WASHINGTON – The CIA (search) named a new inspector to lead the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction Friday, choosing a veteran investigator who has expressed recent skepticism that Saddam Hussein (search) possessed banned weapons that posed an immediate threat.
Charles Duelfer (search), the No. 2 United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq for much of the 1990s, is taking over the task of sorting out Saddam's weapons program. He said CIA Director George Tenet (search) assured him he wanted one thing: "That is the truth, wherever that lay."
The Bush administration has been frustrated in its search for convincing evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, banned by the United Nations after Iraq invaded Kuwait. No such weapons have been found although the previous inspector, David Kay (search), said he did find evidence of programs to develop weapons.
Duelfer, pronounced DULL-fer, will be taking over the U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group of roughly 1,400 scientists and other experts who are combing through documents, searching facilities and interviewing Iraqis to determine the capabilities of the fallen government.
In a conference call with reporters Friday, Duelfer wouldn't offer a timetable for his investigation. "I think probably where the most sensitive judgment call will be is ... when do you think you've pursued all possible avenues to the extent that you can."
Duelfer, 51, will replace Kay, who came home from Iraq for the holidays and never returned.
"At a time when our WMD hunt efforts were just beginning, David provided a critical strategic framework that enabled the ISG to focus the hunt for information on Saddam's WMD programs," CIA Director George Tenet said.
Kay could not be reached for comment.
The administration continues to believe that weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney told National Public Radio in an interview Wednesday. White House press secretary Scott McClellan reiterated that on Friday, stressing that the administration stands by its assertions that the Iraqi regime possessed banned weapons at the time of the war and that it is only a matter of time before the survey group uncovers where they are.
"We believe the truth will come out," he said.
Duelfer said he sees the job as an opportunity to pursue questions unanswered during his seven years tracking Saddam's weapons program as the top American on the U.N. team enforcing the 1991 cease-fire agreement.
Before last year's invasion, Duelfer took a hard line, consistently arguing that the Iraqi government posed a significant threat due to Saddam's dedication to the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
"I can only underline the view that, all other things being equal, the current leadership in Baghdad will eventually achieve a nuclear weapon, in addition to their current inventories of other weapons of mass destruction," Duelfer told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July 2002.
Since Saddam's fall last spring, however, Duelfer has grown more skeptical that weapons will be found. In a column published by the Washington Post in October, he said Saddam had long differentiated between actually retaining weapons and maintaining a capability to produce them quickly.
The absence of weapons stocks "does not mean Saddam did not pose a WMD threat," Duelfer wrote.
"But clearly this is not the immediate threat many assumed before the war," he also said. "The WMD threat appears to have been longer term. Assuming this finding does not change, it will be very important for the Iraq Survey Group to establish when all agents and weapons were eliminated."
In the conference call on Friday, Duelfer said his earlier comments were those of an outsider, and his job now is to be an investigator. "My goal is to find out what happened on the ground, what is the status on the Iraqi weapons programs, what was their game plan, what were the goals of the regime," he said.
David Albright, a former weapons inspector, said Duelfer had gained respect for his work at the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq. He said there was a perception that Kay was more of an ideologue, convinced the weapons existed.
"Having Duelfer go in gives me more confidence that they can wrap this up, and we can have some closure. Duelfer has much more experience as an inspector," Albright said.
In earlier interviews, Duelfer has laid out the challenges he faces. He has said U.S. troops have dumped file cabinets of documents into trash bags and boxes. "Now when genuine experts and linguists look at them, you know, they are going to have to go sorting through them," he said in a National Public Radio interview. "Given the volume of this, this is going to be an enormously time-consuming task."