The debate over whether the Iraqi weapons threat was real or exaggerated by the Bush administration focused Thursday on a few words spoken more than two years ago by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
War opponents and some Congressional Democrats have pointed to a statement Powell made on Feb. 24, 2001, while meeting at Cairo's Ittihadiya Palace with Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa.
Asked about the sanctions placed on Iraq, which were then under review at the Security Council, Powell said the measures were working. In fact, he added, "(Saddam Hussein) has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors."
War critics said the remark bolstered their suspicions that the administration deliberately inflated the threat Iraq posed, because Powell's depiction of Iraq in the run-up to war painted a different picture.
On Feb. 5, 2003, Powell told the United Nations Security Council: "The gravity of this moment is matched by the gravity of the threat that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pose to the world. Let me now turn to those deadly weapons programs and describe why they are real and present dangers to the region and to the world."
Despite searches that have gone on since the start of the war on March 19, and in more intense fashion since the Iraq Survey Group took over the hunt in June, no weapons have been reported found.
An interim report from the Survey Group's leader, David Kay, is expected to reach no conclusions about Iraq's alleged weapons program when it is released in coming weeks. But the Kay report, which the CIA has stressed is very preliminary in nature, is not believed to contain any findings of weapons of mass destruction.
President Bush and secretary of state Thursday offered slightly different explanations for the change in Powell's view between February 2001 and February 2003.
"I didn't change my assessment. What I said was, at that time, three weeks into the administration when I was trying to get sanctions retained, and we did succeed in getting sanctions retained, I made that observation," Powell said.
"You will note that I did not say (Saddam) didn't have weapons of mass destruction," Powell added. "He was a threat then."
In the 2001 statement, Powell did say that Iraq policy warranted regular review, and referred to Saddam's "ambitions toward developing weapons of mass destruction."
"The extent of his holdings were yet to be determined. It was early in the Administration," Powell said Thursday. "And, in fact, the matter was long before 9/11, so a lot changed between February 2001, but I don't find anything inconsistent between what I said then and what I said all along."
The president also stressed the effect of Sept. 11 on Powell's perceptions.
"Nine-eleven changed my calculation. It made it really clear we have to deal with threats before they come on our shore," Mr. Bush said. "You know, for a long period of time we thought oceans could protect us from danger, and we learned a tough lesson on September the 11th."
Powell's 2001 remark is not the first instance of close scrutiny of an administration official's language on Iraq.
The White House this summer withdrew the 16-word reference in Mr. Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech to British claims that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Niger, after documents purporting to prove the deal were deemed forgeries.
Claims about smallpox and unmanned aerial vehicles have also been eroded. There is disagreement on whether two trailers found in northern Iraq were mobile biological weapons labs.
According to published reports, some U.S. officials suspect that some of the intelligence used to justify the war against Iraq came from defectors who were lying or reporting false information planted by Saddam 's regime. Some former weapons inspectors believe many of the suspicions about Iraq's alleged stockpiles may be because of bad bookkeeping in Baghdad.
The White House was on the defensive Thursday over the preliminary CIA weapons report.
Spokesman Scott McClellan said Mr. Bush still believes actual chemical and/or biological weapons will be discovered in Iraq, and wants Kay to "pull together" the facts on Iraq's WMD, CBS News White House Correspondent Peter Maer reports.
It is not clear how much of Kay's report will be made public. Administration officials in recent days had sought to lower expectations that Kay's report would put to rest ongoing questions about whether Iraq had prohibited weapons and programs.
Some Pentagon officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have said that weapons hunters have found what they interpret as evidence of Iraqi preparations to secretly produce chemical and biological weapons.
That evidence is primarily drawn from documents and interviews with Iraqi officials, the officials said. It suggests plans for weapons production that was to take place primarily at "dual-use" manufacturing facilities inside Iraq, the U.S. officials said.
These are buildings with an overt, legitimate purpose, such as making pesticides or pharmaceuticals, but their equipment also can be used to make weapons. The officials did not know whether searchers had found any evidence that weapons production had actually taken place at these sites.