The Elusive Iraqi Weapons

NYT Editorial Board

The most striking findings in David Kay's interim report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are his revelations about the backward state of Iraq's chemical and nuclear programs. Based on the evidence gathered so far in three months of searching, it seems clear that these programs barely existed and posed no immediate threat to the global community. To the contrary, it looks as if international inspectors succeeded in reducing or eliminating Iraq's arsenals and dedicated production capacity, forcing Saddam Hussein to lie low and wait for a new opportunity.

Although there is no doubt that Mr. Hussein used chemical weapons in the past, no retained stocks have yet been found. Multiple sources told Mr. Kay's team that Iraq did not have a large, ongoing, centrally controlled chemical weapons program after 1991. The report concludes that Iraq's large-scale capacity to produce new chemical munitions "was reduced — if not entirely destroyed" during the gulf war, the bombing in 1998 and 13 years of United Nations sanctions and inspections. This is an astonishing admission that the presumed chemical weapons threat may not have existed and that the oft-derided inspections were actually working.

On the nuclear front, although Iraq came much closer to making a bomb in 1991 than anyone had suspected, international inspectors later declared that the program had been dismantled before they left Iraq in 1998, with no evidence that it was subsequently revived. The Kay report finds that while Mr. Hussein remained firmly committed to acquiring nuclear weapons, "to date we have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material." Mr. Kay cited evidence the Iraqis might have tried to restart their nuclear efforts "at the very most rudimentary level" but nothing to suggest "a massive resurgent program."

That conclusion contradicts the administration's prewar claims that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear programs and deflates the administration's dire warnings that we dared not wait for a smoking gun lest it come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

The burden of Mr. Kay's report is that while searchers have not found any weapons of mass destruction so far, they have found evidence that Iraq still intended to build them and had retained equipment and personnel that could be used to do it. Mr. Kay said his team would need another six to nine months to explore Iraq, a big country with lots of hiding room. At least $300 million has been spent on the search, and the administration is reported to be seeking $600 million more to finish it.

Before approving that substantial sum, Congress may want to consider bringing back the U.N. inspectors, whose costs would be paid by the international community. The inspectors clearly did an effective job and have an immense store of data and experience. Their findings would look more credible in the eyes of the world. Still, the important thing is to finish this search, no matter who does it. There is always a chance that there really are some unconventional weapons tucked away somewhere. President Bush's job approval ratings, now plummeting in the polls, may depend in part on whether any weapons are ultimately found. More important, the nation needs to know whether its intelligence was way off the mark, making any further attempts at pre-emptive war problematic.