U.S. intelligence agencies failed to detect that Iraq's unconventional weapons programs were in a state of disarray in recent years under the increasingly erratic leadership of Saddam Hussein, the CIA's outgoing chief weapons inspector said in an interview this weekend.
David Kay, who led the government's efforts to find evidence of Iraq's illicit weapons programs until he resigned Friday, said late Saturday that the CIA and other intelligence agencies did not realize that Iraqi scientists had sold ambitious but fanciful weapons programs to Hussein and had then used the money for other purposes.
Kay also reported that Iraq attempted to revive its efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2001 and 2002, but never got as far toward making a bomb as Iran and Libya.
He said that Baghdad was actively working to produce a biological weapon using the poison ricin until the American invasion last March. But in general, Kay said, the CIA and other agencies failed to recognize that Iraq had all but abandoned its efforts to produce large quantities of chemical or biological weapons after the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
On National Public Radio on Sunday, Kay said he now believes Hussein had no illicit arms.
"I don't think they exist," Kay said. "The fact that we found so far the weapons do not exist _ we've got to deal with that difference and understand why."
From interviews with Iraqi scientists and other sources, Kay said his team learned that, sometime around 1997 and 1998, Iraq plunged into what he called a "vortex of corruption," when government activities began to spin out of control because an increasingly isolated and fantasy-riven Hussein had insisted on personally authorizing major projects without any input from other leaders.
Iraqi scientists realized that they could go directly to Hussein and present fanciful plans for weapons programs and receive approval and large amounts of money, Kay said Saturday. Whatever was left of an effective weapons capability, he said, was largely subsumed into corrupt money-raising schemes by scientists skilled in the arts of lying and surviving in a police state.
Kay said the CIA missed the significance of the chaotic leadership situation in Baghdad and had no idea how badly that chaos had corrupted Iraq's weapons capabilities or the threat it raised of loose scientific knowledge being handed over to terrorists.
"The system became so corrupt, and we missed that," Kay said.
Based on his team's interviews with Iraqi scientists, reviews of Iraqi documents and examinations of facilities and other materials, Kay said that the United States was also almost certainly wrong in its prewar belief that Iraq had any significant stockpiles of previously produced weapons of mass destruction.
"I'm personally convinced that there were not large stockpiles of newly produced weapons of mass destruction," Kay said. "We don't find the people, the documents or the physical plants that you would expect to find if the production was going on."
He said it now appears that Iraq abandoned the production of weapons of mass destruction and largely eliminated its stockpiles in the 1990s in large part because of Baghdad's concerns about the U.N. weapons inspection process. He said Iraqi scientists and documents show that Baghdad was far more concerned about U.N. inspections than Washington had ever realized.
In addition, Kay said that it is now clear that the 1998 American bombing campaign against Iraq destroyed much of the remaining infrastructure in Iraq's chemical weapons programs.
Kay said the fundamental errors in prewar intelligence assessments about Iraq were so grave that he would recommend that the CIA and other organizations overhaul their intelligence collection and analytical efforts.
Kay said the basic problem with the way the CIA tried to gauge Iraq's weapons programs before the war is now painfully clear: The agency lacked its own spies in Iraq who could give the CIA credible information.
During the 1990s, Kay said, the CIA became spoiled by on-the-ground intelligence that it had obtained from the U.N. weapons inspectors. But the quality of the CIA's information plunged after the U.N. teams were withdrawn in 1998.
"UNSCOM (the U.N. weapons inspection program) was like crack cocaine for the CIA," Kay said. "They could see something from a satellite or other technical intelligence, and then direct the inspectors to go look at it."
Asked whether President Bush owed the nation an explanation for the gap between his warnings and Kay's findings, Kay said Sunday: "I actually think the intelligence community owes the president, rather than the president owing the American people."
Kay said that he is now convinced that the CIA analysts dealing with weapons of mass destruction were not pressured by the Bush administration to make certain that their prewar intelligence reports conformed to a White House agenda on Iraq.
The CIA would not comment Sunday on Kay's remarks.
Kay said there is now a consensus within the U.S. intelligence community that mobile trailers found in Iraq and initially believed to be mobile bioweapons labs were actually designed to produce hydrogen for weather balloons, or perhaps to produce rocket fuel. While using the trailers for such purposes seems bizarre, Kay said, "Iraq was doing a lot of nonsensical things" under Hussein.
The intelligence reports that Iraq was poised to use chemical weapons against invading U.S. troops were false, and appear to have been based on faulty reports and Iraqi disinformation, Kay said.
Kay also said he never felt pressured by the Bush administration to shape his own reports on the status of Iraq's weapons. He said that in a White House meeting with Bush last August, the president urged him to uncover what really happened. "The only comment I ever had from the president was to find the truth," Kay said.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.