The United States has yet to find weapons of mass destruction at any of the locations that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell cited in his key presentation to the U.N. Security Council in February, according to U.S. officials.
Powell's speech on Feb. 5 signaled the end of the Bush administration's support of continued U.N. weapons inspections and set the stage for military action by providing information he said showed Iraq was in continued violation of Security Council resolutions that required it to disarm. The secretary told the council he was sharing "what the United States knows about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as well as Iraq's involvement in terrorism."
Powell said last week he was "reasonably sure" that U.S. forces "will find them [weapons]." In a PBS interview, he added, "I spent four days and nights of my life in the days before my presentation in February with the intelligence community, at the highest levels, going over everything that I was to present to make sure that the entire community agreed on that information, and they did."
In the 38 days since U.S. and British troops invaded Iraq, however, military forces have yet to produce any of the weaponry or chemical or biological agents Powell described, nor have they produced Iraqi scientists with evidence about them, officials said.
They also have not turned up anything to support Powell's claim to the Security Council that "nearly two dozen" al Qaeda terrorists lived in and operated from Baghdad.
President Bush, who less than two months ago said Iraq's deposed leader, Saddam Hussein, "possesses weapons of terror" and was providing "safe haven to terrorists who would willingly use weapons of mass destruction," on Thursday told NBC's Tom Brokaw that "time and investigation" will be needed to prove both allegations.
The U.S. Central Command, which is running the war, has dispatched special units to search sites where U.S. intelligence agencies said it was highly probable that proscribed weapons would be found. There have been several early published reports from these teams about possible weapons or chemical finds, but each one has so far been discounted.
"First reports from the field are almost always incorrect," a senior Defense Department intelligence official said. "Second reports generally compound the problem and only with the third report do we start to begin to make some sense out of [the find]."
"We are being enormously careful," this senior aide said, recognizing how important it will be to be accurate in showing Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction. He repeated Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's regular statement to reporters that the Iraqis had 12 years to learn how to hide weapons and it is going to take a long time to find them.
One of Powell's most dramatic disclosures was that while the Security Council was debating a resolution authorizing renewed weapons inspections in November, the United States "knew from sources that a missile brigade outside Baghdad was dispersing rocket launchers and warheads containing biological warfare agents . . . to various locations in western Iraq." He went on to say that "most of the launchers and warheads had been hidden in large groves of palm trees and were to be moved every one to four weeks to escape detection."
None of those weapons has been found, a senior administration official said yesterday. Searches have been conducted in western Iraq without any successes. U.S. forces attacked the missile brigade along with Iraqi Special Republican Guard units that Bush administration officials told reporters in the weeks before the war had received chemical weapons. "We don't know where those people are," the official said, but added that U.S. military personnel in Iraq may be looking for them.
Another part of Powell's presentation focused on an electronic intercept of a conversation between two Republican Guard Corps commanders. They were talking to each other "just a few weeks ago," Powell said, and discussed removing the discussion of "nerve agents wherever it comes up" in wireless instructions, in anticipation of U.N. inspectors' arrival.
U.S. intelligence knew the locations of the two commanders and probably their names. "We don't know where they are," one official said yesterday. The sites where they were talking from were on priority lists for searching, another senior analyst said.
Powell detailed Iraq's use of mobile laboratories to produce chemical or biological weapons as a way of avoiding discovery. He displayed diagrams to show their interiors. The information came from an Iraqi chemical engineer who had seen one of them and witnessed an accident in which 12 technicians died from exposure to biological agents. This defector, and three others, presented independent information, Powell said, that proved Iraq had "at least seven of these mobile biological agent factories" and that each of the truck-mounted factories had at least two or three trucks each.
None of the truck laboratories has been discovered and none of the defectors has come forward. "They are not likely to appear," the senior official said, until Hussein's fate is known. "They and their families still have to fear some retaliation."
Powell and administration spokesmen repeatedly emphasized that Iraq possessed large stocks of chemical and perhaps biological weapons, but those allegations were primarily based on weapons and chemical and biological agents that Baghdad had declared it had in 1991, when U.N. inspection teams first began work in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War.
By 1998, those U.N. inspectors, working from Iraq's declarations, supervised or had evidence of the destruction of about 80,000 weapons and tons of chemical precursors. But Iraqi officials had not been able to prove they had unilaterally destroyed 550 artillery shells containing mustard gas, 30,000 empty munitions that could be filled with chemical agents, 6,500 bombs missing from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and possibly 25,000 liters of anthrax material.
Powell told the Security Council about Iraqi scientists who were threatened with death if they told about weapons activities to U.N. inspectors and "a dozen experts . . . placed under house arrest -- not in their own houses." That information came from human intelligence sources, a senior official said, but to date not one of those individuals has been produced in public.
Those scientists may be in U.S. hands, however, since the Central Command has not disclosed all the individuals its personnel have met with or all the information they have received.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company