Article Published: Monday, January 26, 2004
CIA erred with Iraq
By James Risen
WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence agencies failed to detect that Iraq's unconventional weapons programs were in a state of disarray in recent years under the increasingly erratic leadership of Saddam Hussein, the CIA's outgoing chief weapons inspector said in an interview this weekend.
David Kay, who led the government's efforts to find evidence of Iraq's illicit weapons programs until he resigned on Friday, said late Saturday that the CIA and other intelligence agencies did not realize that Iraqi scientists had sold ambitious but fanciful weapons programs to Hussein and had then used the money for other purposes.
Kay also reported that Iraq attempted to revive its efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2001 and 2002 but never got as far toward making a bomb as Iran and Libya.
He said Baghdad was actively working to produce a biological weapon using the poison ricin until the American invasion in March. But in general, Kay said, the CIA and other agencies failed to recognize that Iraq had all but abandoned its efforts to produce large quantities of chemical or biological weapons after the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
From interviews with Iraqi scientists and other sources, Kay said, his team learned that sometime around 1997 and 1998, Iraq plunged into what he called a "vortex of corruption," when government activities began to spin out of control because an increasingly isolated and fantasy-riven Hussein had insisted on personally authorizing major projects without any input from other leaders.
After the onset of this "dark ages" period, Kay said, Iraqi scientists realized that they could go directly to Hussein and present fanciful plans for weapons programs and receive approval and large amounts of money. Whatever was left of an effective weapons capability, he said, was largely subsumed into corrupt money-raising schemes by scientists skilled in the arts of lying and surviving in a fevered police state.
"The whole thing shifted from directed programs to a corrupted process," Kay said. "The regime was no longer in control; it was like a death spiral. Saddam was self-directing projects that were not vetted by anyone else. The scientists were able to fake programs."
In interviews after he was captured, Tariq Aziz, the former Iraqi deputy prime minister, told Kay that Hussein had become increasingly divorced from reality during the last two years of his regime. Hussein would send Aziz manuscripts of novels that he was writing, even as the American-led coalition was gearing up for war, Kay said.
Kay said the fundamental errors in prewar intelligence assessments about Iraq were so grave that he would recommend that the CIA and other organizations overhaul their intelligence collection and analytical efforts.
Kay reported that CIA analysts had "come to me, almost in tears, saying they felt so badly that we weren't finding what they had thought we were going to find. I have had analysts apologizing for reaching the conclusions that they did."
In response to Kay's comments, a U.S. intelligence official said Sunday that while some prewar assessments may have been wrong, "it is premature to say that the intelligence community's judgments were completely wrong or largely wrong. There are still a lot of answers we need."
Based on his team's interviews with Iraqi scientists, reviews of Iraqi documents and examinations of facilities and other materials, Kay said that the United States was also almost certainly wrong in its prewar belief that Iraq had any significant stockpiles of previously produced weapons of mass destruction.
"I'm personally convinced that there were not large stockpiles of newly produced weapons of mass destruction," Kay said. "We don't find the people, the documents or the physical plants that you would expect to find if the production was going on.
"I think they gradually reduced stockpiles throughout the 1990s. Somewhere in the mid-1990s, the large chemical overhang of existing stockpiles was eliminated."
On the biological weapons front, he said there is evidence that the Iraqis continued research and development, "right up until the end" to improve their ability to produce ricin. "They were mostly researching better methods for weaponization," Kay said. "They were maintaining an infrastructure, but they didn't have large-scale production underway."
He added that Iraq did make an effort to restart its nuclear weapons program in 2000 and 2001, but the evidence suggests that the program was rudimentary at best and would have taken years to rebuild after being largely abandoned in the 1990s.
"But the surprising thing is that if you compare it to what we now know about Iran and Libya, the Iraqi program was never as advanced," Kay said.
Kay said that Iraq had also maintained an active ballistic missile program that was receiving significant foreign assistance right up until the start of the American-led invasion. He said that it appears that money was put back into the nuclear weapons program to restart the effort in part because the Iraqis realized that they needed some kind of payload for their new rockets.
While Kay urged that the hunt should continue in Iraq, he said he believed that "85 percent of the significant things" have already been uncovered, and cautioned that severe looting in Iraq after Hussein was toppled in April had led to the loss of many key documents and other materials.
"There is going to be an irreducible level of ambiguity because of all the looting," Kay said.
Kay said that the CIA missed the significance of the chaotic leadership situation in Baghdad and had no idea how badly that chaos had corrupted Iraq's weapons capabilities or the threat it raised of loose scientific knowledge being handed over to terrorists.
"The system became so corrupt, and we missed that," Kay said.
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