WASHINGTON — The leader of the U.S. search for banned weapons in Iraq resigned Friday and said he thought that Iraq was not engaged in large-scale production of chemical or biological weapons in the 1990s and that it did not have stocks of banned munitions before the U.S.-led invasion last year.
Special CIA advisor David Kay's decision to step down was a blow to the White House, which based its case for the war in Iraq largely on claims that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed large quantities of chemical and biological weapons and had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program.
"I don't think they existed," Kay said in an interview with Reuters news agency. "What everyone was talking about is stockpiles produced after the end of the last Gulf War, and I don't think there was a large-scale production program in the '90s."
CIA Director George J. Tenet said Friday that the search for illicit arms in Iraq would continue and that Charles W. Duelfer, a former United Nations weapons inspector, would replace Kay as head of the Iraq Survey Group.
Duelfer also has expressed skepticism that there are weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq, and his appointment was seen by some as an indication that the Bush administration might be trying to figure out why prewar intelligence on Iraq was apparently so wrong.
Speaking to Reuters after his departure was announced, Kay voiced deep skepticism that the administration's prewar claims that Iraq was hiding large caches of illegal munitions would be validated.
Citing interviews, documentation and an on-the-ground look at evidence, Kay said, "You just could not find any physical evidence that supported a larger program."
Reuters released a transcript of the interview, in which Kay said he also decided to leave a job he described as 85% completed in part because resources were being pulled away from the weapons hunt to focus on the insurgency.
"When I had started out, I had made it a condition that ISG be exclusively focused" on weapons of mass destruction, he said. "That's no longer so."
The draining of resources, Kay said, would make it difficult to conclude the search by the time the United States was scheduled to turn over control of the country to a new Iraqi government.
"We're not going to find much after June," he said, suggesting that the new government probably would interfere or impose obstacles to interviews and searches.
Asked what happened to Iraq's weapons, he said, "I think there were stockpiles at the end of the first Gulf War and ... a combination of U.N. inspectors and unilateral Iraq action got rid of them." He said Iraq's nuclear program "wasn't dormant because there were a few little things going on, but it had not resumed in anything meaningful."
Asked whether he believed that Iraq destroyed its banned weapons before the U.S.-led invasion, Kay replied: "No. I don't think they existed."
Kay's comments came at the close of a week in which White House officials have tried to cast the evidence against Iraq in the most favorable light.
President Bush, in his State of the Union address Tuesday, said the weapons search had proved that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities," a phrase critics saw as backtracking from prewar claims that Iraq had weapons stocks.
Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview on National Public Radio, said two trailers discovered after the war contained proof of Iraq's biological weapons programs.
Kay, in an interim report in October, said that his team had "not yet been able to corroborate the existence of a mobile production effort." And in a BBC interview that aired Thursday on public television in the United States, Kay called it "premature and embarrassing" for the CIA to have concluded soon after the vehicles were discovered that they were weapons labs. Kay called the release of the information a "fiasco."
Kay will return to his former post as a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-area think tank, officials there said. Kay did not return repeated phone calls from The Times on Friday.
The weapons search has been marked by frustration from the start. Experts with the CIA, U.S. Special Forces, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other specialized agencies have scoured Iraq for 10 months but found no evidence that Hussein's regime had resumed production of chemical or biological agents or had rebuilt its nuclear weapons program, as the White House had said.
Kay took the job of organizing the Iraq Survey Group for the CIA in June amid mounting criticism of the initial postwar hunt, run by the Pentagon. But Kay grew increasingly pessimistic, sources said, as months passed and his own investigation teams also failed to find credible evidence of illicit weapons.