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Wednesday brought more bad news for the Bush administration: its chief weapons inspector told Congress that his team’s four-month search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had come up empty; and Bush asked for $600 million to keep on looking, despite growing skepticism that there are any weapons there to find. Meanwhile, the U.S. isn’t devoting nearly enough attention or resources to the other members of the “axis of evil,” North Korea and Iran, two countries that actually do have weapons programs.

David Kay, who heads the 1,200-person, CIA-led Iraq Survey Group, presented an interim report to the House and Senate intelligence committees yesterday. Bottom line: No WMDs, though his team did manage to find WMD-related activities and equipment that Iraq hid from the United Nations inspectors in 2002. Reuters reports:

“‘We have not yet found stocks of weapons, but we are not yet at the point where we can say definitively either that such weapon stocks do not exist or that they existed before the war and our only task is to find where they have gone,’ Kay said …

The team has also not found any evidence to confirm pre-war reporting that Iraqi military was prepared to use chemical warfare against U.S.-led forces.

Much evidence has been ‘irretrievably lost,’ Kay said. ‘It is far too early to reach any definitive conclusions and in some areas, we may never reach that goal,’ he said.

‘Despite evidence of Saddam’s continued ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, to date we have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material,’ Kay said.

Kay concluded that ‘whatever we find will probably differ from pre-war intelligence. Empirical reality on the ground is, and has always been, different from intelligence judgments that must be made under serious constraints of time, distance and information.'”

Ironically, the same day that Kay told lawmakers that it would take more time (perhaps forever) to find the WMDs, Bush’s request for more money for the arms search hit the news. Tucked inside the classified section of Bush’s $87 billion request for supplemental spending on Iraq and Afghanistan, was a request for $600 more, reports The New York Times’ Judith Miller and James Risen. The White House is now requesting double what has already been spent on the less-than-fruitful hunt — bringing the cost of the search to nearly $1 billion dollars.

Taxpayers take note: Miller and Risen further report that Kay’s group isn’t such a lean operation. In fact, they say, the Iraq Survey Group has been “slow to mobilize” inspectors and have focused their attention on seemingly unimportant details:

“Some weapons hunting units have sat in Baghdad for days, sometimes weeks, waiting for missions, officials say.

“Even when hot tips have come in, it often takes days to mobilize a unit to visit a suspect site or talk to a suspect scientist,” said a former member of one unit, who spoke on condition that he not be identified.

The group has also concentrated on installing an unnecessarily elaborate infrastructure to support its operations….”

At the same time, the World Bank Fund and U.N. economists reported that reconstruction of Iraq will cost $55 billion. Over the next four years, Iraq will require $24.2 billion to rebuild its infrastructre, $7.2 billion for education, jobs, and health, and $3 billion for agriculture. Washington has asked for around $20 billion and it’s unclear where the difference will come from.

Meanwhile, North Korea and Iran have openly admitted to having nuclear programs. On Wednesday Pyongang told the world that it had reprocessed 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods that could potentially be used to create atomic weapons, though Secretary of State Colin Powell pooh-poohed the claim. The same day, Tehran announced that it would move forward with its uranium enrichment program.

With the 2004 elections in view, Bush’s $600 million request looks like a stalling tactic. This way he gets to say, “Hey, you can’t say the WMD rationale was bogus; we’re still looking.” But, as George F. Will points out in the Washington Post, the American public’s in the president may be permanently shattered:

“This president or a successor is likely to have to ask the country to run grave risks in response to intelligence from what the government will call ‘solid sources.’ So, unless the public is convinced that the government is learning from this war — learning how to know what it does not know — the war may have made the public less persuadable and the nation perhaps less safe.”

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