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Profile: tricks Iraqis Used To Fool Weapons Inspectors In 1991

Morning Edition: October 7, 2002

UN Considers Plan on Iraq Weapons Inspectors


UN officials are working on the details of an agreement that would enable an international team of weapons inspectors to return to Iraq. If the inspectors do return, they'll have scientific tools to help them, but they did last time, too, and still had a hard time. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


Back in 1991, it seemed like finding evidence might not be so hard because the Iraqis wrote everything down. David Kay led several inspection teams investigating Iraq's nuclear program.

Mr. DAVID KAY (Former Weapons Inspector): I used to joke to my British colleagues that, clearly, they benefited from the advantage of being colonies under Britain because they had a bureaucracy. I mean, literally, they produced quarterly reports. It was a tight organization chart. Each unit had to justify its budget and ask for new material. So you had a huge stream of paper.

KESTENBAUM: At the beginning, these often told inspectors where to look or who to interview, but soon the Iraqi officials began scanning the documents into computers and destroying the originals. Inspectors had to get more sophisticated.

Mr. KAY: An important area was computer forensics. We seized a large number of hard disks from Iraqi computers.

KESTENBAUM: Which contained the things you'd find at any business.

Mr. KAY: An amazing amount of games, fair amount of pornography.

KESTENBAUM: But, also, computer programs that could be used to design nuclear weapons. Increasingly, he says, such files were encrypted or protected by passwords. The cat-and-mouse game continued; the cat got smarter, then so did the mouse. For instance, David Kay, who now works for the defense contractor SAIC, says his teams had sophisticated tools to search buildings for traces of nuclear material, but he says the Iraqis would clean up and slather the walls with inches of paint or simply blow the building up.

Mr. KAY: And then one facility I remember, they had covered an area with six feet of river gravel and told us--said, `Well, you know, if you guys want a sample what's down there, feel free to dig through the gravel.' So I had a team of inspectors, who were primarily like me, middle aged--or sometimes post-middle-aged--guys who had worked in labs and around other facilities, out with their shirts off, shoveling graveling in the heat of the desert day.

KESTENBAUM: Very occasionally, technology did give them a leg up. One instance involved American hostages released during the Gulf War. Scientists carefully analyzed their clothes and found traces of uranium. The mix of uranium types was distinct. It revealed, for the first time, that the Iraqis were using machines called calutrons to process the uranium for a weapon.

Mr. KAY: What had happened is that, every day, these hostages were taken to the gym and for a medical exam, but they were taken on the same buses that the workers used who were working on this process.

KESTENBAUM: Still, inspections were often exasperating, and even advanced spy technology had its limitations.


KESTENBAUM: Corey Hinderstein is a satellite expert with the Institute for Science and International Security. On her computer, she pulls up a color satellite image of a facility called Tuwaitha, about 30 kilometers south of Baghdad. It looks like a bunch of buildings seen from an airplane, but then she zooms in, until it's as if we were looking down from atop a tall building.

Ms. COREY HINDERSTEIN (Institute for Science and International Security): We can see things as small as the exhaust shafts of the building. We can see cars on the road. If I pan around to the entrance of the building, we can see a couple of vehicles approaching.

KESTENBAUM: The technology is amazing, but frustrating, she says. This facility on her screen used to be a nuclear research center. There's some new construction here now, but you can't tell what it's for. And the Iraqis can hide things by working under cover of night or disguising the buildings.

Ms. HINDERSTEIN: You are seeing less and less a site like the one we're looking at, like Tuwaitha, where there's a very distinct security boundary, there's a fence outside that. There are no longer kind of bull's-eyes like this.

KESTENBAUM: Nuclear operations, at least, are large and distinct. The Iraqis could be making biological weapons almost anywhere.

Mr. DAVID FRANZ (Southern Research Institute): It's just too easy to have them do something behind our back.

KESTENBAUM: David Franz led three inspection teams. He's now at the Southern Research Institute.

Mr. FRANZ: Because you can produce biological weapons in a vaccine facility, you can do the basic research for them in a university, you can do the weaponization, as the Iraqis did, using modified crop dusters.

KESTENBAUM: Inspectors did, finally, get a handle on the bioweapons program, but it took some ingenuity and some math. Shipping records showed Iraq had imported 42 tons of growth media, food for micro organisms. Inspectors went around to research facilities weighing what they found, but could only account for half that amount. Eventually Iraq did admit producing tons of anthrax and other biological agents. Inspectors don't think this accounting trick will work again, though. Iraq can manufacture the growth material on its own and doesn't have to import it.

Some inspectors today enjoy telling tales, like these, of how they managed to outwit the Iraqis, but they also realize something else. Iraqis probably have many stories of how they fooled the inspectors. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

EDWARDS: The time is 29 minutes past the hour.

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