WASHINGTON - The former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq blamed faulty intelligence work for the Bush administration concluding, erroneously in the inspector's view, that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.
"It turns out we were all wrong," outgoing inspector David Kay told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday. "And that is most disturbing. ... We have to understand why reality turned out to be different than expectations and estimates."
Not only have no large stockpiles of banned weapons been found, he said, but no evidence was found of smaller caches.
Later, on CNN, Kay was asked about the credibility of prewar assertions by Hussein and his lieutenants that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
"The best evidence is [that] they were telling the truth," Kay replied.
Even so, Kay said in Senate testimony that Hussein's government retained the intention to develop an arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and was therefore a serious threat. And he supported President Bush's contention that the world is safer with the dictator no longer in power.
"If you read the total body of intelligence in the last 12 to 15 years that flowed on Iraq, I quite frankly think it would be hard to come to a conclusion other than Iraq was a gathering, serious threat to the world with regard to [weapons of mass destruction]," Kay said.
Kay endorsed calls for an independent, nonpartisan inquiry to ensure that what he views as a major intelligence failure is investigated and corrected. "It is going to take an outside inquiry both to do it and to give yourself and the American people the confidence that you have done it," he said.
Despite Kay's comments, Sen. John W. Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, noted that the hunt for weapons continues. "It is far too early to reach any judgment or conclusion," the Virginia Republican said.
The House and Senate intelligence committees are investigating the information used by U.S. spy agencies to reach their prewar conclusion that Hussein had chemical and biological weapons and was pursuing the development of nuclear arms.
Congressional Democrats have pushed to have the inquiries expanded to determine whether data were distorted or manipulated by Bush administration officials to justify the president's decision to go to war.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the armed services panel, said an outside commission may be required if the GOP leadership, which controls the Senate, continues to resist an expansion of the investigation to "get the full picture."
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, signaled that he backs an outside inquiry "so that we can rely on intelligence in the future."
Such a proposal would probably face strong resistance from the Bush administration, which only reluctantly agreed to an independent panel to investigate the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Kay's findings are similar to those reached before the war by United Nations inspectors, who were turned down by the Bush administration when they asked for more time to conduct their search for banned weapons in Iraq.
As to why Hussein failed to produce persuasive evidence that such stockpiles no longer existed, Kay said the Iraqi leader wanted to preserve the illusion that he had weapons of mass destruction even after his arsenal had been largely destroyed as a result of U.N. inspections in the early and mid-1990s.
Kay said Hussein did not want to appear to the Arab world to have caved in to the United States and the United Nations. Hussein also hoped that the impression that he possessed chemical and biological arms would instill fear and diminish the domestic threat from Shiites and Kurds. Both rose against him after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Weapons inspections during the 1990s succeeded to a surprising degree in limiting Iraq's ability to produce weapons of mass destruction, Kay said.
"In holding the program down ... I think the record is better than we would have anticipated," Kay told the Senate panel. Nevertheless, he said, Iraq would not have revealed the whole truth about its weapons programs to inspectors as long as Hussein remained in power.
Kay said the United States' human intelligence capability had been "sadly" underfunded and underdeveloped, both to save money and to limit danger to American spies.
"There are more people in this room" than intelligence officers who can speak Arabic, he said.
Rather than placing its own spies in Iraq, Kay said, the United States became dependent on information from U.N. inspectors. Hussein expelled the inspectors in 1998, leaving an intelligence vacuum.
Kay said U.S. intelligence analysts are pressed to reach conclusions based on too little information: "There is a point where an analyst simply needs to tell people, 'I can't draw a conclusion.'"
But Kay said he did not believe analysts had come under pressure from administration officials to tailor their conclusions to fit the president's case for going to war, or that they felt intimidated by Vice President Dick Cheney's visits to CIA headquarters to question intelligence officers.
If the errors had resulted from political pressure, he said, the intelligence-gathering problems would be easier to correct.
Reflecting the growing election-year controversy over how the administration used intelligence on Iraq, committee Democrats recounted a series of statements by Bush, Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that seem to have been wrong or unfounded.
"Incredibly enough, administration leaders are still saying that we found weapons of mass destruction production facilities," Levin said.
Kay said a complete understanding of Iraq's weapons programs may never be reached because evidence was destroyed in the wave of looting that followed the fall of Baghdad.