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Harman cites 'difficulty' of WMD search

Closed hearing for House intelligence panel

From Ted Barrett
CNN Washington Bureau

Rep. Jane Harman says she
Rep. Jane Harman says she "inadequately appreciated the difficulty" in tracking WMD.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee says determining what happened to Iraq's alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction may be more difficult than previously thought.

"I think I inadequately appreciated the difficulty in tracking this stuff," Rep. Jane Harman, D-California, said Thursday after a classified hearing. "I continue to be worried that they're harder to find and easier to disappear than I had thought, than I think any of us had thought."

"Easier to disappear means not destroyed, I mean disappear," she said. "Underground or transferred to other groups. And so the urgency is just enormous."

Harman's comments that she has a newfound understanding of the difficulties in finding WMD could influence other critics of the White House, who have raised questions about the administration pre-war assessment of the threat posed by Iraq. In her role on the intelligence committee, she has access to many of the government's most classified secrets.

Harman's comments came after she spent several hours hearing testimony from Washington-based military and intelligence experts overseeing the United States' ongoing search for WMD.

While two truck trailers that the Bush administration says were mobile labs for the production of biological weapons have been found, no actual WMD have been located.

The hearing was the second of what could be a lengthy inquiry by both the House and Senate intelligence committees probing whether the Bush administration oversold the threat Iraq posed to its neighbors and the United States.

In recent weeks, Harman has criticized the weapons search. In an opinion article in The Washington Post she said she voted to go to war "based on the strength" of administration briefings about the threat the weapons posed. She said the fact that the U.S. can't find them "is cause for great concern."

Earlier this month, Harman said that a "very strong case" had been made to lawmakers in classified briefings about WMD in Iraq. She also pointed to the February presentation by Secretary of State Colin Powell before the U.N. Security Council, when he said that Iraq had sarin, nerve agents and botulinum toxin.

If questions are now being raised about the accuracy of that information, she said, Congress needs to investigate.

"We need to make sure our intelligence is timely, accurate and unbiased going forward," she said. "The U.S. credibility depends on that."

She described Thursday's hearing as a "thoughtful, probing exercise" and "a more careful presentation on information that we had before or heard before."

A government official familiar with the hearing gave a similar summary.

"It was helpful in quantifying how difficult it might be to locate the material. We're not talking about warehouses filled to the gills with stuff. We're talking about vials or a few hundred barrels. It's a large country and they knew we were coming."

But the official said, "There's an overwhelming sense that they will eventually find it."

As to whether the new information lends credibility to the White House claims that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed WMD before the war, Harman said, "I'm not sure anyone was misled, but I think many of us failed to appreciate how difficult it was to find these weapons." "

She said, "And what is worrisome now is not just that we haven't found them but that they could be in the hands of those who are actively plotting to do harm to 160,000 Americans in the region."

Harman said her "worse nightmare" is that Saddam and his son's "are under Baghdad with the vials of BW" -- the insider term for biological weapons.

"So I don't disbelieve the case that there were chemical and biological weapons, I just appreciate how difficult the search is and I'm very happy we've increased our resources and have better strategies on the ground."

Harman said she wants the committee to hold additional hearings on the search. She said she has talked to chairman Porter Goss, R-Florida, about possibly holding public hearings and maybe even releasing an interim report on the committee's findings.

Goss has said he may approve additional hearings depending on where the evidence takes the committee.

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