Contrary to prewar statements by President Bush and top administration officials, Saddam did not have chemical and biological stockpiles when the war began and his nuclear capabilities were deteriorating, not advancing, according to the report by Charles Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group.
As CBS National Security Correspondent David Martin reports, Duelfer's report renders pre-war statements by Mr. Bush and his senior advisers flat wrong.
And, as Martin reports, Democrats saw their opening and took it.
"You basically nailed the door shut on any justification for the war," said Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Duelfer's findings come less than four weeks before an election in which President Bush's handling of Iraq has become the central issue. Democratic candidate John Kerry has seized on comments this week by the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, , that the United States didn't have enough troops in Iraq to prevent a breakdown in security after Saddam was toppled.
The inspector's report could boost Kerry's contention that Mr. Bush rushed to war based on faulty intelligence and that sanctions and U.N. weapons inspectors should have been given more time.
But Duelfer also supports Mr. Bush's argument that Saddam remained a threat. Interviews with the toppled leader and other former Iraqi officials made clear to inspectors that Saddam had not lost his ambition to pursue weapons of mass destruction and hoped to revive his weapons program if sanctions were lifted, the report said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Bush cited Saddam's "history of using weapons of mass destruction, a long record of aggression and hatred for America" in calling the invasion the right thing to do.
"There was a risk, a real risk, that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks," Mr. Bush said in a campaign speech in Wilkes Barre, Pa. "In the world after Sept. 11, that was a risk we could not afford to take."
Duelfer presented his findings in a report of more than 1,000 pages, and in appearances before Senate committees.
Traveling in Africa, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the report shows Saddam was "doing his best" to evade the U.N. sanctions.
The report avoids direct comparisons with prewar claims by the Bush administration on Iraq's weapons systems. But Duelfer largely reinforces the conclusions of his predecessor, , who said in January, "We were almost all wrong" on Saddam's weapons programs. The White House did not endorse Kay's findings then, noting that Duelfer's team was continuing to search for weapons.
Duelfer found that Saddam, hoping to end U.N. sanctions, gradually began ending prohibited weapons programs starting in 1991. But as Iraq started receiving money through the U.N. oil-for-food program in the late 1990s, and as enforcement of the sanctions weakened, Saddam was able to take steps to rebuild his military, such as acquiring parts for missile systems.
"What is clear is that Saddam retained his notions of use of force, and had experiences that demonstrated the utility of WMD," Duelfer told Congress.
However, the erosion of sanctions stopped after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Duelfer found, preventing Saddam from pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
Duelfer's team found no written plans by Saddam's regime to pursue banned weapons if U.N. sanctions were lifted. Instead, the inspectors based their findings that Saddam hoped to reconstitute his programs on interviews with Saddam after his capture, as well as talks with other top Iraqi officials.
The inspectors found Saddam was particularly concerned about the threat posed by Iran, the country's enemy in a 1980-88 war. Saddam said he would meet Iran's threat by any means necessary, which Duelfer understood to mean weapons of mass destruction.
Saddam believed the use of chemical weapons against Iran prevented Iraq's defeat in that war. He also was prepared to use such weapons in 1991 if the U.S.-led coalition had tried to topple him in the Gulf War.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday that Saddam "had the intent and capability" to build weapons of mass destruction, and that he was "a gathering threat that needed to be taken seriously, that it was a matter of time before he was going to begin pursuing those weapons of mass destruction."
But before the war, the Bush administration cast Saddam as an immediate threat, not a gathering threat who would begin pursuing weapons in the future.
For example, Mr. Bush said in October 2002 that "Saddam Hussein still has chemical and biological weapons and is increasing his capabilities to make more." Bush also said then, "The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program."
Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech on Aug. 26, 2002, 6 1/2 months before the invasion, made similar charges:
"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," he said. "There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us."
Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin, said Wednesday that Duelfer's findings showed there is "no evidence whatsoever of the threats we were warned about." He spoke after Duelfer gave a closed-door briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, a Republican, said Duelfer showed Iraq's ability to produce weapons of mass destruction had degraded since 1998. But Roberts called the report inconclusive on what happened to weapons stockpiles Saddam is believed to have once possessed.
What U.S. forces found: