Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) said Wednesday he is not ready to conclude that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before U.S. troops invaded to depose Saddam Hussein last year.

Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee (search) that U.S. weapons inspectors need more time to reach final conclusions about whether chemical and biological weapons existed in Iraq before the war, as the Bush administration had asserted before sending American troops into battle.

In a prepared statement, Rumsfeld said he was confident that prewar intelligence, while possibly flawed in some respects, was not manipulated by the administration to justify its war aims.

In his first public comments on the subject since David Kay (search) told Congress last week that he believed it was now clear that U.S. intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs was fundamentally flawed, Rumsfeld praised the efforts of U.S. intelligence agencies and stressed the difficulty of penetrating secretive societies like Iraq.

Rumsfeld offered several examples of what he called "alternative views" about why no weapons have been discovered in Iraq, starting with the possibility that banned arms never existed.

"I suppose that's possible, but not likely," he said.

Other possibilities cited by Rumsfeld:

— Weapons may have been transferred to a third country before U.S. troops arrived in March.

— Weapons may have been dispersed throughout Iraq and hidden.

— Weapons existed but were destroyed by the Iraqis before the war started.

Or, Rumsfeld postulated, "small quantities" of chemical or biological agents may have existed, along with a "surge capability" that would allow Iraq to rapidly build an arsenal of banned weapons. Commenting on that possibility, Rumsfeld said, "We may eventually find it in the months ahead."

Lastly, he offered the possibility that the issue of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction "may have been a charade" orchestrated by the Iraqi government. It is even possible, he said, that Saddam was "tricked" by his own people into believing he had banned weapons that did not exist.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and other Democrats on the committee reminded Rumsfeld that in September 2002 he said "we know" where weapons of mass destruction are stored in Iraq.

Explaining that remark, Rumsfeld told the panel that he was referring to suspected weapons sites, but he acknowledged that he had made it sound like he was talking about actual weapons.

The remark "probably turned out not to be what one would have preferred, in retrospect," he said.

The Kay team, known as the Iraqi Survey Group, did confirm one thing, Rumsfeld said: "The intelligence community got it essentially right" with regard to Iraq's ballistic missile programs. It found that Iraq was working on missiles of longer range than was permitted under U.N. sanctions.

Rumsfeld also said he saw a possibility that Iraq managed to hide some banned weapons of mass destruction. He said that it took 10 months to find Saddam Hussein and that the hole in which he was found on Dec. 13 "was big enough to hold biological weapons to kill thousands" of people.

"Such objects, once buried, can stay buried," Rumsfeld said.

The findings of the Kay group, he added, so far have "not proven Saddam Hussein had what intelligence indicated he had and what we believed he had. But it also has not proven the opposite."