We thought we had the smoking gun at one point, but it was nothing," says U.S. Army Captain Andy Morgado, whose unit's responsibilities include scouring the deserts of northwest Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction. The so-far fruitless quest to locate evidence of WMDs is having different effects on either side of the Atlantic. With some 70% of Americans professing to be untroubled by the lack of WMDs, President Bush can probably afford to gloss over the issue. "We think we're O.K. with the audience that counts," says a Bush aide so O.K. that unnamed aides have been quoted as saying that Saddam probably didn't have a ready-to-launch arsenal after all. But in Britain, Tony Blair's critics have seized on the absence of WMDs as proof that the war wasn't justified. The Prime Minister remains "confident they will be found," but his advisers have adopted a more circumspect line. "There's been a whole program of [Iraqi] deception that has been extremely well done," says one. Sound familiar? U.N. inspections chief Hans Blix used a similar line to explain why he came up empty too.
The Iraqi desert has yielded a few clues. Last week a TIME reporter stumbled upon two al-Samoud missiles hidden under trees in the northern township of Ash Sharqat. U.S. troops found four more nearby. They're hardly WMDs, but all such missiles were ordered destroyed because they violated U.N. sanctions. Locals says Facility 555, a massive complex in northwest Iraq that produced nitric acid, which has both military and civilian applications, is also suspect. "There were many guards," says Abdulrazaq Asal al-Othman, a metalworker at the facility before the war. "We all knew this was something to do with chemical weapons." Computers, documents and equipment were emptied from the facility a month before the U.S. attack. But a U.S. army chemical-detection team's investigation produced no evidence of forbidden weapons there. "It's almost impossible to know if WMDs or suspect laboratories have ever existed at these sites," says biochemical-detection specialist Lieut. Valerie Phipps. "You can sanitize places so you never know what was in there."
U.S. and U.K. officials insisted before the war that WMDs were in Iraq. Why can't they find them? "There are two options, and neither one is good," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "It may be that there aren't as many weapons as the President said, in which case we have a major intelligence failure. The other option is that there are as many weapons as the President feared, and they're no longer under anyone's control." Either way, it would be nice to know.