The former leader of the U.S. hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction said Sunday that intelligence agencies owe the president and the public an explanation for the failure to find large stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons after the U.S.-led war.
David Kay, who resigned Friday, also said that the looting and rioting that followed the short war could have destroyed evidence that would have shed light on whether Iraq possessed such weapons.
“My warning to the American public,” he said on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” program, “is there’s always going to be unresolved ambiguity here. The failure to establish security at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and allowing the looting to continue, meant the records have been destroyed, and destroyed forever.” Still, he said, “we are very unlikely to find large stockpiles of weapons. I don’t think they exist.”
Claims that the regime of now-imprisoned Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed large quantities of chemical and biological weapons and had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program were a major justification used by the Bush administration for last year’s invasion.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Sunday that it is important for the search to continue “so that we find out the truth.”
“Saddam Hussein’s regime was a gathering threat, and in a post-Sept. 11 world, we must confront gathering threats before it is too late,” he added.
Charles W. Duelfer, a former United Nations weapons inspector, is replacing Kay in continuing the search.
Asked if the president owes the country an explanation for the failure of weapons stockpiles to turn up, Kay told NPR, “I actually think the intelligence community owes the president, rather than the president owing the American people.”
“It’s not a political issue,” he added. “It’s an issue of the capabilities of one’s intelligence service to collect valid, truthful information.”
The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Sunday that his panel is investigating the prewar data. But Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas told CNN’s “Late Edition” that if Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, “why on Earth didn’t he let the U.N. inspectors in and avoid the war?”
Hussein did allow U.N. inspectors into Iraq in November 2002 as momentum for war built, and they conducted nearly 600 inspections of about 350 sites. The inspectors made no significant discoveries of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs, although there were unresolved questions.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who is seeking his party’s presidential nomination, said Kay’s comments support his contention that the Bush administration exaggerated claims about Iraqi weapons.
“It confirms what I have said ... that we were misled -- misled not only in the intelligence, but misled in the way that the president took us to war,” Kerry said on “Fox News Sunday.”
In his State of the Union speech last week, President Bush talked of identifying evidence of “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations.”
Although there were no large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction available for “imminent action,” Kay said, “that’s not the same thing as saying it was not a serious, imminent threat.... That is a political judgment, not a technical judgment.”
Kay said there was “a constant stream of trucks, cars, rail traffic” moving from Iraq to Syria. “We simply don’t know what was moved,” he said, adding, “The Syrian government has shown absolutely no interest in helping us resolve this issue.”
Syrian officials brushed aside Kay’s comments Sunday.
“This [assertion] is meant to mislead” the public, Information Minister Ahmed Hassan told reporters in Damascus, the Syrian capital. “So long as there were no weapons of mass destruction [found] in Iraq itself, how can they be in Syria?”
The Americans, he said, “are seeking to cover their failure.”