WASHINGTON -- Prewar Iraq was highly unlikely to produce a device that could easily inflict mass casualties -- despite President Bush's current assertion that Saddam Hussein had the "capacity" to make a weapon of mass destruction, former weapons inspectors and former national security officials say.
Bush's assertion about Iraq's capabilities, which he made repeatedly during his interview last week on the NBC television program "Meet the Press," is a central prong of his administration's defense that the war was justified despite the failure to find stockpiles of unconventional weapons. It is a theme to which Bush is likely to return often in this election year. And it marks Bush's first characterization of the Iraq threat since the testimony of his former chief weapons inspector, David Kay.
"David Kay did report to the American people that Saddam had the capacity to make weapons," Bush said. "Saddam Hussein was dangerous with weapons. Saddam Hussein was dangerous with the ability to make weapons."
But Kay did not describe Iraq's production capacity so clearly in either his interim public report last fall or in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 28. In an interview last week, he told the Globe that although Iraq had pesticide equipment that could be switched to produce fine-grain anthrax in a lab, it would have remained a challenge to deliver it in a way that would inflict mass casualties.
"I think it's fair to say they had the capacity [to switch over to anthrax production], but you're always going to get into the issue of not just producing an agent, but in a usable way," Kay said. "The real trick is delivery in a way that gets to you in a way that is inhaled -- aerosolized. That is much more difficult."
Moreover, although Hussein employed scientists who had once been working on military programs, Kay found that almost all of Iraq's infrastructure for nuclear and chemical weapons production was destroyed during the 1991 Gulf War and by United Nations inspectors.
He cited the pesticide lab equipment as among his most potentially worrisome findings, but Kay testified last month that he considered the possibility that an Iraqi scientist might sell the know-how on the black market "a bigger risk than the restart of [Hussein's] programs being successful."
Many specialists described even weapons-grade anthrax as more of a weapon of mass "disruption" because it is difficult to keep it in the air and it is not contagious, limiting its ability to inflict wide damage.
Vincent Cannistraro, a former head of the CIA's counterterrorism unit and a former director of intelligence for the National Security Council, noted that Bush has been accused of exaggerating intelligence before the war by taking shards of analysis that included conditions and hedged suspicions about what Iraq might be harboring -- then representing it as a certainty.
Cannistraro said Bush's description of Kay's postwar findings is also a questionably aggressive interpretation of the evidence.
"It's not as flatly wrong, but it is misleading," Cannistraro said. "To translate knowledge . . . to capability, that's inaccurate because knowledge can be, `Yeah, I know how to do this.' But having the capability of doing this requires the acquisition of a lot of component parts you don't have."
Sean McCormack, a National Security Council spokesman, said Bush's assertion was based on portions of Kay's interim report in which the inspector said he had found evidence of "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."
"One question is, `How close [to making a weapon] do you want them to be able to be?' " McCormack said.
"Clearly, the president and policy makers have to make judgments about threat and risk. And they had to make judgments about Saddam Hussein, who had shown that he would use weapons of mass destruction and that he was intent on building and acquiring them. This regime was sitting in the middle of one of the most unstable regions in the world."
Nonetheless, several specialists on weapons of mass destruction who have studied Kay's findings said Bush's insistence that Iraq had the "capacity" to make such a weapon -- not just the goal of eventually building one -- is accurate only in the loosest sense of the word.
"There are easily ways in which that would be a true statement and easily ways in which it could be a stretch," said Gerald Epstein, a former assistant director for national security at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "It all depends on the squishy word `capacity.' Almost everything is dual-use technology -- there is biotech all over the world that is not much different than what you'd need to produce a weapon. But does that mean having everything ready to go for a military attack using that weapon? No, that's very different."
Asked to respond to Bush's characterization of his findings, Kay agreed that one could say Iraq had the "capacity," but he also described this as a "really mushy" question and added a series of significant qualifiers that Bush did not mention.
"Did they have the capacity to make a small number of chemicial or biological weapons using existing civilian infrastructure? Sure," Kay said. "Look, if some nut can make enough anthrax to terrorize us in very small amounts, Iraq could have made some. That's different than saying it could have made large amounts of weaponized anthrax that would have been useful in a militarized conflict."
Kay also reported that on at least two occasions, Hussein or his sons asked scientists how long it would take to produce mustard or VX nerve gas. The scientists answered that they could make mustard gas in several months but that VX would take several years. But Kay also reported that many of the dictator's scientists had been lying to him while collecting funding.
Kay said that because the order was never given, "we can't be sure" whether they could make a useful chemcial weapon.
He also said his investigation had looked into whether Iraq possessed the chemical ingredients needed to make mustard or VX gas, with varying results.
"They probably had adequate precursors for mustard gas," he said. "For VX, they faced certain problems, and they were working on how they could find solutions in their own indigenous production."
The pesticide laboratory Kay found was working with Bt, a substance that closely mirrored the properties of anthrax.
He said the Bt equipment could have been converted into producing fine-grain anthrax powder -- if Iraqi scientists were able to find a virulent strain to seed a batch.
But even if the Bt equipment were retrofitted to mill anthrax spores, analysts said, it would have been extremely difficult to deliver the agent in a way that would yield mass casualties rather than several deaths -- such as the anthrax mailing attacks in 2001 that killed five people.
And Kay said delivery problems are multiplied for chemical weapons because a much greater volume is needed.
Before the war, the Bush administration said Iraq was working on unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with sprayers that could have been part of an airborne delivery system. But Kay's investigation found that the vehicles were designed for surveillance only.
Kay's report conceded Iraq had restarted a longer-range missile program, and in the interview he noted that Iraq's history of having produced unconventional weapons in the past would have made it easier to make them again.
But Jonathan Tucker, a former Iraq inspector for the UN, said an enormous distance remains between that evidence and the implication that Hussein would have been able to produce new weapons of mass destruction.
"It would be inaccurate to say they had a rapid breakout capability," he said.
"It would be accurate to say they were continuing some research and development in some areas related to WMD with the long-range intention of having the capacity to rebuild their programs when sanctions were lifted.
"With chemical and nuclear, it would take them years to rebuild production capacity. In biological, they had the production infrastructure because of dual-use technology, but they didn't necessarily have the capacity for weaponization."