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Hunt For WMD Slows

Defense Intelligence Agency seal over a map and flag of Iraq, with weapons of mass-destruction symbols
AP / CBS
U.S. military units assigned to track down Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have run out of places to look and are getting time off or being assigned to other duties, even as pressure mounts on U.S. President Bush to explain why no banned arms have been found.

After nearly three months of fruitless searches, weapons hunters say they are now waiting for Pentagon intelligence experts to take over the effort, relying more on leads from interviews and documents.

"It doesn't appear there are any more targets at this time," said U.S. Lt. Col. Keith Harrington, whose team has been cut by more than 30 percent. "We're hanging around with no missions in the foreseeable future."

Over the past week, his and several other teams have been taken off assignment completely. Of the seven Site Survey Teams charged with carrying out the search, only two have assignments for the coming week — but not at suspected weapons sites.

The slowdown comes after checks of more than 230 sites — drawn from a master intelligence list compiled before the war — turned up none of the chemical or biological weapons the Bush administration said it went after Saddam Hussein to destroy.

This issue is quickly spinning itself into a major political problem for President Bush, reports CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts. Accusations are being leveled that at the very least the administration embellished the evidence, and at worst, they misled the world.

Surrounded by his cabinet Monday morning, President Bush was again insistent that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat.

"Iraq had a weapons program. Intelligence throughout the decade showed they had a weapons program. I am absolutely convinced that with time we'll find out that they did have a weapons program," Mr. Bush said.

But much of the intelligence he used in the campaign against Saddam was far less certain. A Defense Intelligence Agency report last September stated there is "no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons," though it did conclude that "Iraq 'probably' has chemical weapons."

A declassified CIA report from the same time was far more definitive, declaring: "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons."

There is little evidence on the ground to support that claim. Other than two suspected mobile labs, the U.S. has come up empty in its hunt for weapons.

As for Iraq's ties to terror, two of al Qaeda's top operatives in U.S. custody - Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – say Osama bin Laden considered but rejected the idea of an alliance with Saddam.

Two Senate committees are looking into what administration officials knew – and what they said.

"I'm very troubled by the evidence that exists that intelligence was shaded and that there were exaggerations along the way in many, many ways – and that is deeply troubling," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency said work will resume at a brisk pace once its 1,300-person Iraq Survey Group takes over.

"The smoking guns just weren't lying out in the open," said David Gai, spokesman for the Iraq Survey Group. "There's a lot more detective work that needs to be done."

Future sites in the search will be compiled from intelligence gathered in the field, and the teams will be reconfigured to include more civilian scientists and engineers, Gai said.

Several former U.N. inspectors from the United States, Britain and Australia, who know many of Iraq's top weapons experts, will also be brought in.

Led by Keith Dayton, a two-star general from Defense intelligence, the Iraq Survey Group is settling into headquarters in Qatar rather than Iraq. However, it will maintain a large presence of analysts and experts on the same palace grounds outside Baghdad where the weapons hunters are based.

With prewar intelligence exhausted and senior figures from the former regime insisting Iraq hasn't had chemical or biological weapons in years, Dayton's staff will be starting from scratch.

"We've interviewed a fraction of the people who were involved. We've gone to a fraction of the sites. We've gone through a fraction of thousands and thousands and thousands of documents about this program," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Sunday.

Intelligence agents and weapons hunters have been speaking with scientists and experts for the past month, but those interviews have not led the teams to any illegal weapons and none of the tips provided by Iraqis have panned out.

U.N. inspectors spent years learning the names and faces of the Iraqi weapons programs. But in postwar Iraq, the Bush administration cut the organization out of the hunt because of recent assessments that conflicted with Washington's portrayal of Saddam's weapons.

Relations soured further amid reports that U.S. troops failed to secure Iraq's largest nuclear facility from looters.

This week, a U.N. nuclear team returned to Iraq to survey the damage at Tuwaitha, where 2 tons of uranium had been stored for more than a decade. They began scanning the facility and its equipment for leaking radiation and signs of missing uranium.

One weapons team specializing in nuclear materials has been tasked to accompany the U.N. experts until they leave on June 25.