Iraq's Inspector Games

By Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley

Washington Post, Sunday, November 29, 1998; Page C01

Little noticed in the current war of nerves with Saddam Hussein is Iraq's preference for United Nations inspectors who search for nuclear weapons over U.N. inspectors who look for other weapons of mass destruction.

On Oct. 31, before U.N. inspectors were withdrawn in anticipation of U.S. military strikes, Iraq's government announced that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could continue its monitoring activities but that the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) would no longer be permitted to monitor suspected missile, chemical and biological weapons sites. When inspectors returned in mid-November, Iraq resumed its open defiance of UNSCOM and its cooperation with the IAEA.

Why? The answer has to do with sharp differences in how the two agencies do their work. UNSCOM is more confrontational, refusing to accept Iraqi obfuscations and demanding evidence of destroyed weapons--what former UNSCOM chief Rolf Ekeus once called "the arms-control equivalent of war." The IAEA is more accommodating, giving Iraqi nuclear officials the benefit of the doubt when they fail to provide evidence that all nuclear weapons components have been destroyed and all prohibited activities terminated. Ekeus has acknowledged "a certain culture problem" resulting from UNSCOM's "more aggressive approach, and the IAEA's more cooperative approach."

As a result, there is a widespread and dangerous perception that Iraq's nuclear threat is history, thanks to the IAEA's official judgment that Iraq's nuclear weapons program has been "destroyed, removed or rendered harmless." Meanwhile, Iraq is generally perceived to be concealing other weapons of mass destruction--because UNSCOM refuses to accept unverified claims of their elimination.

Iraq's willing acceptance of IAEA inspectors reinforces the IAEA's findings and helps France, China and Russia argue in the U.N. Security Council for "closing the nuclear file" on Iraq. There is an eerie familiarity to all this. Before the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein used his chemical and biological threat to deflect attention away from a hidden nuclear threat. "I swear to God," he proclaimed in March 1990, "we will let our fire eat half of Israel if it tries to wage anything against Iraq. We don't need an atomic bomb, because we have binary chemicals."

Iraq learned early on that it could conceal a nuclear weapons program by cooperating with the IAEA. Khidhir Hamza, a senior Iraqi scientist who defected to the United States in 1994, wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists earlier this year that Saddam Hussein approved the deception-by-cooperation scheme in 1974. "Iraq was careful to avoid raising IAEA suspicions; an elaborate strategy was gradually developed to deceive and manipulate the agency," Hamza said.

The strategy worked. Iraq, as a signer of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, was subject to IAEA inspections on all nuclear facilities. But the agency's inspectors failed to detect any sign of the Iraqi-style "Manhattan Project" discovered after the Gulf War by IAEA teams at sites identified by UNSCOM.

The IAEA's track record of missing evidence of Iraq's nuclear weapons program predates the Gulf War. In 1981, Israeli airstrikes destroyed Iraq's nearly complete Osirak research reactor because Tel Aviv feared Iraq's plutonium-production capacity if the plant were allowed to start up. After the attack, IAEA inspector Roger Richter resigned from the agency to defend Israel's action. He had helped negotiate the IAEA's "safeguards" arrangement for the reactor and later told Congress that the agency had failed to win sufficient access to detect plutonium production for weapons. Agency officials privately hinted that Richter was spying for Israel and, at Iraq's behest, suspended Israel's IAEA credentials.

In August 1990, only weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait, IAEA safeguards director Jon Jennekens praised Iraqi cooperation with the IAEA as "exemplary," and said Iraq's nuclear experts "have made every effort to demonstrate that Iraq is a solid citizen" under the nonproliferation treaty.

In 1991, after the Gulf War, the U.N. awarded the nuclear-inspection portfolio in Iraq to the IAEA rather than UNSCOM, following a concerted lobbying campaign by the IAEA, supported by the United States and France. The principal argument was political: With only a few years remaining before the Non-Proliferation Treaty had to be extended, it would be extremely damaging for the treaty's survival if the agency were downgraded in any way.

Its turf battle won, the IAEA continued to see things Iraq's way. In September 1992, after destruction of the nuclear-weapons plants found in the war's aftermath, Mauricio Zifferero, head of the IAEA's "Action Team" in Iraq, declared Iraq's nuclear program to be "at zero now. . . totally dormant." Zifferero explained that the Iraqis "have stated many times to us that they have decided at the higher political levels to stop these activities. This we have verified."

But it eventually became clear that Iraq had concealed evidence of its continuing nuclear bomb program. In 1995, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Gen. Hussein Kamel, fled to Jordan and revealed that he had led a "crash program" just before the Gulf War to build a crude nuclear weapon out of IAEA-safeguarded, civilian nuclear fuel, as well as a program after the war to refine the design of nuclear warheads to fit Scud missiles. Iraqi officials insisted that Kamel's work was unauthorized and led IAEA officials to a large cache of documents at Kamel's farm that, they said, proved Kamel had directed the projects without their knowledge.

But the Kamel revelations refuted an IAEA claim, made by then-Director General Hans Blix in 1993, that "the Iraqis never touched the nuclear highly enriched uranium which was under our safeguards." In fact, they had cut the ends off of some fuel rods and were preparing to remove the material from French- and Russian-supplied research reactors for use in weapons when the allied bombing campaign interrupted the project. The IAEA accepted a technically flawed claim by Iraqi officials that the bomb project would have been delayed by the need to further enrich the bomb-grade fuel for use in weapons, but defector Hamza later made clear that Iraq could have made direct use of the material in a bomb within a few months.

Although there is evidence that Iraq manufactured and tested nuclear weapon components, including the high-explosive "lenses" needed to trigger a nuclear explosion, none of these components or evidence of their destruction have been surrendered to IAEA inspectors. Iraq also has refused IAEA requests for its bomb design and scale model, as well as for details of its overseas nuclear procurement and cooperation activities.

Meanwhile, Iraq's nuclear team of more than 200 PhDs remains on hand. The IAEA acknowledged to the U.N. Security Council that these scientists are not closely monitored and are increasingly difficult to track as they are supposedly being transferred back to the "private sector."

The ominous implications of missing components and surplus scientists were exposed by Scott Ritter, who resigned in August as head of UNSCOM's Concealment Investigation Unit. Ritter said, in testimony to Congress, that UNSCOM "had received sensitive information of some credibility, which indicated that Iraq had the components to assemble three implosion-type [nuclear] devices, minus the fissile material." If Iraq procured a small amount of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, he testified, it could have operable nuclear weapons in a matter of "days or weeks."

Ritter later said this intelligence was provided by a "northern European" government based on information from three Iraqi defectors, one of whom was privy to high-level discussions at Saddam Hussein's "Special Security Organization"--his elite bodyguard unit whose role had been secretly expanded to protect his weapons of mass destruction. Ritter considered the information solid because it corresponded with details--which he had obtained from other sources--of how this unit was trucking missile and other weapon components from one depot to another. Ritter was able to use aerial photographs to pinpoint the locations of five of seven buildings from rough outlines of the structures drawn by a defector.

The IAEA promptly disputed the validity of Ritter's information. IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei reported to the U.N. Security Council on Oct. 13 that "all available, credible information. . . provides no indication that Iraq has assembled nuclear weapons with or without fissile cores," adding that "Iraq's known nuclear weapons related assets have been destroyed, removed or rendered harmless."

State Department and White House officials--as well as Richard Butler, who succeeded Ekeus as Ritter's boss--joined the IAEA in denying ever receiving any information from Ritter about Iraqi concealment of nuclear-weapon components. U.S. officials were already furious with Ritter for accusing Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright of pulling the rug out from under UNSCOM's plan to confront Iraq with surprise inspections of certain facilities, including the suspected weapons depots. They belatedly acknowledged having received the information from Ritter, deeming it plausible but uncorroborated.

Butler, who personally admired Ritter, nonetheless could not acknowledge that UNSCOM had withheld much of Ritter's information from the IAEA out of concern that it might be leaked to the Iraqis. And Butler also felt the need to protect the lives of UNSCOM's intelligence sources.

Given Ritter's reputation as a hard-nosed intelligence analyst who does not stretch the truth, his information about Iraqi concealment of nuclear-weapons components should be taken seriously by the IAEA. The threat of an Iraqi nuclear breakout remains real. The prudent assumption for the IAEA should be that Iraq's nuclear program continues, and that the Iraqis may now lack only the fissile material. Even the possibility that Iraq has already procured this material cannot be ruled out because of serious nuclear-security lapses in the former Soviet Union and the abundance of such material in inadequately safeguarded civilian nuclear programs worldwide. There is also a nagging worry that Iraq is concealing a small centrifuge plant for enriching uranium.

The Security Council should ask the IAEA for a complete inventory of all nuclear-bomb components, designs and models for which there is documentation or intelligence but which the agency cannot account for. This has been UNSCOM's approach, but the IAEA seems to place an almost naive confidence in an absence of evidence contradicting unsubstantiated Iraqi claims. The burden of proof should be on Iraq, not on the inspectors.

ElBaradei should retract his Oct. 13 findings, including his remarkable suggestion that although unanswered questions remain, none are significant enough to preclude closing the nuclear file and shifting from investigative inspections to less intrusive monitoring and verification. Unless the IAEA is prepared to admit its limitations and redouble its efforts to locate nuclear-bomb components and other evidence of nuclear weapons activities, it should be taken off the nuclear case. Finding bombs is more important than protecting turf. UNSCOM should be given the job if the IAEA cannot do it.

Paul Leventhal is president of the Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington-based non-proliferation research and advocacy center. Steven Dolley is the institute's research director.

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