Arms Expert Says U.S. Estimate of Iraq’s Weapons Arsenal Was ’Incorrect’

Arms Expert Says U.S. Estimate of Iraq’s Weapons Arsenal Was ’Incorrect’

May 14, 2003 5:59 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former weapons inspector at the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), says that “the picture presented by the United States about large stocks of chemical and biological weapons and a nuclear weapons program [in Iraq] that was near fruition was incorrect.”

He says that, at best, the Iraqis may have had a program to preserve a “capability” for future development of such weapons of mass destruction, but even if signs of such a capability are found by U.S. teams, it is crucial for U.S. credibility that U.N. weapons inspectors return.

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Albright was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on May 14, 2003.

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Do you think U.S. forces are likely to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

I think they’ll find some programs for developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) for sure. It’s hard to believe that Iraq gave up all its ambitions and intentions to get weapons of mass destruction, although it may be difficult to prove. A lot of documents have been destroyed. A lot of equipment has been subject to looting. The United States’ program that was set up to talk to WMD scientists isn’t very effective. So they may have a tough time. Now, these mobile biological weapons labs [found recently by U.S. forces] may be a breakthrough, and you would expect to find that Iraq would have some capability to make weapons of mass destruction, and I think we will find that.

Prior to the war, President Bush and, to a certain extent, Secretary of State Colin Powell, left the impression that there were enormous amounts of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq just waiting to be found.

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Not only just waiting to be found. They left the impression, and sometimes stated it [outright], that chemical weapons in large amounts were deployed. There had even been reports that commanders had received chemical shells for firing from artillery or by rocket, and I even remember at one point soon after the war started, or right around that time, that commanders had gotten authority to fire weapons if “red lines” were crossed by coalition forces around Baghdad. So I think the picture presented by the United States about large stocks of chemical and biological weapons and a nuclear weapons program that was near fruition was incorrect.

Was this due to bad intelligence, or was the intelligence tailored to meet the policy?

We don’t know why the administration made such an excessive assessment. I was involved personally in some of the disputes in the nuclear area, and I think that the leadership, particularly in the Pentagon and the White House, had a bias to accept [data] which showed an imminent threat. And that even though there would be dissenters, and the dissenters in many cases would be the real experts in the subject, they were pushed aside.

And this information was also coming from the exile groups?

That’s a different issue. I think a lot of information was coming from the exile groups. I have always believed that such information has always been biased and often very incorrect. We’ve looked at that in the inspection process for years, and the INC [Iraqi National Congress] had a reputation of producing people who usually had bad information, sometimes almost laughingly bad information. I’ve heard that the human sources from the INC gained special stature in places like the Pentagon, and I think that’s got to be a mistake.

Can you tell us about your experiences as a U.N. inspector?

I was a fairly typical [inspector]. Very few people actually worked for the International Atomic Energy Agency. I’d say 90 percent of the people who were involved in the inspection process [were not on the IAEA staff]. When you’re in Iraq, you’re a consultant, but when you’re not, you keep your regular employment and then do [IAEA] work on a project basis.

I had a long-term interest in some of Iraq’s uranium-enrichment programs, so for years I followed that. I looked at documents taken in Iraq or turned over by the Iraqis, looked at interviews by other inspectors, looked at procurement information. My interest was particularly in the area of uranium enrichment and illicit procurement. Others were involved in nuclear weaponization, the process of making the bomb. I tended to follow those areas, too.

Kenneth Pollack’s book, The Threatening Storm, expresses great concern about Iraq’s nuclear program. Did Iraq have a live program in recent years?

Pollack and I shared the concern. And when the inspectors left in ’98, the concern just got amplified. We were always worried that the Iraqis would somehow steal or buy highly enriched uranium in Russia and develop a capability to make a nuclear weapon pretty quickly, because they know how to make a nuclear weapon once they have the highly enriched uranium. But I think what’s [happened] is that they may not have pursued nuclear weapons very seriously. We still need to test that, but I’m talking to several very knowledgeable Iraqis now in Baghdad by phone, who say uniformly that they didn’t do serious work on nuclear weapons since ’91.

You are in contact right now with scientists you knew?


And they are free to talk now, and they’re still denying they did anything?

Yes. There’s a subtlety to it. I’m trying to distinguish between what I’d call a nuclear weapons program with a capital P, and [one with] a small p…. The bottom line is, [these scientists are] not only saying they didn’t do anything, but they’re actually telling me what they did do— where they worked and the kind of work they did. They have mentioned some of the people who left Iraq that we didn’t know had left until recently. At some point it starts to add up that these guys really did start off in other careers and couldn’t have built a [uranium-enriching] gas centrifuge of any size, particularly the size [and number] that the United States was postulating.

Did they know anything about the chemical and biological programs?

No. Let me put it this way. I’ve worked with CNN, and we’ve interviewed some biological people. I’m working with another journalist who’s interviewing chemical people. Uniformly, they’ve all been saying there’s nothing there. It’s hard to believe on the chemical and biological weapons side. On the nuclear side, I’ve started to have enough interviews where I can start making sense out of what they’re saying, but on the chemical and biological, it’s just statements— “We didn’t do anything”--and I don’t find them very credible.

If Saddam Hussein didn’t have WMD, why wasn’t he more forthcoming with the inspectors?

That’s right, he clearly did not comply. And I know now from talking to the Iraqis, they were told, “You’re not allowed to talk to the inspectors without a tape recorder or without a minder. Don’t talk to them about leaving the country, or we’ll take it out on your family.” It was really a clear signal of noncooperation. I know now documents were destroyed before the inspectors came. It looks like some current theories are right that they destroyed whatever chemical and biological weapons they had, to hide them from the inspectors.

Why would he do that? You would think that he may have miscalculated, that he thought he could get away with partial cooperation, and there was cooperation— the inspectors could go anywhere, they were getting some answers to their questions. Maybe Saddam just calculated that he could wait out the conflict and then the United States would lose interest and he could maintain his power and his programs, although hidden and greatly reduced in nature. And there are other possibilities, too. Maybe there really wasn’t much there, [and the Iraqis] were just crushed from the sanctions and the general malaise that affected their industrial society. [Maybe] they concentrated on conventional weaponry instead, and then really weren’t prepared psychologically to cooperate, [which would] be interpreted as a sign of weakness. [Or maybe they] didn’t believe the United States was serious.

Some people think that they were trying to keep their programs at a low level so that, after sanctions were lifted, they might try to actually build on those.

I would have a hard time not believing that [the Iraqis] wouldn’t maintain some type of capability they could spring back into action. And the UNSCOM [United Nations Special Commission] inspectors who looked at this in the ’90s were pretty clear that in six months [or] twelve months after inspections ended and sanctions were reduced, Iraq could be making a lot of chemical and biological weapons [and] deploying them.

So it does make sense that they would, if inspectors came in, just get rid of everything, hide whatever they need to hide, and wait for the day when [they could] reconstitute [the program]. It still doesn’t explain where the U.S. information came from. Where are the huge stocks of deployed weapons? That’s still quite a mystery. I think we’ll certainly want to wait and give this process time and see if anything turns up. But I must say that I’m not in the camp that thinks that WMD are going to found either in Iraq or in Syria. I think that’s stretching it a lot, based on what’s known about Iraq.

What’s your feeling about letting the U.N. inspectors back into Iraq?

I think the best policy is to bring the inspectors back in. The U.S. teams definitely need help. They have been bumbling at best and they aren’t really going to many places and a lot of them just don’t understand what happened. Often they’re just going to the same places the inspectors went and expecting to find a smoking gun, yet the inspectors were at these sites, in some cases many times, and didn’t find anything.

And so I think the inspectors from UNMOVIC [the U.N. Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission] and IAEA would certainly contribute to making the process go faster. And they would also help give the United States credibility. It just makes perfect sense to bring them back in.

Plus, you want to have [inspectors to conduct] long-term monitoring of Iraq. Iraq remains a danger, because who knows what kind of government is going to form over the next couple of years. In the end you want to have intrusive inspections in there, and there’s no way the United States is going to do that. It’ll have to be international organizations that do the long-term monitoring of various activities in Iraq.

Russia doesn’t want to remove sanctions on Iraq without the U.N. inspectors’ approval.

The inspection rights and activities are defined by Security Council resolutions— they [apply to] Iraq, they [don’t apply to] Saddam Hussein. The new U.S.-proposed resolution to lift sanctions doesn’t really deal with this, and so I think legally the Security Council has said inspectors should be in there, and I think it’s right that Russia sticks to that.

Do the North Koreans have an active nuclear weapons program? Do you think they’ve actually made some weapons already?

They say they have, but I don’t know. They could have one or two nuclear weapons, could have had them for years, maybe they just got them recently as a result of separating plutonium at the radiochemical laboratory. It’s very hard to tell.

What should the United States do about it?

I’m in the camp that certainly says engage with North Korea, but in the engagement make sure that right up front there’s not only a commitment to a nuclear weapons-free Korean Peninsula, but also active dismantlement in a verifiable manner of key nuclear programs.

And not like the Agreed Framework [of 1994], where it was tied to a construction schedule that just got delayed further and further. You went from an agreement that was supposed to be over by now, to one that wouldn’t be over for at least another 10 years, and so inevitably the intrusive verification just got delayed. The intrusive verification under the Agreed Framework should have been started and done basically in 1998, before North Korea could have launched a significant uranium-enrichment program.


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