U.S. Intel Official Defends Iraq WMD Report

Jan. 6, 2004 -- A key prewar U.S. intelligence report that said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was "well-grounded," based on 15 years of information, and the hunt should continue, a senior U.S. intelligence official said today.

Stuart Cohen, vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which produced the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate report on Iraq's banned weapons, said he was "not at all" surprised that stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons had not yet been found.

"He's [Saddam Hussein] had 15 years to hone his ability to hide this stuff. The footprints of these weapons is very small," Cohen told Reuters in a brief telephone interview after an interview with ABCNEWS' Nightline airing late today.

Since the ousting of Saddam in April and the inability to find banned weapons, U.S. officials have repeatedly pointed out that biological and chemical weapons can be hidden in relatively small areas.

"I believe that our work was well-grounded," Cohen told Reuters. "We know he [Saddam] had it, he used it, you don't unlearn that."

He said it was unclear what happened to the weapons. Critics have said the National Intelligence Estimate report was produced under pressure for a Bush administration that had made it clear it wanted to go to war against Iraq.

Cohen dismissed such criticism.

"Assertions, particularly that we had shaded our judgments to support an administration policy, were just nonsense," Cohen told ABCNEWS' Nightline.

Underestimate or Overestimate?

The intelligence report said that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons and would not have them until "very late" in the decade, he said.

Pressed about prewar assertions by some administration officials there could be nuclear weapons in Iraq's hands within a year, Cohen told ABCNEWS that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs had been underestimated in the past.

"The National Intelligence Estimate judged that he [Saddam] could have nuclear weapons in as little as 18 months if certain conditions were met, namely if he had gotten a source of fissile material," Cohen said. "We did not believe that that had happened."

"We did not, in any area, hype our judgments," Cohen told Nightline.

The intelligence estimates "never use the word imminent" and the judgments carried varying degrees of confidence, he said.

Criticism Expected

While Iraq's missiles could not reach the United States, U.S. intelligence agencies were concerned about the possibility unmanned aerial vehicles could be brought within reach of the United States and about the possibility Iraqi intelligence agencies could bring something in undetected and use it.

"My point is simply that it is too soon to close the books on this case," Cohen said, adding the search should continue.

In a potential setback, CIA adviser David Kay, who is leading the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, is considering leaving that position, U.S. officials have said.

Congressional intelligence committees are working on reports assessing the prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and are expected to level some criticism at the intelligence agencies.