With little to show after 30 days, the Bush administration is losing confidence in its prewar belief that it had strong clues pointing to the whereabouts of weapons of mass destruction concealed in Iraq, according to planners and participants in the hunt.
After testing some -- though by no means all -- of their best leads, analysts here and in Washington are increasingly doubtful that they will find what they are looking for in the places described on a five-tiered target list drawn up before fighting began. Their strategy is shifting from the rapid "exploitation" of known suspect sites to a vast survey that will rely on unexpected discoveries and leads.
Late last week, the U.S. Central Command began moving urgently to expand security around a wider range of facilities in an effort to preserve evidence that defense officials fear is melting away. That imperative grew from intelligence suggesting that Iraqi insiders have stolen files, electronic data and equipment from nonconventional arms programs under the cover of recent looting. Analysts said they believe that former Iraqi officials hope to conceal their culpability, barter for status with the U.S. military government or sell the technology for private gain.
If such weapons or the means of making them have been removed from the centralized control of former Iraqi officials, high-ranking U.S. officials acknowledged, then the war may prove to aggravate the proliferation threat that President Bush said he fought to forestall.
"It's a danger," Douglas J. Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said in a telephone interview. There are signs, he said, "that some of the looting is actually strategic." Former Baath Party and Iraqi government officials appear to be "doing at least some of the looting" of government facilities, he said, "including those that might have records or materials" relating to weapons of mass destruction.
Bush launched and justified the war with a flat declaration of knowledge "that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction." Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who took the lead public role in defending that proposition, said, among other particulars, that "our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons" agents.
Political appointees and career analysts alike, including some who were privately skeptical of the need for war, continue to express confidence that U.S. forces eventually will find stocks of chemical and biological arms, ballistic missile components and equipment and plans for uranium enrichment. A top planner said they have many leads left to pursue, including "tens" of the roughly 100 targets on the U.S. government's top tier of a five-tiered list. But arms hunters now pin their best hopes on what they call "ad hoc sites," to be discovered by happenstance or with help of Iraqis who volunteer information or divulge it under interrogation.
One such example came over the weekend, officials here said, when investigators interviewed an Iraqi scientist south of Baghdad. They said the scientist told them he took part in chemical weapons development and that Iraq had destroyed some weapons only days before the war began. He led them to samples of chemicals that the U.S. search team described as ingredients for lethal agents. But military officials would not identify the scientist, the lethal agents or the ingredients that were found. They did not permit a New York Times reporter, who was accompanying the search team and was the first to report the discovery, to interview the scientist.
Without further details of the find, experts said, its significance cannot be assessed. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was careful yesterday to draw no conclusion about it, saying he had "nothing to add" to the field report and that investigators have an "obligation of analyzing things and doing it in an orderly, disciplined way." Experts said nearly any ingredient for a chemical weapon can also be used for civilian purposes.
Because ad hoc discoveries might occur anywhere, the U.S. military is racing belatedly to lock down files and equipment at scores of potentially sensitive facilities in Baghdad that went unguarded in the chaotic days immediately after the fall of Hussein. Beginning late last week, U.S. combat forces in the Iraqi capital moved to take custody of all 23 government ministries and more than two dozen other locations they said might yield valuable intelligence.
Senior U.S. officials with responsibility over postwar Iraq were highly critical of the delay in securing those facilities. One official interviewed in Kuwait described it as "the barn-door phenomenon." He said retired Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, the occupation governor of Iraq, sought special protection for 10 Iraqi ministries, identifying them as potential repositories of weapons data, but that only the Oil Ministry remained intact after U.S. ground forces took possession of Baghdad. Combat commanders, the official said, gave "insufficient priority to getting into these places," and "there wasn't enough force to accomplish that initial sequestering of buildings and records."
Defense Department planners, meanwhile, are diverting some of their best investigative resources away from the target sites they came to Iraq to explore. Two of the four mobile exploitation teams, or METs, have been removed from the hunt for weapons of mass destruction and been assigned instead to the laborious task of screening what officials call "non-WMD sites." These are facilities with voluminous records that might prove enlightening on such issues as terrorism and prisoners of war. Because there are so many such sites, the teams are engaged in what one knowledgeable officer described as triage, trying to decide which ones are worth more thorough inspection. "The focus of main effort has changed," said a military officer who works directly in the arms hunt. "Because of all the looting, coupled with [the fact that] they're not coming up with anything on weapons, we've got to get these other sites secured. They can't afford to have stuff walking off because the clues we have right now are not leading us anywhere."
Now that U.S. forces control Baghdad, the nucleus of Iraq's arms industry, some leading team members have expressed frustration about the shift of focus. As recently as last Wednesday, Defense Department officials were predicting that the war's end would permit the teams to intensify their work and to reach high-priority weapons sites in significant numbers.
Wing Cmdr. Sebastian Kendall, a British Royal Air Force officer who leads the site exploitation planning center at Camp Doha, said "there has been no conscious decision to reduce the number of teams devoted to weapons of mass destruction." But, he added, "it's true to say that the environment is changing based on reality."
"We are now in and around Baghdad and there is an imperative to contain the situation as much as possible," he said. Ground forces have been ordered "to secure more sites, but also to exploit them quicker so we can release those forces.
"We will be methodically working our way through the list from top to bottom," he said. And though many of the additional sites have no known relationship to concealed arms programs, he said, some of them "could be WMD-related because the intellectual knowledge may be there or the documents may be there."
The mobile exploitation teams were staffed and equipped to provide more sophisticated analysis after others had identified and surveyed a weapons facility. They carry complex field equipment -- including gas chromatographs, mass spectrometers and portable isotopic neutron spectroscopes -- and are the only investigators in Iraq trained to safely transport samples of lethal material.
Army Lt. Col. Michael Slifka, an experienced arms inspector who directs night operations at the planning center, said "there's not much just now for the METs to do" with those capabilities. Most of the weapons work at present, he said, is sifting unevaluated clues.
Tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines in Iraq have a copy of the pocket-sized "WMD Facility, Equipment and Munitions Identification Handbook." The troops have made hundreds of excited reports. It falls to one of four "site survey teams," two each assigned to the Army and Marines, to assess those tips. None, as yet, has led to a confirmed finding.
Even the estimated 50 facilities now being protected by U.S. forces represent a tiny fraction of the many thousands of government and Baath Party offices, state enterprises, prisons, barracks, camps and private homes of senior Iraqi officials -- all of them types of places where Iraq has a history of concealing evidence of nonconventional arms. The ministry of industry and minerals, for example, oversaw more than 600 Iraqi state enterprises and 100,000 employees. U.N. arms inspectors once found more than a million pages of weapons documents on a chicken farm.
"There's a common assumption that if you know they have chemical or biological weapons, then your intelligence should be good enough to know where they are," said Feith. "But you may hear people talking, referring to specific substances or items, so you know from that that they have those substances or items" but may not know where the items are.
With site-specific intelligence less productive than hoped, Defense Department officials have concluded that the weapons hunt needs substantial reinforcement. That will come from the eventual deployment of more than 1,000 military and civilian analysts under the auspices of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The Iraq Survey Group, to be commanded by the DIA's deputy director for intelligence operations, plans an immense catalog of Iraqi government records -- an intelligence task rivaled in recent times only by the joint U.S.-German effort in the former East German archives in Berlin. Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, a career Russian specialist, will supervise the screening of Iraqi records.
Weapons of mass destruction will be a part, though not predominant share, of Dayton's responsibilities. Even so, officials said, the number of arms investigators in Iraq should triple or quadruple by the time the DIA group is fully in place in about three months.
Kendall, the British officer who now directs planning for the arms hunt, said a search even on the present scale is without precedent.
"It's very young," he said. "It's in its infancy."
"Tomorrow will be one month into the campaign," he added, "and we've got some way to go is what I'd say."
Staff researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.