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The Iraqi Bomb
THE IRAQI BOMB
Because the International Atomic Energy Agency is ineffectual,
Saddam Hussein will continue to outwit U.N. inspectors.

by Gary Milhollin

The New Yorker
February 1, 1993, p. 47.

Last week, as the United States and its coalition partners sent cruise missiles crashing into a nuclear site near Baghdad, the message to Saddam Hussein was clear: Don't interfere with international inspectors—let them look anywhere, any time, and at anything, in accordance with the United Nations resolutions. The allies know that Saddam is still hiding part of his atom-bomb program, and they're eager for the inspectors to find it. What the allies did not say is that, even though Saddam has now allowed the U.N. nuclear inspectors back in, they probably won't find what he is hiding. They are being thwarted by their own management as well as by Saddam Hussein.

The inspection trips are a constant test of nerves. The inspectors usually stay at the Sheraton Ishtar Hotel, in Baghdad. "It is unlike any other Sheraton in the world," one of them told me. "The most gruesome thing is the dove. It's on a poster in the lobby, stretched out on a cross—crucified—with blood dripping down. And on the top of the cross is written 'U.N.'" This inspector is discouraged, and so are many others. For almost a year, they have found practically nothing new. The Iraqis are outfoxing them at every turn, harassing them, and making it more and more likely that Saddam Hussein will wriggle out from under the current embargo with large parts of his A-bomb effort intact. In fact, some inspectors believe that if Saddam escapes the embargo soon, he could get the bomb within five to seven years.

The best chance to deter him has already been lost. When the inspections began, in May of 1991, the Iraqis were still reeling from the Gulf War and were not able to deceive the inspectors. In June, the inspectors flushed out a convoy of trucks carrying A-bomb-making equipment, and in September they found trunkfuls of classified nuclear documents in Baghdad office buildings—apparently left there by mistake. These finds produced invaluable leads, which, if they had been followed aggressively, might have unveiled the essentials of the Iraqi nuclear program. The opportunity was lost, many inspectors believe, because of the timidity of the International Atomic Energy Agency, an arm of the U.N. based in Vienna. The I.A.E.A. was created in 1956 with two conflicting goals: to encourage the proliferation of atomic energy and, at the same time, to insure that the civilian nuclear projects it spawned did not make atomic bombs. After the Gulf War, the Security Council created a Special Commission to uncover the Iraqi missile, nuclear, and chemical-and-biological weapon programs, but left control of the nuclear inspections in the hands of the I.A.E.A. The Special Commission and the I.A.E.A. immediately began to feud.

It is the Special Commission that gets intelligence about Iraq from the United States and other governments; it then designates sites for the I.A.E.A. to inspect, and it controls the inspection budget. The Special Commission also persuades friendly governments to supply technical experts, who are used to augment I.A.E.A. inspection teams. But the I.A.E.A. runs the inspections in the field, and it tends to rely on Iraqi disclosures, as it does in its civilian inspections. It also hoards any information it finds. The Special Commission does have inspectors of its own—on loan from friendly governments—but when they go to Iraq they are under the I.A.E.A.'s thumb.

The agency's timid managers, several inspectors say, gave the Iraqis the crucial time they needed to spin a web of deception—a web now too dense for the inspectors to penetrate. Representative Henry B. Gonzalez, the most prominent congressional investigator of U.S. exports to Iraq, told me that he is critical of "the ineffective manner in which the agency has addressed Iraq's secret network of Western suppliers," and he added, "The whole effort to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons depends on making the I.A.E.A. much more effective than it has been to date." Most of the inspectors I've spoken with—all of whom insist on anonymity—despair of finding anything more in Iraq as long as the I.A.E.A. remains in charge.

Here is how one inspector describes a team's arrival in Iraq: "You fly in from Bahrain on a C-160 Transall, operated by the German Air Force—the Luftwaffe. You sit on canvas seats made for paratroopers, and it gets cold. You take everything in with you—food, water, money, equipment, even tires. You need the tires to replace the slashed tires on U.N. vehicles. You land at Habaniya, an airport about sixty miles from Baghdad. The first thing you see is a dilapidated bus, in the green-and-white colors of Iraqi Airways. It's low-slung, belching, and stinking. It takes you to the operations center, where you get your visa stamp. Then you load your bags on another bus, which takes you to Baghdad. On this bus you meet your 'minders.' These are the Iraqis who will be your hosts. They're always with you, wherever you go. You assume the bus is bugged.

"At the hotel, everything is dimly lit—the lobby, the restaurant, the hallways, the rooms. Deliberately. The hotel is also bugged. In the lobby, there is an enormous portrait of Saddam, looking down on everything. There is also the poster of the dove. This is when you first notice the security guys. They're not the same as the minders. They stand around the lobby and watch everybody. Most of them wear dark jackets. They are also in the hallways upstairs. At about seven in the evening, you have the first team meeting, in a conference room off the lobby. The whole team usually has one or two dozen inspectors. Some are from the I.A.E.A. and some are from the U.N., but most are technical experts lent by friendly governments. The chief inspector breaks the team up into subgroups, and each group has a different mission. After the team meeting, you meet the Iraqis—or their representatives. These are your counterparts—the technical guys who are the experts. They ask you where you're going. They want to know, because they're going with you. They provide your security and arrange your visits. You tell them about the routine inspections—the ones where you go back to sites you've already been to—but you don't tell them about the surprise inspections, where you go to new sites. You save these until the next morning, at the last minute."

The I.A.E.A. chief inspector for Iraq is Maurizio Zifferero, a sixty-two-year-old nuclear chemist from Italy who is a specialist in plutonium processing. He was asked to join the I.A.E.A. in 1980 as a deputy director-general—a high post for which he needed his government's backing. Several U.N. inspectors condemn his conduct of the entire inspection operation and cite a string of incidents involving him which, they claim, have enabled the Iraqis to stay ahead of the game. Last week, I gave him an opportunity to comment on these incidents in a telephone conversation with him at I.A.E.A. headquarters in Vienna.

Two U.N. inspectors who were present at secret pre-inspection discussions last February in Baghdad say that they believe the Iraqis were alerted to several surprise inspections because Zifferero discussed them in areas the Iraqis had bugged. The result, a United States official says, was that on one "surprise" inspection, the Iraqis were waiting for the inspectors with coffee and doughnuts. Rejecting this charge of careless talk, Zifferero told me, "I assume that everything is bugged in the hotel, and I never mention sites in meetings." The inspectors insist that it happened, and that United States intelligence and several inspectors warned Zifferero beforehand that the areas were bugged.

The same U.N. inspectors say that Zifferero has been lax about the security of documents. Inspection-team members are supposed to keep their backpacks with them at all times, but they say they saw Zifferero relaxing in the hotel without his backpack, which at the time contained line drawings of Iraqi nuclear sites based on recent American intelligence photographs. Again, Zifferero disputes the charge. He told me he always wears his backpack and always keeps his documents in it. (The seriousness of the Iraqi effort to find out what the inspectors know manifests itself outside the country. In New York, Marjatta Rautio, Finland's representative to the Special Commission, got a shock in her hotel room when she emerged from the bathroom to find a man who had been let in by the bellboy going through her wastebasket. The U.N. inspectors assume he was an Iraqi agent.)

The anxieties about Zifferero's performance go beyond concern over his carelessness. He is also charged with "spoiling" fresh intelligence. A few months ago, documents seized in Iraq revealed that the Iraqis had been doing secret research on plutonium metal. Some thirteen pounds of this substance destroyed Nagasaki in 1945. Although plutonium can fuel nuclear reactors, there is no real use for plutonium metal other than in atomic bombs, so the fact that the Iraqis were working on it proved their dedication to bomb-making. It was assumed that Zifferero, as the I.A.E.A.'s chief inspector, would use the tip as a lead and do additional research. That might have produced enough detail to force the Iraqis to reveal more leads, or might have brought about a surprise inspection. Instead, to the dismay of his colleagues, Zifferero merely took the information to the Iraqis and asked for an explanation. They coolly replied that they were planning to study neutrons. This was not credible technically, but Zifferero simply quoted the Iraqi reply, without comment, in his December 10th inspection report, which did not even note that Iraq was experimenting with bomb material. Last week, Zifferero told me that the I.A.E.A. didn't consider the matter closed, and might pursue it further.

Zifferero's behavior has not escaped the eye of the United States Congress. Senate Intelligence Committee staff members have specifically requested information about Zifferero from the C.I.A. The committee should have been told, among other things, that in the mid- nineteen-seventies Zifferero, who was then working for the Italian Atomic Energy Commission, went to Baghdad to, as he put it to me last week, help "negotiate a bilateral agreement" for Italy to sell plutonium-production equipment to Iraq. The equipment was essential to Iraq's plan for the bomb, and would complement a reactor that France was preparing to build there: the Italian equipment would extract plutonium after the French reactor irradiated uranium. Other Italian equipment, also part of the deal, would fabricate uranium into reactor fuel rods suitable for irradiation. Iraq had bought a complete plutonium production line.

"We raised hell about the Italian deal," a senior American official who opposed it at the time told me. Zifferero says that in 1976 he visited an Iraqi radiochemistry lab to help Iraq determine whether it could do "fuel-cycle research"—plutonium research—in its existing facilities. He says that he never went back to Iraq—and never visited the facilities that were using the Italian equipment—until he was sent by the I.A.E.A. after the Gulf War.

The Israelis, who were not fooled by Iraqi promises of peaceful use, destroyed the French reactor with precision bombing in 1981. But the Italian equipment survived. In fact, it lived on to become the hottest topic of conversation during the I.A.E.A.'s fourth inspection, which began in late July of 1991. Before a shocked group of inspectors, a senior Iraqi official calmly revealed that Iraq had used the Italian equipment to extract plutonium in violation of Iraqi promises to the I.A.E.A.

This was a watershed for the I.A.E.A. It was the first time in history that a country was known to have broken its pledge to report all work with plutonium to agency inspectors. Thus the very equipment that Zifferero helped supply was used to break the promise that he is now responsible for enforcing. To make matters worse, the Iraqi official was himself a former I.A.E.A. inspector. He told his outraged ex-colleagues that his I.A.E.A. experience had made it easier to dupe them. "He really rubbed their noses in it," said David Kay, a former inspector and I.A.E.A. employee, who has led several inspections in Iraq, and was present at the meeting.

The Italian equipment was not all that survived the 1981 attack. The U.N. inspectors believe that Israel's bombs also missed the French reactor's control panels, instrumentation system, and computers. These are vital components, and the Iraqis would have a hard time replacing them if they decided to build a second reactor. Some U.N. inspectors think they have tried to build a new, underground reactor; otherwise, the plutonium research makes no sense. The inspectors have searched for this reactor with no success.

The French components were yet another lead that was not followed up. The components are on an I.A.E.A. list of sensitive nuclear items that the inspectors know the Iraqis have, and which the Iraqis are required to account for, but when Zifferero asked where the components were, the Iraqis refused to produce them (while admitting that they existed). Zifferero accepted this refusal without challenge. Last week, when I pressed Zifferero about the components, he said, "This is a lead that will be followed up soon. It may have been an oversight not to follow it up earlier."

Senate Intelligence Committee staff members are still puzzled about Zifferero. The committee asked the C.I.A. months ago about his background, but still has no answer. Some senior officials at the Pentagon say they have been complaining about Zifferero for months, but they say the State Department has done nothing to have him removed. Our government is divided on this issue. Officials in at least one other major Western government also have doubts about him. According to a well-placed official, its intelligence analysts find his behavior inexplicable.

An inspector described to me a typical day in the field: "The loudspeakers in the mosques come on at 5 A.M. with the first call to prayer, so you don't need an alarm. You assemble in the lobby by seven. If you are driving, you go in a bus or a van, usually a blue-and-white Toyota. All the vehicles are Toyotas, usually with broken windows. Behind you is a U.N. vehicle driven by a U.N. medic or radio operator. It's loaded with water, communication equipment, medical kits, and food. The Iraqis provide all the other vehicles, including the one you ride in, and the drivers. In front, there's an Iraqi police car—an Olds Cutlass Ciera, with a blue light on top. If you get caught in traffic, the Iraqi police stick their arms out the windows and wave their guns. Then everybody gets out of the way."

The teams always take along a portable IMARSAT—International Marine Satellite dish. The size of a big suitcase, it beams its signal up to an IMARSAT over the Indian Ocean, enabling team members to talk to the U.N. in New York. If a team is going to a new site, its leader shouldn't tell the Iraqis where until the team actually gets in the car. Then the Iraqis radio ahead. This usually gives the site a half hour to an hour's notice. And, of course, the Iraqis can drive slowly. The site is usually protected by a high fence and anti-aircraft guns. Team members go first to the headquarters building to meet the director-general in his office. In many of the factories, there is a model of the site after it was bombed, showing every piece of damage in detail. Next to it is a model of the new site—rebuilt to the highest standards. (As they approached one site, team members saw huge piles of debris that the Iraqis had bulldozed to clear the way for a new building. The Iraqis told the team that they had taken all the machines out of the site to escape the bombing. They hid them between people's houses, and after the war they moved them into the new building.)

The team leader will ask the director-general for a history of the plant, whether it made any nuclear equipment, and other questions. The Iraqis always deny everything. The interview takes twenty or thirty minutes. Then the team tours the plant, looking for proscribed activities and for equipment on Annex 3—the list of items that Iraq is not allowed to possess under U.N. resolutions. It also looks at the plant's potential for going back into weapons production. Team members can take notes, or samples, or photographs.

The inspector says, "Normally, you don't find anything. After two or three hours, you eat lunch. Usually it's American M.R.E.s—meals ready to eat—and bottled water. Then you go to the next site. By the end of the day, you're tired, because it's hot and you've walked so much. Everybody is also demoralized, because you haven't found anything. You do this every day for about ten days"—the usual duration of a team's tour. "Back at the hotel, you have the team meeting, which is a debriefing. The subgroups report on what they did, but you can't be very specific, because the room is bugged. Then you shower, eat dinner, and go to bed."

Before the war, I.A.E.A. inspectors had visited Iraqi nuclear sites twice a year for a decade. Their job was to verify that Iraq was keeping its promise not to make an atomic bomb. As late as 1990, they rated Iraqi cooperation as "exemplary." But all that time Saddam was running a vast A-bomb program under their very noses. The inspectors spent their time at a huge complex called Al Tuwaitha, where they visited only the buildings that Saddam designated; they never looked at what was going on next door. If they had, they would have found laboratories busily engaged in research on both plutonium and uranium for atomic bombs. In the words of an American official, "the I.A.E.A. missed the Iraqi bomb before the war, and now it's missing it again."

One U.N. inspector accuses the agency of "playing information games." The process of gathering information about Iraqi activities is fairly complex. The Iraqis are watched by satellites, by U-2 spy planes, and by U.N. helicopters flying out of Baghdad. They are also being informed on by a number of defectors. Most of this intelligence pours in to the C.I.A., which sifts it and prepares a package of promising sites to visit. The package then goes to both the State Department and the Pentagon, which together decide what sites to propose to the Special Commission. The British, French, German, and Russian intelligence agencies do the same. The Commission weighs all this advice and decides where to strike next.

The process has worked well for missile and chemical-and-biological inspections, but it hasn't worked for nuclear inspections. When the missile inspectors, who work independently of the I.A.E.A., find something—a rocket engine diagram, say—they immediately inform the governments that provided the leads. The governments then funnel the data back to their missile experts, who evaluate it and provide more leads. The Special Commission's missile inspectors thus get the benefit of concerted expert analysis, which they could never provide themselves. Each inspection builds on the previous one.

The I.A.E.A. doesn't work that way. It deems the results of its inspections confidential, and puts only a fraction of what it knows in its written reports; it gives data to the Special Commission only upon specific request. The Special Commission's inspectors complain that they don't know what to ask for, because they don't know what the agency has. Nor does the agency generally report its findings back to the governments that have supplied its intelligence leads. The result is a gap in the information loop, isolating the nuclear inspectors from competent intelligence work. The agency has no expertise in nuclear weapons, because since its inception it has inspected only civilian nuclear plants. Most of its employees are from countries without nuclear weapons, and they lack security clearances. "Your typical I.A.E.A. inspector wouldn't know a nuclear-weapon part if it fell on him," says one American bomb expert who was an inspector in Iraq. The agency has no photo interpreters—essential for understanding data from satellites. Its few available analysts cannot possibly match the power of the American, Russian, British, and French nuclear-weapon laboratories. (Incidentally, the I.A.E.A.'s practice of including as many nationalities as possible on the inspection teams allows inspectors from countries without nuclear weapons to learn in Iraq what machines are needed to build them, where to get the machines, and how to avoid detection.)

Only two of a total of sixteen nuclear inspections in Iraq have produced major intelligence leads, and in both the inspectors had to violate I.A.E.A. policies to get them. Late in June of 1991, at the beginning of the second inspection, the inspectors were giving the Iraqis between six and twelve hours' notice before each site visit. This was the rule laid down by I.A.E.A. headquarters in Vienna. The Iraqis understood the rule far too well; they were moving equipment from one site to another during the notice period. In June, as American satellites watched, the Iraqis went to hiding places in the desert, dug up giant machines for processing uranium, loaded them on trucks, and drove them to a site called Abu Gharib, to which the inspectors had been denied entry. Then the satellites saw the trucks move the equipment from Abu Gharib to a second site, at Al Fallujah.

David Kay, the American who led the team, says that he got this information in Iraq at about 3 A.M. He then called together six inspectors "for a long walk in Baghdad," during which they could talk without being bugged. They agreed to do a zero-notice inspection at Al Fallujah that morning, despite the policy of giving six to twelve hours' notice. Kay told the Iraqis that he was going "in the direction of" a site the team had already toured—a site that happened to be on the road to Al Fallujah. Kay managed to get his vehicle in front of the column and went right by the first site. The Iraqis "went crazy," Kay says. "They turned on red lights, pulled us over, and argued with us, but we got to Fallujah anyway." There they were denied entry, but they managed to photograph trucks leaving through another gate, while the Iraqis fired bullets over their heads.

The moment was dramatic: the inspectors had the first clear proof that Saddam was trying to make a bomb. The equipment included huge seventeen foot magnets, weighing more than fifty tons, which could be used only for enriching uranium—raising it from its natural state to nuclear-weapon grade. Kay saw it as a vindication of the team. "We all pulled together and it worked," he said. "Even though we had to break I.A.E.A. rules to do it."

The I.A.E.A. then sprang into action. It and the Special Commission rushed to Iraq a high-level delegation that included Mohamed El Baradei, an Egyptian on the I.A.E.A legal staff. The delegation found the Iraqis arguing lamely that the equipment had nothing to do with uranium enrichment. El Baradei, fresh on the scene, embodied the tradition of the I.A.E.A. Before an incredulous group of inspectors, he declared, as Kay recalls it, "The Iraqis do not have a uranium-enrichment program. I know so, because they are my friends and they have told me that they don't."

El Baradei was wrong, of course. But he was following the line laid down by his I.A.E.A. superiors. If they had had their way, Kay's inspection might never have occurred. After the first inspection, in May, Iraq had accounted for all the imported nuclear material it had previously informed the I.A.E.A. about, which balanced the agency's accounts.

"The I.A.E.A. was lucky," a former inspector who was on the first team says. Kay and this inspector say that Zifferero and his boss, Hans Blix, the director-general of the I.A.E.A., wanted to put out a report at the end of May concluding that everything was fine. But a minority of inspectors, mostly Americans, wouldn't go along. They couldn't understand why the Iraqis had left some of the bombed buildings untouched while razing others, even tearing out foundations as far as several metres down. The Americans thought that the Iraqis might be concealing nuclear-weapon work, and they wanted the report to say so. "It all looked very suspicious," the inspector said. "But the I.A.E.A. wasn't interested. It wanted to pasteurize our language and put the report out anyway." The I.A.E.A. was saved from humiliation by a defector, who turned up just before the report was to be released and told Western intelligence about the equipment. A few weeks later, Kay succeeded in finding and photographing it.

Kay also led the only other team that produced major intelligence leads. After arriving in Baghdad late in the afternoon on September 22, 1991, the team set out early the next morning. Kay pointed toward the Al Rashid Hotel, and told the Iraqis simply to "drive that way." By 6 A.M., the team was searching a nine-story building in Baghdad from the top down. It turned out to be where the Iraqis were designing facilities for their first atomic bomb. When they reached the basement, a few hours later, the team found trunkfuls of classified documents from the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission.

This discovery sparked an intense confrontation. The Iraqis kept the team in the parking lot until 7 P.M., confiscated the documents until 2 A.M. the next day, and then gave only some of them back. What the Iraqis didn't know was that the inspectors had spirited out two reports marked "Top Secret." These crucial papers contained the bomb design. The design was crude but workable, and would have produced a weapon with nearly twice the power of the Hiroshima bomb.

Early on the morning of September 24th, Kay's team began a search of two other buildings, using the same tactics. These buildings turned out to be the headquarters of the entire Iraqi A-bomb program, code-named Petrochemical 3. The team turned up personnel lists and procurement records, and four hours later there was another confrontation. The Iraqis demanded that the team surrender its records, its photographs, and its videotapes. When the inspectors refused, the Iraqis held them at the site. This was the celebrated "parking lot incident"—a four-day standoff in the scorching Baghdad heat. The team lived near its immobilized bus until the Iraqis finally backed down.

Eventually, the team hauled out pay records, computer files, and more than sixty thousand pages of documents, including the two top-secret reports on bomb design. The reports were a gold mine of intelligence nuggets: they revealed numerous aspects of Saddam's bomb-manufacturing effort and still constitute the primary evidence of how close he was to the bomb when the war broke out.

The aggressive tactics required for this breakthrough did not please the I.A.E.A. Zifferero, who was not in Iraq at the time of that inspection, later told an inspector who was there that the episode was "one of the worst things that ever happened." And, according to Kay, Hans Blix reacted by saying that Kay was not going to be assigned to any more inspections in Iraq. Kay then resigned from the agency. He and another American inspector who was in the parking-lot standoff maintain that "everybody associated with the parking-lot incident became persona non grata" at the I.A.E.A. As for the sixty thousand pages of documents, only about fifteen per cent of them have been translated from the Arabic, although summaries of most documents have been completed. The titles alone show that the documents are rich in procurement data and other leads. The I.A.E.A. has farmed most of them out to coalition governments for translation, but none has committed the resources to do the job effectively. Thus, the inspectors are like treasure hunters who can read only scraps of a map.

Acting on an intelligence tip from a United States ally, Zifferero finally had a chance to lead his own team into the Petrochemical 3 headquarters last December. The team was an unusual combination. It had Special Commission inspectors from New York, who were looking for missile and chemical-and-biological-weapons documents, and I.A.E.A. inspectors who suspected the Iraqis of having moved nuclear documents back into the building. On this particular trip, I'm told, Zifferero appeared to observe security precautions more closely. Nevertheless, the difference in methods and attitudes between the I.A.E.A. and the Special Commission was striking.

When Zifferero gave the order to begin, the Special Commission's "document exploitation team" fanned out quickly to surround and occupy the building. Zifferero, however, had no experience with rapid engagement. "As team leader, he had to be ready to order teams to go here, go there—immediately—and to order Iraqi escorts to go with them," a missile inspector later said. "But he was totally unable to do that—he couldn't keep up."

The result was a breakdown in command and control. The Special Commission and I.A.E.A. inspectors started to debate procedures in front of the Iraqis, and the Iraqis themselves began to move documents. One threw a bundle out a window, and another picked it up and ran with it to a city bus. A Special Commission inspector dashed in front of the bus to stop it, but had to leap out of the way to avoid being run over. (The Iraqis later returned what they said were the documents.) In this instance, the I.A.E.A. procedures were probably harmless, because Petrochemical 3 had been turned into a fundamentalist seminary with low security, making it an unlikely hiding place for sensitive information. The intelligence tip from the allied government was probably a dud.

To put the blame on Zifferero or Hans Blix for the I.A.E.A.'s attitude and its unwillingness to run intrusive inspections is to miss the point. Many inspectors don't see Zifferero as a villain. They say that he is simply the wrong man for the job. One inspector sums it up this way: "Zifferero has poor organizational skills in the field, and he is out of his element when it comes to getting things done if the opposition doesn't want you to." Other inspectors agree that he doesn't have the temperament for confrontation. The fundamental problem is the I.A.E.A. itself. "The agency's charter didn't have in mind the amplitude of inspections called for by the U.N. resolutions" on Iraq, says Gerard C. Smith, who was Ambassador at Large for Non-proliferation Matters in the Carter Administration and represented the United States on the I.A.E.A.'s board of governors. The agency was established in the glory days of nuclear power, when people thought that electricity from the atom would be "too cheap to meter." It was given the job of spreading nuclear technology to developing countries, mostly by promoting exports from advanced countries. At the same time, it was supposed to inspect the exports to make sure they weren't used to make atomic bombs. The conflict of interest is obvious: if the agency catches somebody making bombs, it means that the nuclear exports were too dangerous to have been sold in the first place, and should not have been promoted.

Iraq is the perfect example. The I.A.E.A. gave Saddam a clean bill of nuclear health for a decade before the invasion of Kuwait. Why would the agency now want to find even more evidence of how badly it was duped? "It's against the I.A.E.A.'s culture to find anything," says an American expert who was on one of the early inspection teams. Only this "culture" can explain Zifferero's statements to the press. Just a year ago, in February, he told Reuters that "practically the largest part of Iraq's nuclear program has now been identified—probably what is missing is just details." He made this statement after his team's tenth inspection trip--the one during which he is said to have discussed surprise-inspection sites in the bugged hotel.

On September 2nd, Zifferero told Reuters that Iraq's nuclear program "is at zero now," and that the Iraqis "have stated many times to us that they have decided at the higher political level to stop these activities." He also made the spectacularly improbable statement "This we have verified." Even the I.A.E.A. had to disavow that, it put out a statement the next day blaming the press for giving "a misleading impression of his understanding of the situation," and saying that it is "too early to conclude" that Iraq's entire nuclear program had been uncovered. Zifferero, undeterred, reiterated the same day that "there is no possibility of a substantial organized [nuclear] program going on in Iraq now." And, for good measure, he said a few days later, "I don't believe in the existence of an underground reactor."

When I asked Zifferero about these statements last week, he insisted, "The Iraqi program is now dormant. Iraq has other priorities, and now has no labs in which to continue the program."

Zifferero stated in his latest report that the inspection team "was not harassed." If that was the case, it was unique. On most trips, the inspectors tell me, the harassment is unrelenting. "The Iraqis start calling about 1 A.M., one of them said. "They threaten you or they just dial to wake you up. You also get notes under the door." The Special Commission inspectors say the notes are often death threats. Some of the German members got notes saying that what the United States did to Iraq during Desert Storm was the same as what the United States did to Germany during the Second World War, so the Germans shouldn't cooperate with the "American" inspections.

Another inspector says, "They also come into your room, whether you're there or not. You have to put everything valuable in your backpack, and you have to assume that if you don't sleep with it tied to you, you'll lose it. This creates a lot of tension and makes it hard to sleep." Team members are also harassed in restaurants, another inspector adds. "Somebody will stop at your table, pick up your plate, and dump your food in your lap. This is always a young, well-dressed, physically fit Iraqi male."

On two occasions, while groups of inspectors were standing in the hotel atrium, someone threw a light bulb down on them from three stories up. It terrified everybody, because when it hit the floor it sounded like a rifle shot. A Special Commission inspector says, "They even came up to one of our people in the street and threw diesel fuel on him." Another inspector tells me that "after two weeks of this, you're exhausted. Nobody is sad on the trip back to the airport. When the plane takes off, everybody applauds."

The Special Commission flatly rejects Zifferero's rosy picture of Iraq's nuclear status. In its reports to the Security Council, the Commission accuses the Iraqis of "non-cooperation, concealment and sometimes false information" in all areas that are being inspected, and goes as far as to say that they have "actively falsified the evidence." The Special Commission's inspectors still want to find (1) parts of the giant machines that the Iraqis used to raise uranium to nuclear-weapon grade, to learn how much progress they made; (2) the identities of Iraqi nuclear personnel, to learn what those people are doing; (3) records of test explosions, to learn the status of the Iraqi bomb design; (4) other records of the nuclear weapon program, to learn whether all its components have been discovered; (5) Iraq's foreign sources of technical advice, to cut them off; and (6) Iraq's network of foreign equipment suppliers, to make sure that the network does not revive as soon as the embargo is lifted.

These inspectors also fear that Saddam may be hiding experimental centrifuges used to raise uranium to weapon grade, and an underground reactor that could secretly make plutonium for bombs. They are not likely to find any of these things under the aegis of the I.A.E.A. Zifferero's press statements alone have undermined his credibility. Can he plausibly search for something that he says doesn't exist? The solution to the problem, these inspectors argue, is to transfer authority for the nuclear inspections to the Special Commission, which would require a U.N. resolution. The I.A.E.A. knows how to do only one thing: visit declared sites. In civilian inspections, a country tells the agency what it is doing and invites it in, and then the agency inspects only agreed-upon items at agreed-upon sites. It closes its eyes to anything else. And, worse, it usually doesn't reveal what it finds. But no bomb-builder ever admits what he is doing, let alone where he is doing it. And Saddam Hussein is certainly no exception. (However, some United States government analysts think that Saddam is likely to make a spectacular offer soon to President Clinton. It will probably contain a dramatic revelation about one or more of the weapon programs and will probably include information—and disinformation—about Western companies that provided crucial help. Saddam's goal will be to drive a wedge into the Gulf War coalition by convincing some of its members that he has finally come clean, and that the embargo should be lifted.)

There are still two big jobs to do in Iraq: find the rest of Saddam's bomb program and prevent him from gaining control of resources already found and reconverting them to bomb-making. To accomplish the first task, the inspectors need to change tactics. "We have diplomats when we should have detectives," a knowledgeable American official says. "This is a shell game, and you have to stop the other guy from moving the shells." The inspectors are reluctant to go into government ministries, universities, and private homes, but that is their best chance of finding the nuclear-bomb program. United States intelligence is convinced that the program is on computer data bases. Only a data base could keep track of the design, manufacturing, testing, and procurement data essential to continuity. The computers are believed to be at universities or in the homes of key members of the nuclear program. "We think that if the inspectors went into these places they would find some important stuff," says an informed United States official.

The United States government has also proposed that the Special Commission adopt an "area strategy," in which the Commission would pick an area and search every building and every cave before moving on to the next area. "There are only a few places where Iraq has the people, communications, and infrastructure to continue to run the program," an American official says, "so you can designate the areas." The goal is to freeze Saddam's shells in place so that any moves by the Iraqis could be detected.

This strategy would require more inspectors. The United States proposes that a score or more move into Iraq permanently. The plan is that they would work in prefabricated, bug-free quarters flown in from America, enabling them to talk to New York without Iraqi ears bent over their telephones. When new intelligence develops, they could strike quickly, hitting two or three areas at a time, thus overwhelming Saddam's disinformation specialists.

The United States proposal was submitted to Rolf Ekeus, of Sweden, the head of the Special Commission. Ekeus has been a tenacious leader of the Special Commission inspectors, but, with the exception of the proposal for secure, prefab quarters, he has rejected the American plan, out of concern that the U.N. might lose control of the inspections in the field. The inspectors would be mostly British and American, and he fears that once they began to generate hot intelligence leads, which would be analyzed in London and Washington, the U.N. could be pushed out of the information loop. He also points out that Saddam would have more ammunition for his charge that the inspections are really an Anglo-Saxon operation.

It may be that Ekeus can no longer afford these qualms. The information tug-of-war between the C.I.A. and the I.A.E.A. has reached a deadlock. As David Kay describes it, "The I.A.E.A. is saying, 'Tell us where to go,' and the C.I.A. is saying, 'Do something to get something moving, so we can see it.'" The C.I.A. has the better argument: some action is needed to flush Saddam's nuclear covey from its hiding place.

The other big job in Iraq is to guard what has been found. By mid-November, the I.A.E.A. had compiled a list of six hundred and ninety pieces of sensitive equipment, of which eighty-four have direct nuclear-weapon applications. Virtually all the equipment was imported, and most of it is "dual use"—capable of making either civilian products or weapons of mass destruction. The U.N. must decide whether to destroy it, monitor it, or release it to the Iraqis.

The United States wants the inspectors to destroy any item that was either used to make nuclear weapons or intended for such use. The I.A.E.A. doesn't want to go along with that proposal. It argues that Iraq would still have many machines – some still in their crates—equivalent to the ones destroyed, and therefore destruction would not really derail the Iraqi bomb program but would only be punitive. The I.A.E.A. would rather let the Iraqis use the machines under its monitoring.

But Iraq smuggled many of those machines out of Western countries illegally, and it falsely promised to confine others to peaceful use. For example, in the late nineteen-eighties, the Iraqi government secretly took over a British machine-tool maker called Matrix Churchill, which apparently lied to British customs about the uses to which its exports would be put in Iraq. According to a U.N. report, Matrix Churchill supplied thirty-three machines with nuclear-weapon potential. Matrix Churchill also sold Iraq nineteen additional machines, which were found in damaged condition. Letting Iraq keep these machines rewards Iraqi fraud.

If the inspectors were allowed to destroy any sensitive equipment not bought honestly, they would catch most of the machines now in dispute. Iraq is already supposed to disclose its supplier network, to comply with U.N. resolutions. But that network is one of its most important secrets. If Iraq won't say where it got the machines, the inspectors should assume that it got them dishonestly. To leave the machines in Iraqi hands, one inspector says, would be folly, for "Iraq already has the people and the know-how, and it will still have the dual-use equipment, so if the world gets tired of monitoring, Iraq is back in business."

Without new leadership and protection, the inspection effort will die by demoralization. The stakes are enormous. An American A-bomb expert who served on one of the inspection teams says that if Saddam had not invaded Kuwait, "he could have had a first crude device by now, deliverable with great accuracy in a Ryder truck." There is no evidence that any of Saddam's nuclear scientists have been laid off, and unless the inspectors find the rest of his nuclear program and neutralize it, the world will face the same uncertainty about the Iraqi bomb in 1993 that it faced before the war.

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