Rumsfeld: WMD Still Elusive

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reacts to a question by reporters about Iraq after the taping of "FOX News Sunday" at the FOX studios in Washington Sunday, May 4, 2003. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) AP

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday the United States will have to rely on low-ranking Iraqi officials from Saddam Hussein's government to disclose the existence of banned weapons.

He said there is little chance that the weapons — whose alleged existence provided the main basis for war — will be found independently, or that top officials will provide useful information.

"I never believed that we'd just tumble over weapons of mass destruction in that country," Rumsfeld said in a broadcast interview, echoing President George W. Bush's comments Saturday.

"I'm not frustrated at all," Rumsfeld said.

Moving to an issue raised by Secretary of State Colin Powell, Rumsfeld said that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba must be questioned by several agencies before they can be released and he blamed this "very slow" process for their continued detention.

Rumsfeld was responding to a letter from Powell, who urged the Pentagon to move more quickly in determining which prisoners can be released.

Powell's April 14 letter, which was disclosed Saturday, questioned the continued detention of some 660 prisoners from 42 countries who were captured during the war against al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

The defense secretary responded that he, too, would like to see the process move more quickly.

But, Rumsfeld said, the prisoners' cases are being reviewed by agencies including the FBI, the Justice Department, the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Some are interested in prosecuting the detainees for crimes they may have committed, while others are interested in gathering intelligence information to prevent future attacks.

"So, it's a complicated process. It is very slow," Rumsfeld said.

The defense secretary also said if he does not know if the ousted Iraqi president and his sons are alive or dead. Whatever their fate, they are out of power and no longer threatening Iraqis, Rumsfeld said. "They're either in a tunnel someplace or in a basement hiding," he said.

Rumsfeld said Saddam hid weapons of mass destruction from U.N. inspectors, so they will not be found easily.

"We're going to find what we find as a result of talking to people, I believe, not simply by going to some site and hoping to discover it," said Rumsfeld, just back from a tour of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf region.

So far, high-level Iraqi officials, such as Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam's closest deputies, have not cooperated or provided information about the weapons, U.S. officials said.

"We're going to have to find people not at the very senior level who are vulnerable, obviously, if they're in custody, but it will be people down below who had been involved in one way or another," Rumsfeld said.

Asked if any of these lower-level officials are cooperating, Rumsfeld said: "Are they telling us something substantive? We don't have anything substantive to announce at the present time."

Secretary of State Colin Powell also expressed confidence that evidence will be found, and he denied a suggestion he overstated the case against Iraq and its arsenal. "I'm absolutely sure that they had weapons of mass destruction, and I'm sure we will find them," he said on CBS television's "Face the Nation."

Rumsfeld said it is unclear what sort of trial or tribunal will be convened to try former Iraqi leaders. Options include a world court, a U.S. proceeding or an Iraqi-convened trial. "I don't even know that one size will fit all," he said.

He declined to rule out a military strike against North Korea, which is believed to have nuclear weapons. "I don't know what'll happen there," he said.

Rumsfeld predicted nations that are aiding terrorists or developing weapons of mass destruction may have learned a lesson from the war against Iraq. "I think that that message that's gone out is a solid one, it's a healthy one, it's good for the world, and we may see some behavior modification."

He said the Pentagon will evaluate its military needs before deciding what weapons to purchase in rebuilding its stockpile. Asked what future needs would include, he said: "We simply have got to be able to move in hours and days and weeks, rather than months and years. We need to be swift." Still, he said, the military will always need heavy armor but those assets may be positioned more strategically.
  • Joel Roberts

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