Newsreal: Worse than useless

A former chief weapons inspector explains why the deal the United Nations struck with Saddam Hussein will only help Iraq to keep and develop its weapons of mass destruction.

By Jeff Stein

Published March 25, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Just when the international community was starting to feel the threat of Iraq's biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction could be curtailed by the inspections agreement between United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, two news reports Tuesday suggested that we all ought to feel very frightened again.

The London tabloid the Sun reported on an alleged plot to smuggle anthrax-based substances into Britain. In a separate report, the New York Times reported that the "father" of Iraq's germ weapons program had been arrested trying to flee the country. According to the Times, the arrest of Nassir Hindawi "deals a significant blow to the U.N. inspectors" because they "view free access to people like Hindawi as even more valuable than visits to presidential sites or review of Iraqi government files because, in their experience, the program's workings become clear only when described by participants."

That the new inspections deal now seems in serious trouble comes as no surprise to David Kay, who headed the first U.N. weapons inspection team in Baghdad. In an interview with Salon, Kay called the deal negotiated by Annan "worse than useless." He blasted the U.N. chief for ignoring Saddam's record of "cheat, retreat and deceit," and described the harsh conditions under which UNSCOM inspectors work in Baghdad.

The Sun reported that Iraq had planned to hide anthrax in duty-free goods like cosmetics, perfume and alcohol and smuggle it into Britain. Iraq denies it, the British government says they have no evidence of it, but still put ports and airports on alert. What do you make of the story?

Oh, I don't know. British tabloids are British tabloids. A plot like this is certainly unexpected from Saddam at a time when he's trying to break out of the international sanctions. But we know the Iraqis have the capability, and that's what is really frightening.

Have the Iraqis ever tried anything similar?

No. They had some BW [biological warfare] agents that could be primarily used for assassination -- ricin being one of them, the same stuff the Bulgarians used to kill a dissident years ago. The Iraqis have engaged in terrorism, but I don't know of any evidence of their using BW or chemical agents for it. But Saddam, as we've seen, runs just incredible risks. Unfortunately, these are the sorts of threats we are now going to have to start taking seriously, even when the info is sketchy.

How significant is the reported arrest last week of Nassir Hindawi, the so-called father of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons program?

He's a key player. You have to remember that U.N. inspectors have never found any of the BW installations by themselves. We found out about them because Saddam's two son-in-laws defected in 1995 -- and one of them told us about them. Some of us wished that Saddam had more daughters (laughs). But in a list of the five or six people in Iraq who know what they're doing, Hindawi would be right at the top.

Did you ever meet him?

Only in a room with other people. I never had to deal with him, thank God.

UNSCOM has apparently known of Hindawi's arrest since last week. Why didn't it come out before?

My guess is that it finally leaked because someone probably got fed up with the U.N. not taking any action. As a result of his agreement with Saddam, Kofi Annan is bending over backward not to embarrass the Iraqis. What they should have done is to demand full and complete access to him right now. In the old days, if something like this happened, the inspectors would have been a lot more assertive, but I'm afraid we're in this period where we're going to be nice to the Iraqis because we want them to be nice to us.

You think it's a bad deal.

I think it's a horrible deal. The only good thing about it is that it helped the U.S. avoid taking a military action. But it's not just humiliating. It gives Saddam the advantage of another round of negotiations in which he can prove that the coalition is even further splintered. It also entangles the inspections in politics. Before, the UNSCOM teams reported directly to the Security Council, not the secretary-general. A secretary-general will always have a different agenda.

Which you say is to make nice to Saddam.

His deal unites two things that should never be united: Annan's vouching for Saddam's character -- "creative, flexible and courageous, a man I can do business with," he called him -- with responsibility for running an honest, vigorous, forceful enforcement effort. These things are incompatible. If it turns out Saddam is lying, Annan's reputation is going to suffer, not Saddam's, because Saddam's reputation can't fall any further.

Has the deal affected the inspections?

It has already. The daily reports since Scott Ritter's team has been out there have not come from UNSCOM in Baghdad, or UNSCOM in New York, but have been delivered by Fred Eckart, who is Annan's personal spokesman. So already you're getting the spinmeisters in there. Eckart's job is to protect the secretary-general and make it look like Saddam is complying.

So the deal is useless?

I think it's worse than useless. This one is positively destructive of what UNSCOM has accomplished, which is why I feel so strongly about it. It should cause a lot of people to pause and think about how bright and skillful is a secretary-general who would purposely tie himself, his own fate and, ultimately, that of the United Nations, to Saddam.

What's it like to live and work in Iraq on an inspection team? Where do they stay, for example?

The Sheraton, which is, shall we say, not up to international standards. The hotel rooms are bugged. The water is often not working. The air conditioners break down, the cleanliness of the rooms -- frankly they've gotten quite shabby over the years.

What do you do about the bugs?

You don't remove them, because, in fact, that's dangerous. Besides, they're all over, they're literally all over. The professionalism of the security services there doesn't take second place to anyone. Some of the rooms also have video monitoring. Pinhole monitors and cameras have been found. That's all for intimidation, to make you feel like you're observed, under pressure. It's not that there's going to be anything actually observed. I've long passed the age when I thought that observing me in the buff would be titillating to anyone.

Where do inspectors eat?

Usually, for safety and security reasons, in the hotel. In the early days it was possible to go out into various restaurants in Baghdad, but the Iraqi security police arranged so many incidents that generally today you don't go out. You stay pretty close to the hotel.

What kind of incidents?

Oh, people coming up to you while you're eating and berating you. Often they'd be in a family group, with children and a wife, so you couldn't push them away or get the manager and tell them to go away.

How about the food? Do they ever unleash a little germ warfare on you in a dish?

Surprisingly not. It's wasn't that they couldn't do it. It was obviously a conscious decision not to do it. Iraq is a rich country, agriculturally. I must say the tomatoes are among the world's best. The watermelons are absolutely fantastic, and I say that as someone who grew up in Texas.

What else did you get to eat?

Chickpeas and occasionally something that passes for lamb. Scrawny chicken. All of this beats MREs [U.S. Army "meals ready to eat" -- GI food]. I should add that the Iraqi beer is terrific. It comes in liter-sized bottles.

Do the secret police ever try to plant phony secret documents on the inspection teams?

That's occurred. They'll slip things under a door, toss things in a car. You never know whether it's entrapment or not. What you learn to do is reject it. You feel bad about that, because it could be a brave Iraqi who's running a considerable risk, but you can't run the risk in return.

What other threats do the teams have to live with?

In the last few years it's been simply physical intimidation -- muttered threats as people go by your table. This even happens in your hotel -- "I know where you live," or "I know where your family lives, someone in my family died and we will get even." That sort of thing.

What do team members do for fun?

Usually you're so damn tired, you don't care about recreational activities. You get off work at about 5.30 in the evening, then you'll be writing reports for another three or four hours. Then you're up again at 5 a.m. Occasionally, people will have what roughly passes as a party in their hotel room, but often that's at the end of an inspection tour.

Has anybody cracked under the pressure?

Yes, people have. In the early days of 1991, when there was a lot of hide and seek, hunt and chase, some people were just not prepared for it, and couldn't stand it, and you never had them back again.

What drove them over the line?

The intimidation, the constant danger. The first team I took in had shots fired over their heads, in a sustained volley, which tends to separate those who wet their pants from those who don't. For others, it's simply the inability to speak freely, the idea of working in an environment where you had to be constantly careful about what your said, or the Iraqis would overhear it.

Describe a typical day in the life of a weapons inspector.

It varies according to whether it's a challenge inspection, that is, zero-notice, or it's going to a routine site. If it's challenge inspection, you're under great pressure not to let the Iraqis know where you're going. Very often, you will not have told every member of the team where you're going. You'll usually start the inspection early, particularly if you're going to a facility likely to have a work force there, and what you're really hunting for are documents and you have to go through office after office. If there are people in those offices, and especially a mixed population of men and women, you can have problems. They will try to sneak documents out in briefcases and so on. We had to figure out how to do pat-down searches of women -- never easy to do, especially in a Muslim society. So we stumbled on this revolutionary idea of having our women pat down their women, looking for unusual bulges.

Practically speaking, is there any real way to surprise the Iraqis?

Quite frankly, they can figure out that if you're going north, and it's a missile team -- they know the composition of the teams -- then they know what's north and they'll radio ahead.

How about grabbing the radios out of their hands?

Oh, no, no, no. That's not wise.

Then how can you really have a surprise inspection?

Well, sometimes there are six facilities, and if you're lucky, and they don't know that you know about one of them, you can surprise them by going to that one.

Do you ever use decoy cars to throw the security police off?

We've done that, but as far as I can tell, there are an infinite number of Iraqi security people, so you can never dry up the pool. But we succeeded on one mission of mine when I had a team go out at 3 a.m. undetected. Generally speaking, it's just too dangerous to do that. In that case, it was a particularly valuable facility, and we decided to run the risk. We seized a lot of documents -- and ended up being held hostage in the parking lot for four and a half days.

What happens when you get to a suspected germ weapons site? Do you bust in like, say, the FBI?

There are two things that happen. You arrive at a facility and demand access, and you routinely tell the Iraqis, "Until we have full access to the site, nothing shall move in or out." We seal it. Now, you're talking about 20 to 30 unarmed inspectors, many middle-aged scientist types, telling the Iraqis not to move. Almost never do the Iraqis honor that -- although they've agreed to honor that -- so what you do is videotape them moving stuff out. If you've got a U-2 overhead, it takes pictures of them moving stuff out the back with the inspectors at the front. As people go out, you demand that they stop and open their briefcases. Sometimes it works, often it does not.

And you can't stop them.

You enforce it by documenting it. Everyone is told, "Don't be a hero." You know when you've hit a hot spot when you see them running out the back. And you know when you've hit a cold zone, because they will be more than welcoming. "Oh, come in, you can see everything." When it's a facility that has something, they'll say, "We can't find they key, you'll have to wait," and so on.

Once you're inside a site, how do you know where to look for things?

Sometimes it's from documents you've seized in the past. Occasionally when a procurement source, a German or Swiss who's sold something to the Iraqis, finally decides to tell the U.N., you'll get a lead. Sometimes from aerial photography -- it'll detect something being moved. It's like a jigsaw puzzle. There's no silver bullet that gives you sudden and compelling knowledge.

After all these years, do you think inspections will ever work?

Seven years ago, when we were asked if this can be done by inspection, our answer was always guarded. We said, if the Iraqis fully comply with what they've agreed to, if they turned everything over to us, sure we could get rid of them and set up the monitoring system. Well, that was DOA after two weeks when they started moving and hiding stuff. Up until 1995, for example, they denied they had a biological weapons program.

How long do you think this situation can continue?

Given the developments over the past few weeks, I think it's pretty clear that the U.N. itself, in the form of the secretary-general and several members of the Security Council, have suffered so much from both sanctions fatigue and inspections fatigue that it's probably not going to be able to continue. We're going to leave an Iraq which not only has the technical capability, but has the existing facilities to produce a number of weapons of mass destruction.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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Iraq Middle East United Nations