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David Kay

January 29, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now to our newsmaker interview with David Kay. Until last Friday, he was in charge of the U.S. search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He left that post saying none was found, and that he no longer believed Iraq had any at the time of the U.S.-led invasion last spring.

Mr. Kay, welcome.

DAVID KAY: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: What exactly did you expect to find?

DAVID KAY: Going in we expected to find large stocks of chemical and biological agents, weaponized, ready for use on the battlefield, as well as a fairly substantial nuclear program. We did not find that. We have found it a lot. We have found program activities in those areas. We found a resurgent missile program. But, the large stockpile of actual weapons, chemical and biological weapons simply have not yet been found.

JIM LEHRER: Why did you expect to find them? Why did you think they were there?

DAVID KAY: Well, I think, first of all, because that were the estimates — not just the estimates by the CIA or the Defense Intelligence Agency, we were going in against the background in which the U.N. had spoken of large numbers of missing material that could have been weaponized. There were intelligence reports from the British, the French, the Germans and even the Russians which painted a picture of Iraq armed with weapons of mass destruction.

JIM LEHRER: And you looked at all of this before you went?

DAVID KAY: Yes, I did.

JIM LEHRER: And what was it the accumulation of all of this — or were there specific things that really convinced you as an experienced weapons inspector that, my goodness these things are there?

DAVID KAY: Well, there were on paper very specific things with regard to the reports of movement in the weapons, a protection of weapons, of weapons being assigned to specific units as well as specific locations on paper. When we got there, they certainly didn’t exist then.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what was this intelligence based on?

DAVID KAY: Well, multiple sources but when it gets right down to it, it was made — based mostly on the reports of people coming out of Iraq, that is, defectors.

And that’s an interesting question to raise about how much you can rely on that. One has to say, though, that very often that’s the most valuable intelligence. In the case of Iran, for example the Iranian nuclear program that we now know about, the one that the U.N. has been currently investigating, was not found by the U.N. nor found by U.S. intelligence. It was initially reported by a group of Iranian dissidents outside of the country.

So you can’t dismiss that sort of intelligence out of hand but in the case of Iraq, it was a combination of technical intelligence and that sort of reporting.

JIM LEHRER: How could so many people be so wrong about this? That’s what the lay people are asking.

DAVID KAY: That was my question as well. And that’s the question I think we need to have an answer to. And I’m the first to say, I don’t have all the answers to that — nor even probably all the proper questions to it. I think it will turn out to be an over-reliance on technical intelligence. A lack of our own —

JIM LEHRER: Technical meaning what — satellite stuff?

DAVID KAY: Spy satellites and communication intercepts.

A lack of our own dedicated secret agents, clandestine officers operating in Iraq, as well as there’s going be a deeper one in which the Iraqis bear considerable responsibility. We tend to when we analyze a failure look at our own failures and forget there’s another side to the equation. I’m convinced the Iraqis tried to deceive us and in part they tried to deceive us and others into believing that they really did have those weapons.

They also quite clearly during the U.N. days particularly ’91 to ’95 lied and cheated the U.N. about what they had. So you based up a record of lies and deceits on behalf of the Iraqis that made it hard to believe even when they told the truth.

JIM LEHRER: But let’s go back to that. They were under sanctions. They were under heat from the international community. Why would they want to claim they had these weapons if they didn’t have them?

DAVID KAY: Well, I think Saddam had at least two reasons. One, he did not want to seem in the Arab world as an individual who had caved in on the most valuable weapons that he believed you could have in the world, the most intimidating weapons. Those are chemical and biological arms and even the potential nuclear arms. He thought that would be devastating to Iraq’s position.

Secondly, we forget, chemical weapons Saddam used against his own people. The Kurds and the Shia were potential disruptions of Sunni rule there and the most effective tool he had was chemical weapons and the threat of it. I think he was afraid to give it because it would seem internally in terms of the internal political mix that he had backed off and he had backed off by giving the weapon most likely to be used against an uprising.

JIM LEHRER: So he was bluffing?

DAVID KAY: I think if you want a simple term it’s bluffing, yes. I think it’s a more complex game than the usual parlor bluff.

JIM LEHRER: You looked at all this material from all these many sources. Was there not one discordant voice in any of them? Was there not one analyst from some agency who said wait a minute this guy may be bluffing, wait a minute, those stockpiles may no longer be there, or was it unanimous that they were all there?

DAVID KAY: There were discordant voices about individual pieces of information. For example was he producing remote piloted vehicles capable of spreading biological agents? But with regard to the weight of argument he has or does not have weapons of mass destruction, there were very, very discordant voices and most of those were outside the government.

JIM LEHRER: Why? How does that — when you think on it now and looking back on all the material things, recalling all the material you looked at and how you came to this conclusion, why wouldn’t experienced people picked have picked up on this? What was missing, what was missing in the equation that led to such a false finding?

DAVID KAY: I think part of it, Jim, is because we got in the habit of believing that the Iraqis always lied because they did lie and cheat to a large extent in the early ’90s; made it hard to accept pieces of information that the Iraqis provided that showed they didn’t have it.

Secondly, I think we really miss a deterioration of Iraqi society that took place beginning around 1998 in which they spun into a vortex of corruption and graft that made their own interest in requiring more money and taking care of each individual and in not producing weapons in society.

And, that’s the reason we’re having trouble in Iraq today. The social glue of that society was destroyed by Saddam Hussein. Saddam himself, we now know of about $6.5 billion of money illegally skimmed off the oil for food program — by the Iraqis’ own accounting 60 percent of that went into new palace construction and as explained to me that was because that’s how could you take care of your friends new construction. It was a society that had simply fallen apart and we didn’t detect that. We should have.

JIM LEHRER: We should have. Why didn’t we? What is your analysis of why we didn’t?

DAVID KAY: The strange thing, Jim, is this isn’t the first time we failed to understand what is going on as a society. You can go back to the Second World War. We missed what was going on in Germany under strategic bombing; we found out only afterwards — much more recently the Soviet Union.

When the Soviet Union fell, this giant, this superpower, we suddenly discovered we had a basket case on our hands. They couldn’t feed its own people, couldn’t care for it. I didn’t have power. It was falling apart. In Vietnam for those of us who started our career sort of — students of that era or creatures of that era more than students — we misread Vietnamese society as well.

We are not very good as a nation in our intelligence capability at reading the most fundamental secrets of a society, what are its capabilities, what are it’s intentions? You can’t photograph those. You need Americans on the ground penetrating those societies and people who are speaking their languages.

JIM LEHRER: Yesterday at the Senate hearing you appeared before and Senator Collins of Maine said this has cast doubts with her at least on whether we know what is going on in North Korea for instance, on nuclear weapons. Is that a message here that everybody should say, wait a minute we can’t get this right, whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, what can we get right as far as intelligence goes? Is that what you are saying?

DAVID KAY: Jim, I think that’s the important message, far more important than the “gotchaism” of U.S. politics, of who did what to whom which we always like to focus on because it seems to be our interest in personalities. Our credibility, our credibility as a nation and that credibility is what allows us to cooperate with others and influence others towards our own ends. If they doubt the honesty and the objectivity of what we’re telling, we’re going to be in a world of hurt.

JIM LEHRER: So the next time we sound an alarm about country blank has got blank the world may say, oh, is this another Iraq deal? Is what you mean?

DAVID KAY: I think they will say, “Is this true or are you wrong on this one, too?”

JIM LEHRER: Is it your feeling that this is a system problem or is it a matter of people? It is a matter of priorities. Where is the failure here?

DAVID KAY: I’m convinced, Jim, it was a system problem. There was an interesting discussion in the hearing yesterday when Senator Roberts, the chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was tired of what he called oh-my-God hearings, and then he laid out a string: the U.S.S. Cole, the embassy bombings..

JIM LEHRER: Ones in Africa?

DAVID KAY: In Africa. And he had a whole litany of the all — the World Trade Center — all of these. What he was saying is we treat these as individual cases. There has to be a commonality and a system to this problem. I hope he treat it as a systems issue, a fundamental fault issue, as opposed to gocha politics.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of gocha politics you are right in the middle of it now. You notice that both sides. David Kay said this: the administration uses your statements to prove that there was not as big a problem here as people have said. The Democrats who are attacking the administration said David Kay said this. How do you feel about that?

DAVID KAY: Well, I like Senator McCain yesterday when he explained to everyone that I was a technical person and I was a knave and terrible in politics. I thought Senator McCain had it about right. Yesterday, I had the experience as I was sitting there and I was watching two or three simultaneous games only one of which I was playing in and the other two I was the ball in. It was a strange, almost an out of body experience watching that.

JIM LEHRER: This is your future for the immediate — the immediate future, is it not?

DAVID KAY: I hope I have an immediate future. I had a friend of mine call up today and say you know that book “What Color Is Your Parachute,” a job change book — he said you better buy it, and my response to him was I just want to find a parachute, I don’t care what color it is.

JIM LEHRER: You also in your back and forth with Senator McCain yesterday, you said — and I mentioned in the news summary — that you are now in favor of an outside investigation of the intelligence failures on Iraq. The White House says no, Condoleezza Rice said no, no, no, no, the inspections are not even over yet. It’s too early to talk about that. Does that make sense to you, the White House position?

DAVID KAY: It really doesn’t. In some ways I’m brought back to Apollo 13 in which the response was Houston we have a problem and if the response back from Houston had been, well, ride it out, we’ll see how serious it is when you get to the moon.

I think we know enough to know we have a problem and now is the time to start the investigation. My reason for believing it has to be outside — there are many variations of how you can do it outside — is my reading on history is that closed orders and secret societies, whether they are private, religious or governmental, do not reform themselves internally very often.

JIM LEHRER: What is going on here?

DAVID KAY: I’ll take the McCain did defense of character. I’m probably not bright enough politically to know because it’s a mystery to me.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe if there’s no independent investigation we might never find out what the failures are that led you and other professionals to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

DAVID KAY: Jim, that’s not my worst fear. My worst fear is that we’ll have other disasters of that sort. Walking the cat back and explaining Iraq I think is politically important to the country as a leader in the world. But my real fear as an American is if we don’t straighten out the systematic failures, we’ll repeat them in other disasters.

JIM LEHRER: This is a very serious matter to you, is it not?

DAVID KAY: It is absolutely the most serious matter I think I can deal with.

JIM LEHRER: And do you feel that the political on both — the political folks on both sides share your serious feeling or is it too — this is just an awkward time. It’s called a presidential election campaign time. Is it possible to do what you want right now?

DAVID KAY: It’s certainly an awkward time, but I think if you listened to yesterday’s hearing in full as I had to as I was sitting there, there was obviously a political game being played by both sides but on the other hand every senator I think had serious questions that they raised and wanted answers to.

That’s what gives me hope is that if we can transcend this — and I think it’s really going to require the American people speaking out and demanding it. Quite frankly very few answers come from Washington on their own. This is a democracy and it is a government that responds, regardless of political party to pressure from the outside. If the American people do not demand an answer through their elected representatives, wait for the next crisis and the next event I’m afraid.

JIM LEHRER: Based on the reaction you have had to what you have been doing the last few days, do you think the American people want this?

DAVID KAY: Jim, I’m just not in a position — mostly when I turn on the television today, I’m watching political polls about campaigns so maybe not. But I’m more hopeful than that actually.

JIM LEHRER: David Kay, thank you very much.

DAVID KAY: Thank you, Jim.