As the hunt for weapons of mass destruction dragged on unsuccessfully in Iraq, top Bush administration officials speculated publicly that the banned armaments may have been smuggled out of the country before the war started.
Whether Saddam Hussein moved the WMD — deadly chemical, biological or radiological arms — is one of the unresolved issues that the final U.S. intelligence report on Iraq's programs is expected to address next month.
But intelligence and congressional officials say they have not seen any information — never "a piece," said one — indicating that WMD or significant amounts of components and equipment were transferred from Iraq to neighboring Syria, Jordan or elsewhere.
The administration acknowledged last week that the search for banned weapons is largely over. The Iraq Survey Group's chief, Charles Duelfer, is expected to submit the final installments of his report in February. A small number of the organization's experts will remain on the job in case new intelligence on Iraqi WMD is unearthed.
But the officials familiar with the search say U.S. authorities have found no evidence that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein transferred WMD or related equipment out of Iraq.
A special adviser to the CIA director, Duelfer declined an interview request through an agency spokesman. In his last public statements, he told a Senate panel last October that it remained unclear whether banned weapons could have been moved from Iraq.
"What I can tell you is that I believe we know a lot of materials left Iraq and went to Syria. There was certainly a lot of traffic across the border points," he said. "But whether in fact in any of these trucks there was WMD-related materials, I cannot say."
Last week, a congressional official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said suggestions that weapons or components were sent from Iraq were based on speculation stemming from uncorroborated information.
President Bush and top-ranking officials in his administration used the existence of WMD in Iraq as the main justification for the March 2003 invasion, and throughout much of last year the White House continued to raise the possibility the weapons were transferred to another country.
Eight months earlier, he told senators "it's possible that WMD did exist, but was transferred, in whole or in part, to one or more other countries. We see that theory put forward."
Since the October report from Duelfer, which said Saddam intended to obtain WMD but had no banned weapons, senior administration leaders have largely stopped discussing whether the weapons were moved.
Last week, the intelligence and congressional officials said there was evidence indicating that somewhat common equipment with dual military and civilian uses, such as fermenters, was salvaged during post-invasion looting and sold for scrap in other countries. Syria was mentioned as one location.
The U.S. intelligence community's 2002 estimate on Iraq indicated there were sizable WMD programs and stockpiles. The officials said weapons experts have not found a production capability in Iraq that would back up the size of the prewar estimates.
Among a series of key findings, that estimate said Iraq "has largely rebuilt missile and biological weapons facilities damaged" during a 1998 U.S.-British bombing campaign and "has expanded its chemical and biological infrastructure under the cover of civilian production."
Although the U.S. had little specific information, the estimate also said Saddam probably stockpiled at least 100 metric tons, possibly 500 metric tons, of chemical weapons agents — "much of it added in the last year."