WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is hampering efforts to improve intelligence by clinging to the false hope that weapons of mass destruction may be found in Iraq, the former chief U.S. weapons inspector said Thursday.
"My only serious regret about the continued holding on to the hope that eventually we'll find it is that it eventually allows you to avoid the hard steps necessary to reform the process," David Kay (search) said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Since resigning last month, Kay has repeatedly said U.S. intelligence was wrong in claiming that Saddam Hussein (search) had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and advanced nuclear weapons programs. Those programs were the main justification for the Iraq war.
President Bush and other officials insist weapons could still be discovered. In an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" last weekend, Bush said, "They could be hidden, they could have been transported to another country." Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) has also said he believes weapons could still be uncovered.
Kay said the administration could fear the political costs of acknowledging error. "I suspect if I had their jobs I'd probably, to keep my sanity, be an eternal optimist about some things," he said.
Kay stepped down from his role as CIA adviser for the weapons search after the military diverted resources from the search to bolster security for troops and fight insurgents. He described a constant battle to keep his staff of 1,400, in which he initially prevailed but began to lose ground in the fall. He said he wasn't informed of the final changes until after the decision had been made.
"If a country like this could not devote that level of resources ... to come to a conclusion about the reason we went to war, and couldn't find those people somewhere else to go to counterterrorism — you didn't have to rob one to increase the other," he said.
Though he is persuaded that no large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons existed, more work needs to be done to examine the foreign assistance Iraq received in its missile program, Kay said.
"These same people are likely helping other countries trying to achieve missile programs," he said.
Kay said "the dominance of analytical opinion" was that two trailers found in northern Iraq were meant to make hydrogen for balloons, not biological weapons. CIA Director George Tenet (search) said last week that the issue was still under debate.
Part of the problem, Kay said, was that the trailers had never been used for anything and that their equipment was not well suited for either hydrogen or biological weapons production. Documents and testimony from Iraqis point strongly toward the hydrogen idea, he said.
Another issue was the discovery of thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes in Iraq. Before the war, Bush administration officials said those tubes were meant to be used in centrifuges to make nuclear bomb fuel out of uranium.
Although Tenet said the issue was still open, Kay said analysts have concluded Iraq had no active nuclear program.
"There's no substantial disagreement that there was no centrifuge program," Kay said.
The most likely explanation for the tubes, Kay said, is that they were to be used for artillery rockets. Kay said the Iraqis were making rockets based on an Italian design which used the same kind and size of aluminum tubes.
Kay said only a few Iraqi weapons scientists were still being held by the Americans, and most of those were not jailed for their participation in weapons of mass destruction programs.
"Of those in detention, most are for activities other than their scientific activities," Kay said.
An example, Kay said, is Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a former scientist in Saddam's biological weapons program. She is being held because she was on Saddam's Revolutionary Command Council, not for her biological work, Kay said.
Kay repeated statements that he did not believe analysts felt pressured to shape their reports to bolster the case for war, a claim made by some Democrats.
Asked whether analysts believed their findings had been distorted, Kay said: "Were some people uncomfortable about some of the rhetoric? I think the fair answer to that is `yes."' He stressed that analysts are generally uncomfortable with any change to their wording, but understand that is the nature of political rhetoric.
"Politicians choose the best possible argument that will support the course of action they've decided on regardless of whether it's foreign policy or not," he said. "Is that cherry picking? That's the nature of the political process."
Kay said the team he headed, the Iraq Survey Group, found widespread corruption in the United Nations oil-for-food program, which allowed Iraq to sell oil while it was subjected to sanctions. "There are going to be red faces among a lot of our allies and friends as to this because a lot of people took part in what was clearly a scam."