WASHINGTON – The intelligence community may have given too much credit to Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program, but it has no doubt that Iraq was working on chemical and biological weapons, CIA Director George Tenet (search) said Thursday.
"We may have overestimated the progress Saddam was making" toward its nuclear acquisition program, Tenet said. But Saddam had the intent and capability to quickly convert dual-use facilities for chemical weapons and intended to develop biological weapons, he said.
"Intelligence does not know if production took place and those weapons have not been found yet," he told an audience at Georgetown University.
Tenet said U.S. forces and the CIA's Iraqi Survey Group have found what he called an "aggressive Iraqi missile program," evidence that Iraq had plans and advanced work for a liquid propellant missile with ranges of up to 1,000 kilometers, and confirmation that Iraq was in secret negotiations with North Korea to obtain "some of its most dangerous missile technology."
But "while some sources indicate Iraq may have conducted some experiments related to developing chemical weapons, no physical evidence has yet been uncovered. We need more time," Tenet said.
Seeking to fend off criticism about the failure of U.S. inspectors to find weapons of mass destruction, Tenet defended the nation's intelligence community Thursday, saying, "the risks are always high, success and perfect outcomes are never guaranteed ... but we will always call it as we see it."
He added that while the weapons had not been found yet, "Could I have ignored or dismissed such reports? Absolutely not."
Speaking in South Carolina about homeland security, President Bush also defended the intelligence used to justify war in Iraq.
"We know that Saddam Hussein (search) had the intent to arm his regime with weapons of mass destruction because he hid the activities until the last day of his regime," Bush said. "He had a record of using weapons of mass destruction against his enemies and against innocent Iraqi citizens ... America did the right thing in Iraq."
Tenet said "patience and care" are vital to understanding the threat posed by Saddam and evaluating the ongoing terrorism risk.
"These times demand it, because the alternative, politicized, haphazard evaluation without the benefit of time and facts may well result in an intelligence community that is damaged and a country that is more at risk," Tenet said.
The Bush administration has been harshly criticized for its inability to find huge caches of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
David Kay (search), the former chief weapons inspector for the Iraq Survey Group, told a Senate panel that he does not believe any weapons of mass destruction will be found. Kay testified that the intelligence community is to blame. Bush is planning an independent investigation.
Bush originally dismissed calls for an independent panel, saying, "There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a grave and gathering threat to America and the world."
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) told lawmakers Wednsday that it was "possible but not likely" that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction.
But Tenet said the hunt for weapons is not nearly over.
"Despite some public statements, we are nowhere near 85 percent finished," Tenet said. "The men and women who work in that dangerous environment are adamant about that fact."
'No One Told Us What to Say or How to Say It'
Tenet agreed with Kay's comments that the United States didn't have enough human spies in Iraq.
But "a blanket indictment of our human intelligence around the world is dead wrong," Tenet argued. He added that since he began as head of the CIA seven years ago, the agency has been rebuilding its clandestine services.
Tenet credited CIA spies with the arrests of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, purported mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Asia's leading terror suspect, Hambali.
The CIA chief stressed that the intelligence on Iraq was culled and analyzed correctly and that decisions were made that were in the best interest of the United States.
"Let me be clear -- analysts differed on several different aspects of these programs and these debates were spelled out … they never said there was an imminent threat," Tenet said. The analysts painted an "objective assessment" for policymakers of a brutal dictator who was building on programs that "may constantly surprise us and threaten our interests," he said.
Tenet and Rumsfeld both denied allegations that the administration had pressured intelligence agencies to bolster the case for war.
"No one told us what to say or how to say it," Tenet said.
Iraq Intended to Develop Weapons
Tenet said U.S. officials are finding "discrepancies" among human intelligence about the whereabouts and existence of mobile weapons labs before the war, but regardless, Iraq was trying to develop a biological weapons program.
"Clearly, research and development work was under way that would have permitted a rapid shift to agent production if seed stocks were available," he said.
Tenet added that analysts concluded Saddam was working on chemical weapons agents after they saw what they believed were satellite photos of shipments of materials from ammunition sites.
Citing sources on the ground in Iraq, Tenet said, "Iraq was aggressively and covertly discussing" building a nuclear weapon. Those sources indicated that the discussions inferred that a weapon could, in fact, be produced in 18 to 24 months.
Tenet said Americans need to understand that the intelligence process is working and the intelligence community doesn't deserve ongoing criticism.
"Both here and around the world, the men and women of American intelligence are performing courageously, often brilliantly … to stop terrorism and break up proliferation," he said.
'A Smoking Gun Without Bullets?'
But experts said the mixed messages being sent to the American people -- that Saddam definitely had such weapons and was ready to use them before the war, and Tenet's Thursday message -- may not help the White House's cause.
"He wants more time," retired Admiral Stansfied Turner, CIA director under President Jimmy Carter, told Fox News about Tenet's goals in Iraq.
"Let me point out that it doesn't make any difference what they find at this point ... The point is that we were led to believe the war was justified on the basis that Iraq was ready to use chemical-biological weapons. That certainly is not the case. A cache of chemicals buried in the desert is not a weapon. It is an ingredient for a weapon but not a weapon," Turner said.
Marc Ginsberg, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and Fox News foreign affairs analyst, said Iraq "was a judgment call -- the intelligence was really what it was.
"There was enough circumstantial evidence that Saddam was not all of a sudden turning the [Muammar] al-Qaddafi leaf and all of a sudden deciding to be a good guy in the Middle East," Ginsberg said, referring to the Libyan leader's recent concession to scrap his country's weapons of mass destruction program.
But the bottom-line, according to Ginsberg, is: "Can you have a smoking gun without bullets?"