WASHINGTON — Disorganization, delays and faulty intelligence have hampered the Pentagon-led search for Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons of mass destruction, causing growing concern about one of the most sensitive and secretive operations in postwar Iraq, according to U.S. officials and outside experts familiar with the effort.
The slow start has created so many interagency squabbles that a National Security Council military staffer at the White House has been assigned to mediate among the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the CIA, the Energy Department and other government agencies involved in the hunt.
And some weapons experts warn that the lapses have even raised the threat of arms proliferation from Iraq.
Two classified videoconferences involving commanders in Iraq, at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar and in Washington, were organized over the last week to help straighten out the mess, officials said. The DIA's deputy director for intelligence operations, Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, also flew to Baghdad to investigate the disorder and organize reinforcements for the hunt.
"Everybody recognizes that it's gotten off to a rocky start," said one official who helped draft the Pentagon's weapons search plans and has seen reports coming back from Iraq. "Frankly, the whole situation is very confusing at the moment."
David Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector, was critical of the initial U.S. effort. "Unity of command is not present," said Kay, who is now a senior fellow at the nonprofit Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. "There's not even unity of effort.... My impression is this has been a very low priority so far, and they've put very little effort into it."
While the administration has urged patience over a weapons search in a country that has yet to be stabilized, President Bush hinted at the problems last week when he noted that U.S. teams had visited 90 sites so far without finding any evidence of illegal activity. Bush raised the possibility for the first time that Hussein's regime may have destroyed, rather than simply hidden, any chemical and biological weapons.
Bush previously had cited Iraq's failure to account for allegedly vast stockpiles of anthrax material, botulinum toxin, mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agents -- as well as more than 30,000 munitions, ballistic missiles and mobile biological weapons laboratories -- as the chief justification for going to war. Despite numerous false alarms, no weapons of mass destruction have been found.
A military officer involved in the search called the situation "very fluid ... right now." He said it will take 60 to 90 more days "at the earliest" for the program to get fully geared up.
The search program's problems are not insolvable, and Bush administration officials say they remain confident that they ultimately will unravel any clandestine weapons programs. But for now, officials describe the following shortcomings:
* The Pentagon originally planned to deploy about 20 "mobile exploitation teams" of up to 30 people each to scour weapons sites, interrogate scientists and analyze documents. But only two such teams are now hunting for weapons in Iraq. Because relatively junior warrant officers are leading the teams, their reports must go through multiple layers before reaching senior commanders.
* The Pentagon hasn't supplied enough transport helicopters and military guards to the teams. This limits the teams' movements and their ability to use two highly sophisticated chemical and biological laboratories that were left at an air base in northern Kuwait in shipping containers. "They've been totally unusable," one official said.
* Because of the delays, scores of suspect Iraqi military sites, industrial complexes and offices were stripped of valuable documents, equipment and electronic data before U.S. forces or the exploitation teams reached them. Not all the looting appears to have been random, and U.S. officials believe Iraqi officials deliberately burned or removed some critical evidence to prevent detection.
* New recruits for the program -- including a graduate student in international affairs in Boston, a molecular biologist from a U.S. national laboratory and up to a dozen former U.N. weapons inspectors -- complain about repeated delays and inadequate information as they await a weeklong training program at Ft. Benning, Ga., and deployment to Iraq.
* The search for hundreds of Iraqi weapons scientists, engineers and technicians, and the interrogation of the handful in custody, appears haphazard.
Gen. Amir Saadi, who ran Iraq's chemical weapons program for years and was Iraq's chief liaison to U.N. inspectors before the war, waited at his Baghdad home for a week after U.S. forces entered the capital before his German-born wife arranged his surrender.