Secretary of State Colin Powell conceded Thursday that despite his assertions to the UN last year, he had no "smoking gun" proof of a link between the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and terrorists of al-Qaeda.
"I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection," Powell said, in response to a question at a news conference. "But I think the possibility of such connections did exist, and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did."
Powell's remarks Thursday were a stark admission that there is no definitive evidence to back up administration statements and insinuations that Saddam had ties to al-Qaeda, the alleged authors of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Although President George W. Bush finally acknowledged in September that there was no known connection between Saddam and the attacks, the impression of a link in the public mind has become widely accepted -- and something administration officials have done little to discourage.
Powell offered a vigorous defense of his Feb. 5 presentation before the UN Security Council, in which he voiced the administration's most detailed case to date for war with Iraq. After studying intelligence data, he claimed that a "sinister nexus" existed "between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder."
Without any additional qualifiers, Powell continued: "Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Musaab al-Zar-qawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants. Iraqi officials deny accusations of ties with al-Qaeda. These denials are simply not credible."
On Thursday, Powell dismissed second-guessing and said that Bush had acted after giving Saddam 12 years to come into compliance with the international community.
"The president decided he had to act because he believed that whatever the size of the stockpile, whatever one might think about it, he believed that the region was in danger, America was in danger, and he would act," he said. "And he did act."
In a rare, wide-ranging meeting with reporters, Powell voiced some optimism on several other issues that have bedeviled the administration, including North Korea and Sudan, while expressing dismay about the Middle East and Haiti.
But mostly, the secretary, appearing vigorous and in good spirits three weeks after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer, defended his justification for the war in Iraq. He said he had been fully aware that "the whole world would be watching," as he painstakingly made the case that Saddam's government presented an imminent threat to the US and its interests.
The immediacy of the danger was at the core of debates in the UN over how to proceed against Saddam.
A report released Thursday by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan Wa-shington research center, concluded that Iraq's weapons programs constituted a long-term threat that should not have been ignored. But it also said the programs did not "pose an immediate threat to the United States, to the region or to global security."
Powell's UN presentation -- complete with audiotapes and satellite photographs -- asserted that "leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option." The secretary said he had spent time with experts at the CIA combing through reports.
"Anything that we did not feel was solid and multi-sourced, we did not use in that speech," he said on Thursday.
He noted that Saddam had used prohibited weapons in the past -- including nerve gas attacks against Iran and against Iraqi Kurds -- and said that even if there were no actual weapons at hand, there was every indication he would reconstitute them once the international community lost interest.
The administration has quietly withdrawn a 400-member team of US weapons inspectors who were charged with finding chemical or biological weapons stockpiles or laboratories, officials said this week.