WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Colin Powell reversed a year of administration policy, acknowledging Thursday that he had seen no “smoking gun [or] concrete evidence” of ties between former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.
Powell, speaking at a news conference at the State Department, stressed that he was still certain that Iraq had dangerous weapons and needed to be disarmed by force, and he sharply disagreed with a private think tank report that maintained that Iraq was not an imminent threat to the United States.
“I have not seen smoking gun, concrete evidence about the connection, but I do believe the connections existed,” he said.
Powell’s observation marked a turning point in administration arguments in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq last spring. The assertion that Saddam and the terrorist network led by Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden were working in concert was a primary justification for the war.
As recently as September, President Bush declared that there was “no question” that Saddam had ties to al-Qaida.
Powell himself made the case most strongly in February, when he urged the U.N. Security Council to back U.S. military action in Iraq. “Iraqi officials deny accusations of ties with al-Qaida,” Powell said then. “These denials are simply not credible.”
Powell defended those comments Thursday, even as he cast doubt on their conclusions. He said that at the time, he was referring specifically to the presence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Baghdad for medical treatments.
The United States has accused al-Zarqawi of being a close associate of bin Laden’s, but intelligence agencies in France and other European countries that opposed the U.S. war argued that al-Zarqawi was an independent operator.
“I'm confident of what I presented last year,” Powell said. “The intelligence community is confident of the material they gave me. I was representing them. It was information they presented to the Congress. It was information they had presented publicly, and they stand behind it. And this game is still unfolding.”
Kay said to be quitting inspection team
Since the U.S. victory in Iraq, U.S. and U.N. teams have been scrubbing the country for the chemical and biological weapons the administration insisted the Baghdad government had been hiding.
That effort, which has failed so far to find any such weapons, could soon be severely hampered. Senior U.S. officials told NBC News on Thursday that David Kay, head of the U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group hunting for weapons, was planning to resign, without issuing a final report.
Kay’s team, which has been scaled back since it began work last year, has found illegal missiles but no stockpiles or ongoing production of chemical or biological weapons, sources told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. Only a rudimentary nuclear program, which had not started, has been found, they said.
“I think Mr. Kay and his team have looked very hard. I think the reason they haven’t found it is it’s probably not there,” Charles Duelfer, former deputy chairman of the U.N. weapons inspection agency, said in an interview.
Report says policy misguided
Powell came under intense questioning at his news conference Thursday about a new report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which accused the administration of systematically misrepresenting the weapons threat from Iraq.
“It is unlikely that Iraq could have destroyed, hidden or sent out of the country the hundreds of tons of chemical and biological weapons, dozens of Scud missiles and facilities engaged in the ongoing production of chemical and biological weapons that officials claimed were present without the United States detecting some sign of this activity,” said the report, prepared by Carnegie President Jessica T. Mathews, Joseph Cirincione and George Perkovich.
Powell responded that Saddam obviously had, and used, destructive weapons in the late 1980s and then refused for a decade to reassure the world that he had gotten rid of them.
“In terms of intention, he always had it,” Powell said. Of Carnegie’s finding that Iraq posed no imminent threat, Powell said: “They did not say it wasn’t there.”
Years of U.N. inspections to determine whether Saddam was harboring weapons of mass destruction were working well, the report said, and the United States would be better advised to set up a permanent system with the United Nations to guard against the spread of dangerous technology.
NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.