Loose Iraqi Scientists Are New Danger
Mahdi Obeidi, who was Saddam Hussein's top nuclear scientist, is author with Kurt Pitzer of The Bomb in My Garden: The Secrets of Saddam's Nuclear Mastermind. Obeidi was brought to the United States in the summer of 2003 by the CIA after admitting he had hidden nuclear plans and components at his home. He spoke with NPQ from an undisclosed location.
NPQ | Rolf Ekeus, the former chief United Nations arms inspector, said all along, as you did in your book, that the nuclear weapons program was "ancient history" by the time of the US invasion and that the UN inspectors had dismantled Saddam's WMD arsenal by the mid-1990s.
While there were no "stockpiles," Ekeus said, the "software" remained: the knowledge of the scientists and their infrastructure that could be used to restart WMD programs. That was the same conclusion of the final report by the CIA Iraq Survey Group.
Does this accord with your inside knowledge?
Mahdi Obeidi | My book is a factual account. It presents findings from what I know from my own experience. I don't take any sides. But, yes, this accords with the views I present in the book.
The UN inspectors had dismantled the facilities and weapons materials, but what remained was the brain trust of scientists and the engineering know-how. As I said in the book, the danger that remained was latent in the form of knowledge that could be spread throughout the world. What the inspectors had never found was the centrifuge knowledge that could enable Iraq, another country or a well-funded group to jump start a uranium-enrichment program. Such knowledge is just as dangerous, if not more so, than actual weapons.
NPQ | You have also said that Saddam was keeping the "oven warm," perhaps to restart the WMD programs if sanctions were lifted. With the "snap of a finger," he could restart the program. If Saddam had snapped his fingers, how long would it have taken to make a nuclear bomb?
Obeidi | I don't know, of course, what Saddam would have done. My opinion is that he would have tried to restart things if sanctions were lifted.
How long would it have taken to get a new bomb? We started the first bomb program in 1987—from zero—and had bought all we needed on the black market and created a functioning centrifuge that could enrich uranium by 1990, at which point we were on the verge of creating a crude bomb. If we had started up again, it would have taken a much shorter period of time because we already had done the hard part—developing and assembling the centrifuge technology. It was all there—the blueprints and the centrifuge components—buried in my back garden under a lotus tree.
NPQ | This brain trust with nuclear knowledge still exists in the form of "loose" Iraqi nuclear scientists no longer employed by the Iraqi state who can sell what they know to the highest bidder. There have been reports of entreaties from Iran and elsewhere. Does that concern you?
Obeidi | This is the main danger today. I don't know who is approaching them. But, look, scientists are good people who don't know how to navigate the dangerous terrain that exists in the world today. They are concerned about their livelihood and their families. I don't want them to be compromised by the terrible situations they may find themselves in. I don't want them to be killed or to be pressed into harming others.
For their safety, and for the safety of the world, the US and Europe ought to bring these scientists out, if only temporarily, and help them find work in research institutions or universities. Though some are more senior in knowledge than others, we are talking about a few hundred people.
NPQ | The centrifuge, which enriches uranium, is the single most dangerous piece of nuclear technology, you say in the book, because it can be concealed in a single warehouse. Both North Korea and Iran are said to be using centrifuges to enrich uranium for bomb material. How do we stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons based on centrifuge technology?
Obeidi | Well, the problem is really worse than that. Advances in centrifuge technology now mean they can be hidden in a home, not even a warehouse. And the black market, where all the components can be purchased, is today very daring.
To deal with proliferation, we first of all need to understand the elements of fear that lead countries to seek weapons. We went through terrible times fighting Iran during Saddam's time. And out of that you can see how people can be compromised by their own leaders when in the grip of fear. India and Pakistan fear each other. Arab nations fear their neighbors. North Korea worries about invasion.
Second, the Non-Proliferation Treaty needs to be strengthened to enable more intrusive inspections by the UN. Countries with peaceful nuclear programs need to make their facilities open and their operations transparent. We need to end this hide-and-seek approach to containing proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Third, my book, The Bomb in My Garden, is a case study of how to obtain the components of a centrifuge on the black market, how to use front companies and how, under false pretenses, to gather the knowledge for enriching uranium. By showing how it can be done, I hope to alert not only governments, but also private companies and ordinary citizens to be on the lookout for this kind of activity. There is no other path to a nuclear weapon today than the one we took in Iraq. Whoever tries to get a bomb will have to go down the same path.
If the world is aware of how proliferation really works, then it can do something effective about it.