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KWAME HOLMAN: In the lead-up to the Iraq war, Bush administration officials adopted a tone of certainty regarding Iraqi weapons.
SECRETARY OF STATE COLIN POWELL: The gravity of this moment is matched by the gravity of the threat that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction pose to the world.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.
And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.
KWAME HOLMAN: Two weeks into the conflict, Rumsfeld spoke of the stockpiles’ presumed location.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DONALD RUMSFELD: We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad, and East, West, South, and North somewhat.
KWAME HOLMAN: U.S. military teams searched those areas during and after the fighting, and so far have found no weapons. By July 2003, the president and his advisors were using the term “weapons program” instead of “weapons.” And they used the past tense, saying Iraq had a weapons program.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I’m confident that our search will yield that which I strongly believe, that Saddam had a weapons program. I want to remind you that he actually used his weapons program on his own people at one point in time, which is pretty tangible evidence.
KWAME HOLMAN: The U.S. search is headed by weapons inspector David Kay. In an interim report last fall, he cited indications of Iraqi weapons programs not reported previously to the U.N. But he told the NewsHour there was nothing at that point that rises to the level of evidence.
DAVID KAY (Oct. 2, 2003): We have found no actual weapons at this stage, although we’re not foreclosing any files or any possibilities. Frankly, it’s the chemical weapons in the area that surprises most of us, because most of us thought there was little doubt.
KWAME HOLMAN: Last month, Rumsfeld compared the weapons search to the search for Saddam Hussein.
DONALD RUMSFELD: So the difficulty of finding him is the same difficulty of finding anyone else or another thing, like weapons. And the reality is you’re not going to find them, you’re not going to discover them, you’re not going to trip over … kick a rock and find them. We didn’t find the jet airplanes until the wind blew the sand off that were buried under the ground.
KWAME HOLMAN: Around the same time, President Bush defended his Iraq policy in an interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Saddam was a danger, and the world is better off because we got of rid of him.
DIANE SAWYER: But stated as a hard fact that there were weapons of mass destruction, as opposed to the possibility that he could move to acquire those weapons, to acquire those weapons, still.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: So, what’s the difference?
DIANE SAWYER: Well…
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The possibility that he could acquire weapons. If he were to acquire weapons, he would be the danger.
KWAME HOLMAN: The administration’s pre-war statements and assumptions came under strong criticism yesterday from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington research group that had opposed the war. Their report stated: “Administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq’s WMD programs — for instance, by — “routinely dropping caveats, probabilities, and expressions of uncertainty present in intelligence assessments.”
The report said Iraq’s nuclear program had been dismantled, and there was no convincing evidence of its reconstitution, and that the country’s chemical weapons nerve agents “had lost most of their lethality as early as 1991.” Secretary of State Colin Powell responded the same day.
COLIN POWELL: They believe that we perhaps overstated it, but they did not say it wasn’t there. The fact of the matter is, Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction and programs of weapons of mass destruction, and used weapons of mass destruction against Iran and against their own people. That’s a fact.
KWAME HOLMAN: Also yesterday, news reports said the administration quietly had withdrawn from Iraq 400 troops who had been searching for Iraqi weapons. Another 1,000 members of the group remain in Iraq.
JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on the state of the weapons search, we get two views. Charles Duelfer was deputy executive commissioner of the original United Nations inspection regime in Iraq, UNSCOM, from 1993 to 2000. He recently spent several months in Iraq monitoring political developments for the State Department.
Greg Thielmann, a career foreign service officer, recently retired from his job as director of the Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
MARGARET WARNER: Welcome to you both. Is there a growing consensus among people like yourselves, the folks who really watch this that some fact there are not going to be any weapons found, there are no weapons there?
CHARLES DUELFER: The prospect of finding chemical weapons, biological weapons is close to nil at this point. They’re talking to a lot of Iraqi scientists, anyone who has known where they are, they’ve spoken to. They’ve had every incentive to show them where they are and they have come up with nothing.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you share that view?
GREG THIELMANN: I share that view. I would be very surprised if any significant weapons of mass destruction are found from this point on.
MARGARET WARNER: But we just heard Secretary Rumsfeld say you never really know until you find them, essentially. It’s like finding Saddam Hussein. You get that final piece of intelligence and there you go.
CHARLES DUELFER: Bear in mind, compared to the inspectors when we were in Iraq, they’ve had access to all the country, access to all the scientists and military people; they’ve been offering rewards for people to turn in people.
There has been every incentive in the world for the Iraqi people and the Iraqi scientists to come forward and say this is where the weapons are. That hasn’t happened. So I think the problem right now is what is the extent of the problem and where was it headed? What were the intentions of the regime?
GREG THIELMANN: I would just add to that the objects that were those things which were suspected for being weapons, we’ve had a chance to examine those thoroughly, and so the mobile labs which President Bush said were the weapons of mass destruction, the aluminum tubes which the administration said were part of the nuclear weapons program, we now know that, at least in the case of the aluminum tubes, it is clearly not the case.
MARGARET WARNER: You just left the administration or left the State Department. Do you read that the change which we just outlined, Kwame did in his piece, in the language that President Bush and others used, do you read that as an indication that the administration, too, has come to this conclusion?
GREG THIELMANN: I think they’re clearly back pedaling. They’re changing the words that they use. I’m afraid to say they’re not admitting the mistakes made, and whether we hear President Bush basically say it doesn’t make any difference whether weapons exist or whether there are programs or an intention even for pursuing the program at some point in the future, there is movement in the words that are still not really an honest description of what that which was said no longer applies.
MARGARET WARNER: What did you make of what the president said to Diane Sawyer, that essentially, as far as he is concerned, in terms of the rationale for war, there really is no distinction or difference whether Saddam actually had weapons or stockpiles of weapons verses the capability of the programs, the intention?
CHARLES DUELFER: The question here is one of timing. Is it an immediate threat or is it a threat that will accumulate over time?
One of the arguments which some people make that because no weapons were found, that means the inspections and constraints that the U.N. was placing on Iraq were working but to that I think there is also a very good question and a response that says well how long could that work?
Could Saddam be contained at an acceptable price forever? Now maybe he didn’t have weapons today, but I think there is certainly evidence of his intention to develop those weapons once the attention of the U.N. and the international community changed to other matters.
MARGARET WARNER: Is it fair to say that there is also no doubt that he did at one point have weapons of mass destruction?
CHARLES DUELFER: It’s quite clear. The Iraqis told us they inventoried the weapons. We spent a lot of time in the ’90s destroying them. It was a very extensive inventory and in fact there were missiles under way when we went in. In fact, there were efforts to elude the sanctions. They were importing prohibited rocket engines.
MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about currently.
CHARLES DUELFER: As current as December 2002. It wasn’t that Iraq was crystal clear and clean on this matter, but the fact is apparently now that they did not have chemical and biological weapons on hand.
GREG THIELMANN: The missile program is the one exception to the statement that there were no weapons of mass destruction. At least the delivery vehicle for some of these weapons of mass destruction was actually being worked on. The irony is, of course, at the time when the U.S. went into Iraq, the U.N. inspectors were in the process of destroying the short range ballistic missiles that had ranges slightly in excess of that allowed by the U.N.
MARGARET WARNER: What have the inspectors found about how advanced any other programs were say in the chemical, biological or nuclear area?
GREG THIELMANN: I think the consensus of the inspectors, and Charlie can correct me if I’m wrong, that there were programs in most categories, and in the case of the nuclear weapons, it was pretty much dormant. There may have been a little bit more activity in biological weapons area, but these were all programs rather than ongoing production systems for the agents themselves.
CHARLES DUELFER: Part of the answer to your question will have to wait until Dr. Kay finishes his report, finishes his interviews with all the scientists who are involved. But certainly they had the capacity to build all these weapons.
We did not lobotomize the scientists and engineered involved in this. So once the decision was taken to restart the program, they had intellectual capital and industrial base in Iraq to start the programs. So the question would have been for President Bush, can we contain Iraq under the system of sanctions under the U.N. inspection team for as long as Saddam is a threat, or does he need to take some other action?
MARGARET WARNER: Is there consensus on that point? Would you agree that he still had the intellectual capital as Mr. Duelfer put it, the intention and if sanctions were lifted and inspections and there were no inspections he would have the resources to restart them?
GREG THIELMANN: I would not agree with that statement. The most important exception to what was said was the nuclear weapons program. Pursuing nuclear weapons requires a vast infrastructure. That was thoroughly dismantled by the U.N. and by the previous wars. Of course the intellectual capital was still there.
There was still scientists who knew many of the things that one has to in order to pursue the program. But it simply was not feasible for Iraq to pursue this in the midst of both U.N. weapon inspectors on the ground in the country and also an international regime that put serious constraints on what Iraq could import.
MARGARET WARNER: But I mean following up on Mr. Duelfer’s point, if in fact the sanctions were lifted, then what?
GREG THIELMANN: That was another issue which, of course, was not at issue in the decision of whether or not to go into Iraq.
It’s clearly the case that Iraq maintained its intent to pursue these programs when the coast was clear. And the point was, what does the international community need to do to make sure the coast does not become clear?
MARGARET WARNER: This is a huge subject I’m about to ask you about and we don’t have a lot of time, but if in fact there were no stockpiles of weapons, the administration clearly seemed to believe there were. How could it have been wrong about that?
CHARLES DUELFER: I think it’s very easy for them to have been wrong. You have to bear in mind the United States didn’t have relations with Iraq for well over a decade. Very few Americans went into Iraq. I think the level of ignorance was quite high.
The amount of information that they received was thin. I had forgotten because I had spent so much time in Iraq, I had forgotten how difficult it was for people in Washington to interpret that data. When they see a technical piece of information, a photograph, a clip of communications intelligence, they’re looking at that through very ignorant eyes and it’s very easy to draw the wrong conclusions.
When you’re on the ground, it is very easy to see how the facts can be different. So I’m not at all surprised that they drew the wrong conclusions and they made a mistake, but it’s different to be wrong than to be you know, deceiving the public and that’s where I think much of the debate is.
GREG THIELMANN: I have a different take on that. Iraq was very different than North Korea or other countries that are proliferation challenges. We knew an enormous amount about Iraq, and that has to be considered here in making any conclusion.
MARGARET WARNER: But then how do you explain that the intelligence was wrong?
GREG THIELMANN: Because at the various stages as in the game of telephone, the detailed classified reports were not faithfully rendered into classified summaries. The classified summaries were not rendered into unclassified reports and statements to the public and to the Congress, and the administration further used the intelligence product as talking points in the political argument instead of a means of informing the American people.
CHARLES DUELFER: There are a lot of factors here. Certainly given the consequences of these weapons, people tend to err on the conservative side. I think people genuinely believed there was a risk, otherwise these forces would not have gone in with gas masks and anthrax shots which were quite expensive and quite risky in their own right.
So I don’t think it is a case where people were intentionally deceiving themselves, but, you know, I think the intelligence was thin. Contrary to what Mr. Thielmann has said, after 1998 when the inspectors left, there was very little information.
When the inspectors were there, great details were provided to the U.N. and to the U.N. to the United States. But there was a big gap and a lot of uncertainty that resulted because of that.
MARGARET WARNER: Charles Duelfer and Greg Thielmann, thank you both.