Beginning last summer, US President George W. Bush administration officials insisted that they had compelling new evidence about Iraq's prohibited weapons programs, and only occasionally acknowledged in public how little they actually knew about the status of Baghdad's chemical, biological or nuclear arms.
Some officials belittled the on-again, off-again UN inspections after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, suggesting that the inspectors had missed important evidence. "Even as they were conducting the most intrusive system of arms control in history, the inspectors missed a great deal," US Vice President Dick Cheney said in August, before the inspections resumed.
In the fall, as the debate intensified over whether or not to have inspectors return to Iraq, senior government officials continued to suggest that the US had new or better intelligence that Iraq's weapons programs were accelerating -- information that the UN lacked.
"After 11 years during which we have tried containment, sanctions, inspections, even selected military action, the end result is that Saddam Hussein still has chemical and biological weapons and is increasing his capabilities to make more," Bush declared in a speech in Cincinnati in October. "And he is moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon."
"Clearly, to actually work, any new inspections, sanctions, or enforcement mechanisms will have to be very different," he added.
Now, with the failure so far to find prohibited weapons in Iraq, US intelligence officials and senior members of the administration have acknowledged that there was little new evidence flowing into US intelligence agencies in the five years since UN inspectors left Iraq, creating an intelligence vacuum.
Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, said on Saturday that the question of new evidence versus old was beside the point. "The question of what is new after 1998 is not an interesting question," she said. "There is a body of evidence since 1991. You have to look at that body of evidence and say what does this require the US to do? Then you are compelled to act."
In a series of recent interviews, intelligence and other officials described the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the White House as essentially blinded after the UN inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq in 1998. They were left grasping for whatever slivers they could obtain, like unconfirmed reports of attempts to buy uranium, or fragmentary reports about the movements of suspected terrorists.
Bush has continued to express confidence that evidence of weapons programs will be found in Iraq, and the administration has recently restructured the weapons hunt after the teams dispatched by the Pentagon immediately after the war confronted an array of problems on the ground and came up mostly empty-handed.
US Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld offered a nuanced analysis to Congress recently about the role that US intelligence played as the administration built its case against Saddam.
"The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass murder," he said."We acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light: through the prism of our experience on Sept. 11."
Richard Kerr, who headed a four-member team of retired CIA officials that reviewed prewar intelligence about Iraq, said analysts at the CIA and other agencies were forced to rely heavily on evidence that was five years old at least.