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Interview: John Chipman Discusses Iraq's Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons Capabilities

Weekend Edition Saturday: September 14, 2002

Iraqi Weapons


This week, a report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London assessed the Iraqi threat, and it has given new ammunition to both sides in the debate over Iraq. John Chipman is director of the institute and joins us from London.

Mr. Chipman, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JOHN CHIPMAN (Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies): Thank you very much.

SIMON: And is there a bottom line to your report?

Mr. CHIPMAN: Well, we have carefully assessed all the information in the public domain and worked very closely with people who are extremely familiar with the way in which the Iraqi military machine operates, people with field experience in Iraq, and we drew the following broad conclusions.

First, that Iraq does not have yet the capacity to produce indigenously the fissile material necessary to make a nuclear bomb, but that if he were somehow to acquire it abroad by stealing it or buying it from some source, he could probably put together a nuclear weapon in a matter of months.

We've also addressed the biological and chemical issues and shown that Saddam Hussein no doubt retains important stocks of biologicals from before 1991, a more limited stock of chemical weapons, but is capable of producing fresh agent of both the biological and chemical kinds and does have a small force of ballistic missiles that could deliver both chemical and biological munitions.

SIMON: So if, for example, Iraq were to be able to get the components it needs to put together an atomic device, could it deliver it?

Mr. CHIPMAN: Well, it would have some difficulty delivering it in a more efficient means. It would, in the early days, be constrained to do so only by dropping it from an aircraft. It would naturally be vulnerable to other countries' air defenses and even pre-emptive attack if there was some sort of threat, or, you know, in the familiar scenario, a suitcase bomb or using some sabotage or terrorist method. But it would take him some time before he could adapt the physics package of the nuclear weapon to be able to marry it to an al-Husayn or other Scud missile.

SIMON: Mr. Chipman, how has Iraq been able to conceal so much?

Mr. CHIPMAN: Iraq is an enormous country, and many of the material necessary for the so-called weapons of mass destruction doesn't require a great deal of space to operate from.

SIMON: But, I mean, don't the CIA and MI6 and the National Security Agency in the United States tell themselves they have their ways of finding out these things? I mean, that's their job, isn't it?

Mr. CHIPMAN: There are two ways of finding out traditionally. One is to have human intelligence in the country, and human intelligence is hard to come by in Iraq. The other way is satellite surveillance, but the difficulty with satellite surveillance is you can discover a great deal of what is happening outside but not a great deal of what's happening inside.

The other thing one needs to understand is that biological and chemical weapons are the kind of things that can be produced in laboratories that have other purposes, including non-prescribed purposes. Iraq's civilian biological industry is very large, as is that of many other countries, and in any biological laboratory, you can produce things of civilian interest and you can produce militarily significant biological agents as well, and chemical factories can produce chemical weapons.

SIMON: Now your report, at the same time, refers to some vital missing pieces in what you would like to know to make absolutely confident projections.

Mr. CHIPMAN: Absolutely. I think everyone admits that without inspectors on the ground, one can't be really fully aware of what the Iraqis are up to. And even during 1991 through to 1998 when the inspectors were on the ground, the Iraqis were able to mount an extremely successful concealment and denial operation which made it difficult for the inspectors effectively to operate. Up until 1995, Iraqis denied they had a biological weapons program, and the inspectors were unable to find too much evidence of it.

SIMON: Mr. Chipman, if Iraq permits United Nations international inspectors back, how long would they need to do their work, and, in your judgment, if the Iraqis are so good at concealing it, does it matter?

Mr. CHIPMAN: I think if the inspectors were permitted back in by the Iraqi government, it would take them at least a year just to develop the inspection techniques and even the tradecraft to deal with the inevitable denial and concealment techniques that the Iraqis would use. What the inspectors are being asked to do is to confirm that there is no weapons of mass destruction activity going on. And so to prove that negative will require a great deal of time, no matter what Saddam Hussein does.

SIMON: Mr. Chipman, thank you very much.

Mr. CHIPMAN: Thank you.

SIMON: John Chipman is director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.


SIMON: And the time is now 18 minutes past the hour.

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