The leader of the U.S. search for banned weapons in Iraq resigned Friday and said he thinks Iraq engaged in no large-scale production of chemical or biological weapons in the 1990s and destroyed what it had left before last year's American-led invasion.
Special CIA adviser David Kay's decision to step down was a blow to the White House, which based its case for war with Iraq largely on claims that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed large quantities of chemical and biological weapons and had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program.
"I don't think they existed," Kay told Reuters news agency. "What everyone was talking about is stockpiles produced after the end of the last Gulf War, and I don't think there was a large-scale production program in the '90s."
CIA director George Tenet said Friday that the search for illicit arms in Iraq will continue and that Kay will be replaced as head of the Iraq Survey Group by Charles Duelfer, a former United Nations weapons inspector.
Duelfer has recently expressed skepticism that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and his appointment was seen by some as an indication the Bush administration might be trying to figure out why prewar intelligence on Iraq was apparently so wrong.
After his departure was announced, Kay voiced deep skepticism to Reuters that the administration's prewar claims that Iraq was hiding large caches of illegal munitions will be validated.
Citing interviews, documentation and an on-the-ground look at evidence, Kay said, "you just could not find any physical evidence that supported a larger program."
Reuters released a transcript of its interview with Kay, in which he said he decided to leave a job he described as "85 percent" done, partly because resources were being pulled away from the weapons hunt to focus on the insurgency.
"When I had started out, I had made it a condition that ISG be exclusively focused on WMD (weapons of mass destruction)," he said. "That's no longer so."
The draining of resources, Kay said, would make it difficult to conclude the search by June, when the United States is scheduled to turn over control of the country to an Iraqi government. "We're not going to find much after June," he said, suggesting the new government would likely interfere or pose obstacles to interviews and searches.
Asked what happened to Iraq's weapons, he said, "I think there were stockpiles at the end of the first Gulf War and . . . a combination of U.N. inspectors and unilateral Iraq action got rid of them." He said Iraq's nuclear program "wasn't dormant because there were a few little things going on, but it had not resumed in anything meaningful."
Kay's comments came at the close of a week in which White House officials have continued to try to cast the evidence against Iraq in the best light.
President Bush, in his State of the Union address, said the weapons search had proven Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities," a phrase critics saw as a backtrack from prewar claims that Iraq had weapons stocks.
And Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview on National Public Radio, said two trailers discovered after the war were proof of Iraq's biological weapons programs.
Kay, in an interim report in October, had said his team had "not yet been able to corroborate the existence of a mobile production effort." And in a BBC interview that aired Thursday on public television in the United States, Kay said it was "premature and embarrassing" for the CIA to have concluded soon after the vehicles were discovered last year that they were weapons labs. Kay called the release of the information "a fiasco."
The weapons hunt has been marked by frustration from the start. Experts from the CIA, U.S. Special Forces, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other specialized agencies have scoured Iraq for 10 months but have found no evidence Hussein's regime had resumed production of chemical or biological agents or had rebuilt its nuclear weapons program, as the White House had warned.
Kay took the job of organizing the Iraq Survey Group for the CIA in June amid mounting criticism of the initial postwar hunt, which had been run by the Pentagon.
Over the months, Kay's teams interviewed hundreds of Iraqis, and detained scores of former scientists and technicians for interrogation at a U.S. base outside the Baghdad airport. Most have been released, however, and the capture and interrogation of Hussein last month has produced nothing yet to point to a breakthrough.
"I think (Kay's departure) confirms what we all know _ which is that there is no smoking gun," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Harman said the most important mission for the Iraq Survey Group might be to help piece together clues to how American intelligence estimates on Iraq's weapons programs were so wrong.
"It is increasingly clear there was a massive intelligence failure," Harman said.
Kay had returned to Washington in December and indicated he was planning to step down.
Duelfer said he is "quite excited" about the challenge ahead. "My goal is to find out what happened on the ground" in Iraq, he said. "What was the status of the Iraqi weapons programs? What was their game plan? What was their goal?"
He said no one had pressuredhim to shade his investigation to substantiate prewar claims by the White House about Iraq's suspected weapons.
Tenet, he said, "wanted one thing _ the truth, wherever that may lay. That's what I hope to achieve."
Duelfer sought to counter his recent statements in various news accounts that no chemical or biological weapons would be found in Iraq.
He said his comments were the "prognostications of an outsider" that should not be given much weight.
Kay and Duelfer were among those convinced before the war that Iraq had illegal weapons stocks.
Duelfer said his prewar judgments "like everyone else's, were off the mark."