who requested anonymity. "We may have gotten one piece of information four months ago through one source and gotten another piece three months ago through a different source. Fitting it together is tough when the picture is constantly moving. And who knows what's happened by the time we can get around to checking it."
Washington is also increasingly concerned that Iraqi scientists and engineers will not provide the anticipated evidence, despite a U.N. pledge Wednesday to increase interviews with Baghdad's arms experts.
"We will start the interviews in Baghdad very soon and see how things are developing for interviews outside the country," said Dimitri Perricos, director of the U.N. inspectors' planning and operations.
Although he said he preferred to conduct interviews outside Iraq, Perricos said the U.N. teams have no intention of becoming "an abduction agency."
The United States now fears that Hussein's regime has so intimidated its arms experts that they will refuse to leave Iraq for a place where they could talk freely. The two scientists interviewed so far have balked at leaving.
The administration has provided a list of between 80 and 100 scientists who could have what U.S. officials believe is the most pivotal information in the disarmament effort.
These concerns come as the administration made its final assessment of Baghdad's 11,807-page weapons declaration. Administration officials have concluded that the Iraqi effort is even more "insulting" and "offensive" than assumed after two earlier assessments, according to a senior State Department official.
If Hussein "had declared 5,000 items and we suspected he really had 7,000, then we'd have to find them to prove our case," the official said. "But he declared zero -- of everything."
The senior administration official called Baghdad's strategy "embarrassingly ham-handed."
"Saddam's calculation must have been that it'd take us time to figure it out, which would buy him time. Now that we've found out just how useless it is, we're even more [angry] than before," he added.
On Wednesday, the White House stressed in particular the gaps in Iraq's declaration on biological weapons as a reflection of Hussein's failure to meet his U.N. obligations.
"The regime was forced to admit [in the 1990s] that it produced more than 30,000 liters of anthrax and other deadly biological agents. The inspectors concluded that Iraq likely produced two to four times that amount. That's a massive stockpile -- capable of killing millions," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.
"It remains unaccounted for. The Iraqis did not account for it in the most recent briefing they gave to the United Nations," he said.
Bush "will keep his word" on continuing to consult with Security Council members, Fleischer said, but the spokesman evaded questions about whether Washington would seek a second U.N. resolution that would pave the way for military intervention.
Fleischer noted that many nations have already told the United States that they don't believe a second resolution is necessary.
Times staff writers Edwin Chen in Washington and Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.