WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell offered a vigorous defense yesterday of his United Nations presentation last year on the need to forcibly halt the development of prohibited weapons in Iraq. He remained defiant even as some U.S. arms inspectors returned home empty-handed and as a newly released report added to criticism that the Bush administration's case against Iraq was overblown.
Powell, appearing strong and in good spirits three weeks after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer, did not yield an inch in defense of his justification for the war in Iraq. He was fully aware that "the whole world would be watching," as he painstakingly made the case that the government of Saddam Hussein presented a threat to the United States and its interests.
But a central tenet of his argument in the Feb. 5 speech - that Iraq possessed illicit weapons - has, in the absence of evidence, stirred criticism that the administration might have exaggerated its case in order to win support for military action.
A report released yesterday by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan Washington research center, concluded that Iraq's weapons programs constituted a long-term threat that should not have been ignored. But it also said the programs did not "pose an immediate threat to the United States, to the region or to global security."
Powell's presentation to the United Nations - with audiotapes and satellite photographs - made the administration's most detailed case for urgent action, asserting that "leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option."
The secretary said he had spent time with experts at the CIA combing through reports. "Anything that we did not feel was solid and multi-sourced, we did not use in that speech," he said.
Insisting that "I'm confident of what I presented last year," he noted that Hussein had used prohibited weapons in the past - including nerve gas attacks against Iran and against Iraqi Kurds - and said that even if there were no actual weapons at hand, there was every indication he would reconstitute them once the international community lost interest.
"In terms of intention, he always had it," Powell said. "And anybody who thinks that Saddam Hussein last year was just, you know, waiting to give all of this up, even though he was given the opportunity to do so, he didn't do it. What he was waiting to do is see if he could break the will of the international community, get rid of any potential future inspections, and get back to his intentions, which were to have weapons of mass destruction."
The administration has quietly withdrawn a 400-member team of U.S. weapons inspectors who were charged with finding chemical or biological weapons stockpiles or laboratories, officials said this week. The team was part of a 1,400-member Iraq Survey Group, which has not turned up such weapons or active programs, the officials said.
Asked about whether he believed there was a connection between Hussein's government and al-Qaida, Powell replied: "I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection. But I think the possibility of such connections did exist, and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did."