December 14, 2003 | Broadcast

Dateline NBC

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Saddam had a weapon’s program. I am confident history will prove the decision we made to be the right decision.

EDIE MAGNUS reporting: (Voiceover) With the search for Saddam Hussein finally ended, the other search that has consumed large numbers of US soldiers and nagged unanswered for years, the search for weapons of mass destruction, may finally be answered.

(Excerpt from video of Hussein in US custody; US soldiers in Iraq)

Mr. JAMES WOOLSEY: We may still find some actual chemical or bacteriological weapons, and we definitely ought to keep looking.

MAGNUS: (Voiceover) Former CIA Director James Woolsey:

(James Woolsey)

Mr. WOOLSEY: I think there is a chance that we will still find some weapons of mass destruction. It’s–it’s possible that material was destroyed at the last minute, it’s–in order to keep us from finding it, when he decided he wasn’t going to be able to use it effectively. It is possible someone smuggled it out to Syria.

Pres. BUSH: Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and GX nerve agent.

MAGUS: The president was so convinced of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, he committed our nation to war over it. But only now, after the fact, will the world have the chance to discover the truth. That’s if the captured dictator will answer the question that eluded so many for so long: Does he or doesn’t he have biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, and, if so, where are they?

(Voiceover) There was no doubt that before the first Gulf War in 1991, Saddam’s government had pursued nuclear, biological and chemical weapons with frightening success, even using chemical weapons on his own people. United Nations inspectors examining Iraq’s weapons programs during the 1990s found thousands of rockets and artillery shells outfitted for nerve gas, anthrax and other toxins. And according to one estimate during that time, Iraq was only months away from creating a nuclear weapon when inspectors dismantled the program. Then, last year, shortly before President Bush invaded Iraq, UN inspectors there found a few empty rockets that could carry chemical weapons.

(Excerpts from video of US soldiers wearing chemical suits; dead bodies; artillery shells; Iraqi chemical sites; men inspecting a chemical site)

Unidentified Reporter: We have breaking news in the showdown with Saddam. UN inspectors say they have found empty chemical warheads in Iraq which were not disclosed in Baghdad’s weapons declaration.

MAGNUS: (Voiceover) But whether those warheads were part of an active weapons program was never resolved. Then, months later, during the war, Pentagon officials said they thought they had uncovered more evidence of Saddam’s on-going chemical weapons program.

(Excerpt of people inspecting a chemical site; US soldier; barrels)

Offscreen Voice: Wearing gas masks, we see 14 barrels, 25-gallon and 55-gallon drums hidden in this bunker.

MAGNUS: (Voiceover) But once again, nothing approaching a smoking gun, promising leads evaporating. US teams have searched more than 300 sites in Iraq without finding any weapons. Now, many in Congress are asking if the administration hyped the evidence. And even though US troops fought for weeks in their chemical protection suits, the feared gas attacks never materialized. So was the Bush administration wrong about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction?

(US soldiers; barrels; soldiers wearing chemical suits; soldiers inspecting a buildings; George Bush in Congress; a chemical tower)

Mr. MICHAEL O’HANLON (Brookings Institution): He almost certainly had chemical and biological weapons.

MAGNUS: (Voiceover) Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. He was a defense policy analyst for Congress during the 1990s.

(Excerpt from video of Michael O’Hanlon)

Mr. O’HANLON: And you have to conclude he really had them and he really wanted them, and he really thought he could hide them from us. That’s the most logical explanation, and virtually everyone came to that same conclusion.

MAGNUS: (Voiceover) That theory gained credence just last week when a top Iraqi air commander told NBC News key units of Saddam’s army were equipped with biological or chemical weapons powered by short-range grenade launchers. And the man himself had given orders to use them, but Saddam’s own soldiers simply disobeyed.

(Excerpt from video of concealed man and a reporter; Iraqi troops marching; artillery shells; Hussein; surrendered soldiers)

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) The orders were clear. ‘Use the secret weapons when the situation gets critical.’ The Army turned and went home.

MAGNUS: (Voiceover) The commander, who spoke anonymously, said these weapons were hidden in the desert. But if there are stockpiles anywhere, NBC News learned today the administration has apparently found a search for them so fruitless, it has begun diverting resources from the hunt for WMD to the more pressing problem of putting down the insurgents who have been killing American soldiers almost daily.

(Excerpts from video of soldiers searching buildings; gas masks; drawings of gas masks; soldiers searching buildings)

ANDREA MITCHELL reporting (From file footage) They are reassessing at the CIA tomorrow whether or not they can proceed as originally envisioned. It’s been seven months, they have not found any evidence of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

MAGNUS: (Voiceover) Now that he is in custody, will Saddam himself give up the goods to try and save his skin?

(Excerpts from video of Hussein in US custody)

Mr. WOOLSEY: My hunch is he will do the best he can to not give anything away and lie. But even liars are sometimes useful to talk to.

MAGNUS: (Voiceover) Perhaps, but US interrogators reportedly haven’t found it useful yet, Saddam still insisting the US dreamed up his WMD as a pretext for war. Some doubt he may even know the dirty little specifics of where those weapons would be.

(Excerpts from video of Hussein in US custody; soldiers searching a building)

Mr. WOOLSEY: That’s not the kind of operational detail that he’s likely to be on top of. Far more likely that one of his subordinates would be. I think we should be very, very reluctant to do anything other than, as you say in the Old West, ‘See that this man is given a fair trial and then hang him.’