Joe Conason's Journal

Why has the Bush administration done so little to secure Iraq's nuclear sites since the coalition's victory?

Published May 20, 2003 2:57PM (EDT)

Osama's chatter and dirty bombs
Today's warning of excited "chatter" among the cadres of al-Qaida -- and the prospect of renewed attacks in Saudi Arabia or the United States -- again highlight the Bush administration's appalling failure to secure nuclear materials in Iraq.

For several weeks, Mohammed ElBaradei has pleaded with U.S. officials to permit his experienced IAEA inspection and security personnel to assist in that urgent task -- as this morning's Washington Post reports in a story inexplicably relegated to Page A8. (Last week, the New York Times likewise buried a disturbing report by Judith Miller about this subject on Page A16.) ElBaradei expressed immediate concern about Iraqis suffering from radioactivity at the looted nuclear sites -- but his worries about missing nuclear materials again raise the specter of a "dirty bomb" attack by terrorists.

"I am deeply concerned by the almost daily reports of looting and destruction at nuclear sites, and about the potential radiological safety and security implications of nuclear and radiological materials that may no longer be under control," he said yesterday, in what the U.N. described as "his third message on the issue in little over a month."

The IAEA's latest release on the subject notes that on April 10, as the invasion of Iraq was concluding, ElBaradei first alerted American officials to the urgency of protecting nuclear materials stored at the al Tuwaitha nuclear site, which his agency sealed in 1991. According to the agency, he "received oral assurances that physical protection of the site was in place."

Following reports of looting at al Tuwaitha and several other nuclear sites, ElBaradei sent another warning to the U.S. government on April 29 about the possible release or theft of highly radioactive cobalt, cesium and nuclear waste. "Mr. ElBaradei said he regretted that the IAEA had to date not received a response."

Not only has the U.S. government punted this most basic aspect of its Iraqi mission, but its ideological hostility to the U.N. and the IAEA have overruled its profound responsibility to protect the Iraqis and the rest of us from the consequences of its terrifying stupidity.

What makes this dismal mistake even more inexcusable is that the U.S. government has repeatedly urged other governments to safeguard nuclear materials, most recently in mid-March during the International Conference on Security of Radioactive Sources in Vienna. Presiding over that meeting -- sponsored by the IAEA and attended by delegates from 120 countries -- was none other than U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. Although Abraham is among the less qualified political hacks appointed to the Bush Cabinet, he ably recited a prepared statement that said, in part:

"It is our critically important job to deny terrorists the radioactive sources they need to construct such [radioactive dispersal device] weapons. Our governments must act to identify all the high-risk radioactive sources that are being used and have been abandoned. We must educate our officials and the general populace, raising awareness of the existence of these dangerous radioactive sources and the consequences of their misuse."

Indeed. Obviously he must start by "educating" the president and the secretary of defense. Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential candidates ought to start educating themselves about this issue and speaking up in defense of our security and the world's.

And someone might also ask Tony Blair -- who warned publicly about an al-Qaida "dirty bomb" last February when he was promoting war -- why he and his government have said and done so little about the disappearance of radioactive materials in Iraq since the coalition's victory. After all, he's supposed to be the smart one, isn't he?
[9:00 a.m. PDT, May 20, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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