WASHINGTON - The United States, facing demands that United Nations inspectors be given more time to search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, sought to diminish the role of inspectors yesterday and portray them as all but helpless against a stepped-up Iraqi campaign of concealment and intimidation.
Attempting to change a widespread perception of inspectors as detectives whose job is to ferret out hidden weapons, the Bush administration said their job is merely to confirm a nation's voluntary decision to disarm itself.
Officials said a decision on whether to go to war depends not on what the inspectors find, but on whether Iraq willingly discloses and dismantles its weapons programs. So far, they warned, Iraq has failed the test, and time is running out for the regime.
"The word inspectors is a misnomer," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters yesterday. "The job of the inspectors is not to go in there and play hide-and-seek and inspect what Saddam Hussein is willing to show and hope to bump into what Saddam Hussein is hiding.
"Their job is more literally that of verifiers," he said. They are supposed to "verify actual actions of a nation that is willing to show the world that it is disarmed."
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, meanwhile, accused Hussein's regime of intensifying the concealment practices that frustrated weapons inspectors in the 1990s and of threatening witnesses with death.
He noted "multiple reports and other evidence" of efforts to hide documents in the private homes of low-level officials and universities and of incriminating evidence being moved around and hidden beneath mosques and hospitals.
"It is a shell game played on a grand scale with deadly serious weapons," Wolfowitz told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Besides trying to intimidate the inspectors, he said, "today, we know from multiple sources that Saddam has ordered that any scientist who cooperates during interviews will be killed, as well as their families."
No smoking gun
Two months of inspections at hundreds of sites in Iraq have yet to produce striking evidence to confirm American and British assertions that Iraq continues to possess chemical and biological weapons and a program to develop nuclear weapons.
Nor have the inspectors encountered blatant Iraqi efforts to block access to sensitive sites.
These results have encouraged France, Germany and other members of the U.N. Security Council to press for the inspectors to be given more time before a decision is made on whether to go to war.
An open trans-Atlantic rift has developed, which U.S. officials fear is encouraging Hussein to think he can avoid a U.S. attack and keep his weapons programs.
In response to the clamor for more time, in recent days administration officials have mounted a public relations campaign casting doubt on the prospects that the inspectors can succeed in bringing about peaceful disarmament.
The campaign is a prelude to a much-anticipated formal report to the Security Council on Monday by chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei.
The argument has been carried by President Bush and his most senior aides. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters that "inspections will not work." The next day, Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld referred to "so-called inspectors."
And in a coordinated effort yesterday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Rumsfeld deputy Wolfowitz drew a sharp contrast between the inspectors' Iraqi experience and the way inspectors had been able to verify actions by South Africa, Ukraine and Kazakstan to voluntarily dismantle their nuclear-weapons programs in the 1990s.
"Countries that decide to disarm lead inspectors to weapons and production sites, answer questions before they are asked, state publicly and often the intention to disarm and urge their citizens to cooperate," Rice wrote in a New York Times op-ed article.
Later yesterday, the White House issued a six-page document titled "What Does Disarmament Look Like?" describing numerous Iraqi tactics of deception. It noted that last fall, satellite photos revealed activity at several suspected weapons facilities "apparently in anticipation of the resumption of inspections."
The document also said that on Jan. 16, inspectors found a "cache" of documents at the home of an Iraqi scientist that were related to Iraq's program to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons.
A statement issued at the time by the inspectors, however, described the documents as dating from the early 1990s.
The administration has sent mixed signals about the value of inspections - a source of debate inside the Bush administration as well as on the Security Council.
In a speech in August, Vice President Dick Cheney took the lead in voicing deep doubts about renewed inspections, warning that they could lull the world into a false sense of security that the threat posed by Iraq was being neutralized.
Similarly, Rumsfeld has repeatedly argued that inspectors can work successfully only with a regime that voluntarily disarms.
But after the Security Council adopted its resolution in November, the United States backed the inspection process even despite Iraq's history of deceit and evasion.
While insisting that Iraq must cooperate, the White House seemed to expect the inspectors to act as investigators.
Officials said they would provide intelligence to guide inspectors to suspected weapons sites that would expose Iraqi deception, pressed the chief inspectors to take Iraqi scientists and their families out of the country to be interviewed free of intimidation, and urged the inspectors to employ United States-supplied U-2 spy planes and Predator surveillance aircraft as real-time aids to inspections.
Challenged for proof
At his Council on Foreign Relations appearance yesterday, Wolfowitz was challenged by several questioners about why the administration had not produced public proof to back up its claims that Iraq was continuing to conceal its illicit weapons programs.
He replied that the administration might disclose more but warned about the risk of exposing intelligence sources.
At one point Wolfowitz said: "I must say I sort of find it astonishing that the issue is whether you can trust the U.S. government. The real issue is, can you trust Saddam Hussein? And it seems to me the record is absolutely clear that you can't."