As United Nations nuclear inspectors flee Iraq, some of them are angry at the Bush administration for cutting short their work, bad-mouthing their efforts and making false claims about evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Some inspectors are “scandalized” at the way President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, among others, have “politicized” the inspection process, said a source close to the inspectors.
None of the nuclear-related intelligence trumpeted by the administration has held up to scrutiny, inspectors say. From suspect aluminum tubes to aerial photographs to documents — revealed to be forgeries — that claimed to link Iraq to uranium from Niger, inspectors say they chased U.S. leads that went nowhere and wasted valuable time in their efforts to determine the extent of Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of weapons banned after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The administration said the Iraqi aluminum tubes were uniquely suited for centrifuges to make bomb-grade uranium. But U.N. officials argue that the Iraqi explanation — that the tubes were destined to become artillery rockets — was more plausible. Moreover, the source close to inspectors said, the U.S. military uses similar tubes for a rocket known as the Hydra 70.
In October the White House released aerial photos of activity at former Iraqi nuclear facilities. The inspectors, however, found no sign of weapons activity and suggested that Saddam was not likely to reuse known nuclear sites.
In February the administration said trucks were spotted at facilities shortly before the arrival of inspectors, apparently to haul away and hide banned equipment. But in one case, according to a U.N. official, the trucks were fire engines standing by the building for safety reasons.
In the case of the Niger documents, they appeared genuine at first glance — accurate nomenclature, proper stamps — but further study turned up crude errors, such as words misspelled in French and dates that did not match the day of the week. Who created the counterfeit documents remains a mystery.
Recent inspection teams have included a new batch of U.S. nuclear scientists from Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories. The U.N. official described these inspectors as arriving as hawks and leaving as doves, after finding Iraq “a ruined country, not a threat to anyone.” It is a view radically different than the administration’s.
The nuclear inspectors trudged through the Iraqi countryside for months. They found the Iraqi weapons infrastructure, built at great expense in the 1980s, to be in a state of decay. They sought out out-of-the-way machine shops or companies where Iraqi scientists might be congregated. But they found no sign of an organized nuclear weapons program.
At the most, the U.N. official said, there may be “a few guys with paper and pencil and some computer in a back room.”
Responding to the U.S. emphasis on underground facilities, the inspectors slugged through the mud beneath a petroleum plant and paid a visit to an irrigation reservoir carved into the inside of a mountain. Neither contained anything suspicious.
The nuclear inspectors — the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Iraq Action Team — are lead by a Frenchman, Jacques Baute. Under his direction the team has focused on unraveling the clandestine Iraqi procurement networks that imported nuclear weapons technology in the 1980s and the aluminum tubing more recently.
During unannounced visits to trading companies, the inspectors used special equipment to copy the hard drives of computers. Among the thousands of files they found some leads, as well as pornography.
Traders in the procurement networks, the inspectors discovered, have been using their positions to steal oil-for-food money and shift the stolen profits out of the country. For example, a $100,000 purchase of humanitarian goods from Jordan might be inflated to $200,000, with the extra money split between the Iraqi buyer and the Jordanian seller.
Some of the inspectors leave with a deep suspicion of U.S. motives. Some believe, for example, that recent flights of U.S. U-2 spy planes were intended to help the military draw up target lists, not to aid the inspectors in their search for weapons of mass destruction.
Contact Dan Stober at [email protected] or (650) 688-7536.