About turn on Iraqi weapons: Kay is now conceding he could have been wrong and says he doesn't know

04/10/2003 07:35 - (SA)


New York - The CIA's man leading the hunt for suspected Iraqi weapons showed off a pair of trailers for news cameras this summer, and argued that the two metal flatbeds were designed for making biological weapons.

But faced with mounting challenges to that theory, David Kay is now conceding he could have been wrong and says he doesn't know whether Iraq ever had a mobile weapons programme, as top Bush administration officials claim.

According to senior military officers involved in Kay's hunt, experts have been re-examining the trailers for several weeks. Until now, they were the only discovery the administration has cited as evidence of an illicit Iraqi weapons program.

In six months of searches, no biological, chemical or nuclear weapons have been found to bolster the administration's central case for going to war: to disarm Saddam Hussein of suspected weapons of mass destruction.

"On the basis of technical analysis on the two (trailers) that we have, it is not going to be possible to reach a determination," Kay told reporters on Friday.

It was a different-sounding Kay from the one who confidently showed off the trailers to NBC Nightly News in its July 15 broadcast.

At the time, Kay told NBC: "I've already seen enough to convince me."

The original tip on the trailers was provided by a defector working with Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress and now a member of the US-appointed Governing Council in Iraq.

'Strongest evidence'

Secretary of State Colin Powell included the information in his Feb. 5 presentation to the UN Security Council.

Two trailers were found in April and May, and the CIA later issued a paper saying the trailers were "the strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological warfare program."

The findings were challenged by some intelligence analysts from the State Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency, who said they believe the trailers were probably used to fill hydrogen weather balloons.

But on Sunday, Powell stood by the CIA's assessment during an interview with ABC.

"Even though there are differences within the overall intelligence community, the director of central intelligence examining all of the material with respect to that van and examining counterarguments as to what it might be, stands behind the judgment that what we found was positive evidence of a mobile biological weapons lab and (it has) not been discounted sufficiently.

Five days later, Kay, the CIA representative charged with leading the weapons search in Iraq, said those findings are "still very much being examined."

Kay said Friday that an investigation of the trailers has yielded a number of explanations, including uses for hydrogen, missile propellants and biological warfare production. But no explanation has completely held up.

Contradictory explanations

under scrutiny and Kay said Iraqis considered knowledgable about the trailers have offered contradictory explanations.

Only the discovery of more trailers will allow the teams the chance to make a solid assessment, Kay said.

Military scientists who analyzed the pair of trailers during the summer doubted they were designed to function as mobile laboratories, according to the three military officers involved in the weapons hunt.

One senior-ranking military commander involved in the search said some people believed the trailers were for making hydrogen for weather balloons. Few, he said, was certain they were for biological weapons.

One of the US scientists involved in the hunt, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some investigators conducting the search believe the Iraqis could have tried to produce biological warfare agents inside the trailers, but not very well.

Also, it would have been hard, if not impossible, to hide the evidence. No traces of anthrax or any other warfare agent have been found during more than a half-dozen tests on the trailers.

Last month, Vice President Dick Cheney repeated the claim that the two trailers were "mobile biological facilities" that could have been used to make several biological agents, including smallpox.

One of the central arguments used by the CIA to support its initial findings is that one trailer had a fermenter. Smallpox, however, isn't grown with a fermenter and experts say it would be impossible to produce this specific virus in a trailer.

"There's no way that these particular labs could have been used to make smallpox," said Jonathan Tucker, a weapons expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies who authored "Scourge," a recent book on smallpox.

In addition, Tucker said smallpox would need to be grown in a maximum containment laboratory, "not in a trailer with canvas siding. If there had been a leak, it would have spread smallpox all over the country."