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Still No Leads in Iraq Arms Hunt

Staffing limitations have hampered efforts, the new U.S. chief inspector tells a Senate panel.

March 31, 2004|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The CIA-led team searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq still isn't sure whether Saddam Hussein possessed such arms and "has yet to identify" the officials who may have run the programs, the chief U.S. weapons hunter said Tuesday.

Charles Duelfer, who took over the Iraq Survey Group in January, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a closed session that a shortage of linguists, inexperience among staff members and other problems have hamstrung the group's search for evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The CIA released a declassified version of his prepared remarks after the session.

Duelfer's predecessor, David Kay, told the same committee in January after he resigned that "we were almost all wrong" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. He said he had concluded that the Baghdad government had not produced such weapons before the war.

Duelfer said it was too soon to reach "final judgments with confidence" even though no evidence had been found of nerve gases, germ agents or nuclear weapons since U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in March 2003. "At this point in time, I cannot say how long this investigation should take," he added.

Reporting back after his first six weeks in Iraq, Duelfer said he was refocusing the hunt to determine what the Iraqi regime's intentions had been.

"We're looking at it from soup to nuts, from the weapons end to the planning end to the intentions end," Duelfer told reporters after testifying. But his team faces several obstacles, he said.

Duelfer told the panel that many Iraqi managers, scientists and engineers "perceive a grave risk in speaking with us" and have refused to cooperate because they fear arrest and prosecution or revenge attacks by Hussein loyalists.

"This is, in part, why we do not yet fully understand the central issue of regime intentions," Duelfer said. "We do not know whether Saddam was concealing [weapons of mass destruction] or planning to resume production" someday.

Over the last year, Iraq Survey Group members have interviewed hundreds of scientists and interrogated or detained almost every known senior figure in the country's former weapons programs. But Duelfer said that others, still unknown to U.S. intelligence, might have been in charge.

"We have yet to identify the most critical people in any programmatic effort," he said. "Many people have yet to be found or questioned, and many of those we have found are not giving us complete answers."

Duelfer also said that the teams had "recovered millions of documents" but that millions more were destroyed by looters. The documents are "often mixed up," so research is "extremely difficult." And a shortage of linguists means only a "tiny fraction" of the documents are fully translated.

Duelfer also cited staffing problems.

Most members of the Survey Group, he said, "are not experts on Iraq and most do not have extensive experience in the kinds of investigative operations and analysis they are asked to undertake."

But, Duelfer said, his group has found "new information" that needs further investigation.

He said, for example, that Iraq had "ongoing research suitable for a capability" to produce chemical or biological agents on short notice, as well as plans to expand or build facilities. As an example, he said the Tuwaitha Agricultural and Biological Research Center, south of Baghdad, was doing civilian research but had "equipment suitable" to also produce biological agents.

He said weapons hunters were trying to determine whether Iraqi scientists had sought to conduct experiments on metals "compressing together at high speed as they do in a nuclear detonation." He said the scientists' laboratory contained documents describing techniques "important for nuclear weapons experiments."

But the suggestion that the arms hunt may yet pan out was discounted by a key Democrat.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he was "deeply troubled" that Duelfer's classified testimony differed significantly from the prepared remarks released to the public.

In an interview, Levin said Duelfer in his public remarks referred to concerns about Iraqi weapons that were undercut by information he disclosed in his classified comments.

"What is troubling is that in the classified documents there is information that addresses those concerns and gives a significantly different picture," Levin said.

Times staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.

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