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Kay Says About-Face on Iraq Was ‘No Eureka Moment’

Times Staff Writers

The re-education of David Kay began just days after the CIA sent him to Baghdad in June to take over the troubled hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

On July 4, Kay reached for his computer and wrote his first weekly progress report to CIA brass back in Virginia. Kay warned that he already had doubts about the agency’s prewar assertions that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had vast quantities of nerve gases and germ weapons, and had sought to build nuclear arms.

“I said the emerging picture here is by no means complete, but the emerging picture is very different from what we expected,” Kay recalled in an interview Friday.

Kay’s message may have been the first indication Washington officials had that a man who had gone to Iraq as an outspoken champion of the view that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed a threat to the United States was beginning to undergo a dramatic change of mind.

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Just how dramatic became clear when Kay, who resigned as head of the Iraq Survey Group on Jan. 23, told a Senate panel last week that Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear programs mostly were eliminated by 1995 and whatever was left collapsed soon after.

“We were almost all wrong,” Kay said, blaming inaccurate estimates on a “massive failure” of U.S. intelligence.

Kay’s harsh charges and his call for an independent inquiry into the flawed weapons data put the White House on the defensive, stunned senior intelligence officials and sparked fierce partisan debate in Congress. The White House is now studying whether to name a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the prewar intelligence on Iraq, congressional sources said Saturday.

Even colleagues who praised Kay’s candor were startled by his about-face on Iraq and his emergence as one of the sharpest critics of U.S. intelligence.

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But as the former inspector described his mental journey from advocate to critic during a series of recent interviews, he said the gap between what he had expected and what he saw in Iraq left him no choice but to do a 180-degree turn.

Kay said he had “no eureka moment” or realization “in the middle of the night” that U.S., British and other Western spy services had only a tenuous understanding of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons programs.

“As we found stuff and didn’t find stuff, as we connected dots and unconnected others, it became increasingly clear that the reality on the ground clearly didn’t match the prewar estimates,” he said. “It was a slow build from day one.”

For Kay, 63, solving the mystery of Iraq’s weapons program was a decade-long obsession, not just a short-term CIA assignment. He served in Iraq as a United Nations nuclear weapons inspector for about eight months after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and he is among a small circle of weapons experts, analysts and academics who have spent much of their careers trying to piece together that puzzle.

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“I think he’s extremely conscientious, very, very driven by his need to unravel this Gordian knot he’s been chasing for over 10 years,” said a military intelligence official who worked beside Kay in Iraq for several months and who declined to be named. “For David Kay, the pursuit of the facts behind the WMD program has probably been akin to the search for the Holy Grail.”

Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Kay was visible, outspoken and authoritative in his views, and his earlier testimony before Congress provided Bush with crucial independent support for going to war.

“Unless we take immediate steps” to remove Hussein, Kay warned the House Armed Services Committee in September 2002, “we will soon face a nuclear-armed Iraq.”

Doing nothing, he added, “is to accept the almost certainty of a successful first attack against the U.S. and its friends.”

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Six months in Iraq, however, convinced Kay that his long-held beliefs were wrong. The U.S. had relied too much on other nations’ spy services, too much on satellite photos and eavesdropping, and too much on unreliable defectors and exile groups.

Hussein, Kay now believes, was engaged in “either outright bluffing or creative ambiguity” to convince the West he still had weapons. Most intelligence services, he said, fell for it.

And so with the passion of a convert, Kay sparred with skeptical senators last week and argued that President Bush had been given faulty intelligence. “That’s abuse, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Kay “really believed” Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, said a former CIA station chief who worked in Iraq. “The guy is appointed to charge in after the war, and six months later, he has nothing. If I were in his situation, I would be deeply disturbed too.”

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A senior intelligence official echoed this analysis of Kay, saying he undoubtedly feels misled by years of intelligence on Iraq, and that perhaps he is dismayed that he contributed to it.

“He was part of the [U.N.] inspections that produced information that formed the basis for the claims that he now says misled him,” said the official, who declined to be named.

There is another issue.

In November, Gen. John Abizaid, who heads U.S. forces in the region, including Iraq, “asked to have the [Iraq Survey Group’s] mission changed to include counterinsurgency,” said a Pentagon spokesman.

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At the time, he said, a group of weapons experts who had completed their work with Kay’s survey group left Iraq, “and the guys who came in and replaced them were counterinsurgency experts. They weren’t the guys Kay wanted for the WMD search.”

Kay says he quit over the diversion of those and other resources. “It was changing the survey group from something that was totally focused on WMD to something that had multiple missions,” he said. “To me, that was the only mission. I almost cannot think of interagency operations that have ever worked. They end up being mush.”

Administration officials, who say it’s too early to write off Iraq’s weapons, publicly praised Kay’s patriotism and privately questioned his logic.

“On one hand, he says resources were diverted and impeded his ability to find weapons, and on the other hand he doesn’t think there were any,” said one official. “He can’t have it both ways.”

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Kay says he thought he had signaled his shift publicly in October when he delivered an interim report to Congress. He said then that he had found no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and no production programs in place to build them.

He said he was stunned by the headlines that greeted his recent testimony before Congress. “I thought it was old hat.”

By November, Kay said, he was in “fairly regular dialogue” with the CIA about his growing doubts. He returned to Washington in December and delivered a final oral briefing in early January to CIA Director George J. Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin. Despite his six months in the field, the meeting lasted only an hour, said an intelligence official, and Kay was not asked to deliver a written report.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Kay told Tenet and McLaughlin “he was going to keep a low profile” after stepping down. “They were a little surprised” that Kay “decided to embark on a spate of media appearances.”

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Others said the CIA chiefs were seething, especially after Kay was quoted in news accounts as saying Tenet should apologize to the president.

“I don’t think anybody here really agrees with Kay’s statement that the intelligence community owes the president an apology,” another intelligence official said angrily. “I think the intelligence community gave the president their best guess and their best product. That’s their job. I don’t think they owe anyone an apology.”

Kay backpedaled slightly Friday. “I don’t expect George Tenet to fall on his sword and apologize to the president. “We’re not Japan. But we need to get to the bottom of this and understand what happened.... There are systematic failures.”

He said he plans to relax and then return to his post at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies think tank. He wants to write a serious book that examines proliferation and the need for better intelligence, not a “kiss-and-tell book” about his time in Iraq. “I don’t want to do ‘My Summer Adventure in Baghdad,’ ” he said with a laugh.

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