January 24, 2004 | Broadcast

CBS Evening News

Secretary of State Colin Powell today said, for the first time, that it is an open question whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the primary reason for invading Iraq. Powell, who made the case before the United Nations less than a year ago, backtracked today when responding to comments from the outgoing leader of the weapons search team. More from Dan Raviv.

DAN RAVIV reporting:

David Kay quit without writing a final report, but when asked about the chemical and biological weapons that the US claimed Saddam Hussein stockpiled, Kay told Reuters, ‘I don’t think they existed.’ He had led a team of 1,400 searchers in Iraq, which found old labs and documents but no weapons. The Bush administration insists that adds up to something.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: (From Tuesday) Already the Kay report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.

RAVIV: Carefully chosen words that reignited a debate. ‘Program activities’?

Mr. JOSEPH CIRCINCIONE (Carnegie Endowment): Whatever that means. They don’t want to come to the conclusion that nothing’s there. They’re trying to buy time.

RAVIV: The search will continue. The CIA is replacing David Kay with Charles Duelfer, a former UN weapons inspector who’s been skeptical.

Mr. CHARLES DUELFER (Former UN Weapons Inspector): (From PBS, January 9) Prospects of finding full-up weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, is p–close to nil at this point.

RAVIV: So what are people to make of the president’s prewar warnings that Saddam had those weapons?

Mr. CIRCINCIONE: It gets right to the core of the administration’s credibility, Not just on international issues but on all issues.

RAVIV: The president’s supporters say he did the right thing; he couldn’t take chances.

Mr. CLIFFORD MAY (Foundation for the Defense of Democracies): I think it’s an odd debate we’re having over whether or not there were actually warehouses full of these weapons, and if we didn’t find them, then somehow Saddam Hussein was no threat to himself or to his region or to his people.

RAVIV: Vice President Cheney, now visiting Europe, insisted this week the jury’s still out on what weapons and what programs Saddam was hiding.

Newly appointed chief weapons inspector Duelfer says he has an open mind and still a lot of work to do. Now there may well be no written report, no potential embarrassment, until after Election Day. Dan Raviv, CBS News, Washington.