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Those missing weapons

David Kay brought credibility to the task of leading the search for evidence of illegal weapons programs in Iraq. His acknowledged expertise, along with his reputation for candor, earned respect even from many who wondered whether the Bush administration would allow Kay and his team to do their jobs without political interference. Now Kay has stepped down as the CIA's chief weapons inspector after months of tedious work, and he has bolstered his credibility with a detailed and evenhanded review of what he found _ and failed to find _ in Iraq.

"I don't think they (weapons of mass destruction) exist," Kay said. "I'm personally convinced that there were not large stockpiles of newly produced weapons of mass destruction. We don't find the people, the documents or the physical plants that you would expect to find if the production was going on."

At the same time, Kay defended the Bush administration against charges that it purposely fabricated the threat posed by Iraq. Instead, Kay says he thinks the shortcomings of the CIA and other intelligence agencies _ particularly their failure to develop on-the-ground intelligence inside Iraq _ prevented Washington from learning that Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons programs had become a fanciful facade.

Kay also says he never encountered any political pressure from the White House to shape his findings in ways that served the administration's political purposes. Based on his conclusion that Iraq had no illicit weapons before the war, he certainly hasn't been cowed by any real or perceived pressure. Charles Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector who also has expressed skepticism about Iraq's weapons programs, is expected to re-place Kay as leader of a reduced search team in Iraq. He, too, will bring credibility to the job.

While professionals such as Kay and Duelfer can bolster the administration's credibility, other White House officials continue to damage their credibility by making allegations that have not been supported by the facts. For example, Vice President Dick Cheney persisted last week in claiming that two trailers discovered in Iraq contained proof that Iraq was working to produce biological weapons. Kay says earlier CIA claims that the trailers were mobile weapons labs turned out to be "premature and embarrassing."

Barring a surprising discovery by the small crew of weapons inspectors still in Iraq, the Bush administration should support a thorough and honest review to determine why its prewar claims were so wildly off base. Did the White House undercut our intelligence services, or did our intelligence services mislead the White House? The American people deserve to know what went wrong _ and those who caused that intelligence failure deserve to be held accountable.

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