WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that U.S. investigators have been unable to locate or identify the Iraqi officers whose recorded voices plotting to deceive United Nations inspectors provided a dramatic highlight to his presentation to the United Nations last year about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
"We can't find those guys. I don't know who those guys were. But the tapes were real tapes. We didn't make them up," Powell said in an interview with six newspapers, including The Sun.
Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, included voice recordings that bolstered U.S. assertions that Hussein's government was hiding stockpiles of banned weapons and was actively deceiving inspectors after they launched their search in Iraq in late 2002.
The recordings were made from what Powell described as intercepted telephone conversations.
Rank, not name
The Iraqis were identified in Powell's speech and transcripts released by the administration as military officials, identified by rank but not by name.
In one of the tapes, a man identified as a colonel acknowledged having "a modified vehicle." A general tells him, "I'm worried you all have something left."
In another, a lieutenant colonel relays an instruction from the Republican Guard chief of staff for "scrap areas" to be inspected before the arrival of U.N. teams, adding, "After you have carried out what is contained in the message ... destroy the message."
In a third, a man identified as an Iraqi captain instructs a colonel to "remove ... the expression ... 'nerve agents'" wherever it comes up in "wireless instructions."
The tapes have rarely, if ever, been discussed publicly by administration officials since President Bush launched an invasion of Iraq last year with the chief aim of disarming the Iraq regime. No stockpiles of chemical, nuclear or biological weapons have been found despite more than a year of searching by American investigators led first by David Kay and more recently by Charles Duelfer.
Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, whom U.S. officials portrayed as insufficiently aggressive in exposing Iraqi deception, later raised questions about the tapes in a book about the affair, writing that he didn't know where the United States had obtained the tapes.
"Since the occupation of Iraq, I have not seen any discussion of these tapes," Blix wrote.
Duelfer told Congress on March 30 that one of the obstacles to uncovering the truth about Hussein's weapons program is a continued and extreme reluctance by Iraqis to talk about it.
In yesterday's interview, Powell again expressed disappointment that some of the intelligence used in the speech proved to be wrong, including his assertion that Iraq possessed mobile biological weapons labs. He acknowledged that the failure to find the weapons had affected America's credibility.
"I'm very disappointed that all that I said was not accurate. Not all that I said was inaccurate," Powell said. "The part about mobile vans turned out to be not based on good intelligence, but we thought it was when I said it."
"We have not found the stockpiles that we thought were there. But I think we have established that he never lost the intent to have weapons of mass destruction, that he had the infrastructure for it, that he had dual-use facilities that could have converted themselves quickly to weapons of mass-destruction.
"I put forward the best intelligence information that the intelligence community had," Powell said.
On other subjects, Powell:
Said information about prisoner abuse in Iraq and other U.S. detention facilities that came by way of the International Committee of the Red Cross lacked enough specifics for the Bush administration to launch an investigation before the probe by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba.
Declined to describe the abuse as torture, not wanting to adopt a legal term, but called it "absolutely reprehensible."
Acknowledged "an uneasy feeling in the world" about Iraq, but gave an upbeat outlook for the future. He said once Iraqis start taking responsibility for their own future, "we can turn this around."
If it weren't for the current security problems, "People would have thrown awards at us" for toppling Hussein.