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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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.
back to top