WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday they have no evidence that Iraq produced chemical weapons after the 1991 Gulf War, despite recent reports from media outlets and Republican lawmakers.
Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan on Wednesday pointed to a newly declassified report that says coalition forces have found 500 munitions in Iraq that contained degraded sarin or mustard nerve agents.
They cited the report in an attempt to counter criticism by Democrats who say the decision to go to war was a mistake.
But defense officials said Thursday that the weapons were not considered likely to be dangerous because of their age, which they determined to be pre-1991.
Pentagon officials told NBC News that the munitions are the same kind of ordnance the U.S. military has been gathering in Iraq for the past several years, and "not the WMD we were looking for when we went in this time."
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
"We were able to determine that [the missile] is, in fact, degraded and ... is consistent with what we would expect from finding a munition that was dated back to pre-Gulf War," an intelligence official told NBC. "However, even in the degraded state, our assessment is that they could pose an up-to-lethal hazard if used in attacks against coalition forces."
‘A bit suspicious’
Democrats said a report from the top U.S. weapons inspector contemplated that older munitions bearing traces of chemical agents would be found.
A leading Democrat on intelligence issues said Santorum's assertion that there were in fact weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was politically motivated.
"It's a bit suspicious that this was rolled out the night before" the debate and vote in the Senate on withdrawal from Iraq "by a senator in a close political race," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif.
Santorum is down 18 points in his Senate re-election contest, according to a poll released Wednesday.
Harman said it was "unfortunate" that people have "not learned the lesson about hyping ... and cherry picking" intelligence to suit their own aims.
For his part, Hoekstra, appearing before cameras on Thursday, reiterated his assertions of Wednesday evening, saying, "Iraq is NOT a WMD-free zone" and it "amazes me" that members of Congress still say that there was no WMD in Iraq.
NBC News’ Robert Windrem, NBC News' Mike Viqueira and The Associated Press contributed to this report.