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Analysis: Efforts To Persuade Iraqi Nuclear Scientists To Leave The Country

All Things Considered: October 13, 2002

Iraq Scientists


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Margot Adler.

As the UN prepares to debate a resolution on arms inspection in Iraq, some lawmakers and former inspectors are seeking a non-military way to keep the country from manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. They say destroying the weapons or the factories that make them is only a short-term solution. To truly disable Iraq, the US must encourage Iraq's weapons scientists themselves to leave the country. NPR's David Kestenbaum has this report.


When the Gulf War ended, David Kay led several inspection teams in Iraq. Today he works for a company called SAIC that does defense work. His office is in Virginia. The room we're sitting in was once used for secret conversations. The air is circulated through a closed system; even the electricity is isolated from the rest of the building. The idea is to safeguard the spoken word, knowledge. Similarly, Kay says it's information that's most valuable in Iraq.

Mr. DAVID KAY (SAIC): Now we eliminated a lot--we eliminated the buildings, the tools--but what we couldn't eliminate is the technical talent that has solved these problems. A weapons program is only partly made up of machines. The major part of any weapons program is the scientific knowledge that's in the heads of the team that solved the tough problems.

KESTENBAUM: Kay says he and the other weapons inspectors used to joke that their most valuable tool would have been a hundred green cards, so the Iraqi scientists could move to the United States.

Mr. KAY: You know, you can buy new machines, you can build new buildings. What's very difficult to do is to develop new knowledge.

KESTENBAUM: Actually getting weapons scientists out is a sticky matter, but some lawmakers at least would like to roll out the welcome mat. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware introduced a piece of legislation on Tuesday called the Iraqi Scientists Liberation Act of 2002.

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): This would allow the scientists plus their families to be able to gain permanent residence in the United States. It is of no value to bring the scientist out if his family is back there knowing Saddam's record of actually eliminating or killing family members of those who he has displeasure with.

KESTENBAUM: Under Biden's proposal, defectors would have to be approved by the attorney general and the secretary of state.

There is currently a CIA program dedicated to gathering up foreign defectors, but it's secretive and Iraqi scientists aren't guaranteed a warm reception. Khidir Homza was a leading scientist on the Iraqi nuclear program.

Mr. KHIDIR HOMZA (Scientist): Now here we had an engineer in 1993 who came out to Jordan, knocked on the doors of the American Embassy, was more or less left in limbo walking the streets of Jordan. Iraq had enough time to send two operatives to Jordan and kill him. Now of course, Iraq made sure that the story of killing him is reported in the Iraqi press, is on TV, and so they are telling everybody that, `If you leave, this is how the Americans will treat you and this is how we will treat you.'

KESTENBAUM: Homza says it took the CIA a while to take him seriously as well. One former weapons inspector, in defense of the CIA, says that evaluating defectors can be difficult; many are happy to exaggerate their importance in exchange for citizenship, and some are spies.

President Bush argued in his speech on Monday night that UN inspectors should be allowed to take Iraqi scientists and others out of the country for interviews. He also said those Iraqis should be allowed to leave with their families. David Albright doesn't think that's likely to happen. He's a former weapons inspector with the Institute for Science and International Security.

Mr. DAVID ALBRIGHT (Institute for Science and International Security): I mean, Iraq is going to strongly object. And I know once when I proposed this in a newspaper, the Iraqi press called me a vampire, a running dog. And then the worst insult in Iraq is the son of Madeleine Albright. So, I mean, I hit a raw nerve with this proposal.

KESTENBAUM: Senator Biden admits that his proposal to give US citizenship to Iraqi weapons scientists might be of more use after an invasion. David Albright points out that the US and Russia did something similar after World War II. The two nations grabbed many of Germany's top scientists. That helped keep the peace in Europe, but Albright says the move started another conflict: Russia used those scientists to launch Sputnik, starting the space race. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

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