Chapter 4: The Hunt for WMD
Doctor sawsan alhaddad was very busy when she received the strange phone call. She was so busy, and the call was so strange, that she wasn't quite certain whether to follow up. It was May 2002, and the caller said he was from the CIA and that he wanted to meet with her. He didn't sound crazy, but she wasn't sure.
A quiet, petite, olive-skinned woman in her fifties, Sawsan wondered why a CIA officer who said he was calling from Pittsburgh would want to talk to an anesthesiologist in Cleveland.
Curiosity finally got the better of her. Fear got to her, too; old fears of police and security men that had receded gradually over the last two decades, as she and her husband had built a wonderful new American life, with a beautiful daughter, in a plush and sprawling home, in one of Cleveland's most luxurious outer suburbs. Sawsan thought she had left her fears behind when she and her husband escaped from Iraq in 1979, lying to their bosses at the hospital in Baghdad about their plans for a brief vacation in London. It was before anybody in America had given much thought to Saddam Hussein, back before the United States thought much about granting Iraqi exiles political asylum from a mad dictator. Eventually, they managed to rebuild their lives and become American citizens.
Sawsan decided to check out the mysterious caller before agreeing to meet him. She found someone at the FBI's Cleveland field office who would listen to her story. Was there such a person in Pittsburgh working for the CIA? Sawsan was surprised when the FBI agent called her back. He had checked with FBI headquarters in Washington, and it turned out that the man in Pittsburgh was real, and the call was genuine. The CIA really did want to talk to Dr. Sawsan Alhaddad of the Cleveland Clinic. So she finally agreed to meet with "Chris" from Pittsburgh.
As Chris was trying to contact Sawsan Alhaddad, it was becoming clear that President Bush was determined to invade Iraq. In his 2002 State of the Union Address the previous January, Bush had warned of an "axis of evil," of which Iraq was one of only three members. Bush and his aides charged that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States because he possessed weapons of mass destruction and because his regime harbored terrorists. Saddam might use his weapons against America, or give them to terrorists to do the job instead. In either case, an attack with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons would make September 11 look like child's play. It was a risk, George W. Bush said, that a post-9/11 United States was not willing to take.
Throughout that spring, the Bush administration had been steadily ratcheting up the rhetoric about the threat posed by terrorists, weapons of mass destruction and Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney went on television to say he was "almost certain" of more terrorist attacks on the United States, while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that it was only a matter of time before terrorists would get weapons of mass destruction from rogue states like Iraq. In late May, Bush spoke in Berlin, where he warned that once terrorists obtained chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons from countries like Iraq, "no inner voice of reason, no hint of conscience would prevent their use." With the war in Afghanistan winding down, George Bush's Washington was inexorably turning its attention toward Baghdad.
Sawsan told Chris that it was not possible for her to meet with him right away. Her mother had come to Cleveland from Iraq for advanced treatment for colon cancer, and Sawsan had to care for her. Maybe they could talk later, she told the CIA man. In June, Sawsan's mother died, and the Iraqi woman was buried in the American heartland. Soon, Sawsan was ready for the CIA.
The White House drumbeat on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction kept building that summer. It was filling the front pages and the airwaves by the time Chris finally sat down with Sawsan at a Cleveland Starbucks in early August. The president and his lieutenants insisted that no decision about whether to invade Iraq had been made, but in a major foreign policy speech at West Point in June, Bush had forcefully made the case for taking preemptive action against dictatorships such as Iraq that harbored weapons of mass destruction. "Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies," Bush told the graduating class at West Point. "We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign nonproliferation treaties and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long." By July, the Pentagon's plans for an invasion of Iraq had leaked to the press, and it was becoming more difficult by the day for Bush to hide his intentions. Inside the government, meanwhile, more secret documents were written to bolster the case against Iraq. On August 1, the CIA issued a classified paper that was distributed to senior Bush administration officials. It concluded that a shipment of high-strength aluminum tubes from China to Iraq was a sign that Iraq was reviving its uranium enrichment program in order to build an atomic bomb.
Chris stunned Sawsan when he explained why he had come to talk to her. He told her that she could help in President Bush's new war on terror. She could help by going to Baghdad on a secret mission for the CIA. Chris explained that the CIA wanted Sawsan, a middle-aged mother from Cleveland, to travel to Iraq and become a spy.
The CIA had identified Saad Tawfiq, Sawsan's brother, a British-trained electrical engineer living in Bagdhad with his wife and three children, as a key figure in Saddam Hussein's clandestine nuclear weapons program. The CIA knew who he was, Chris told Sawsan, but it didn't have any way to try to talk to him. So the CIA wanted Sawsan to go to Baghdad to talk to her brother and see if he would be willing to defect, through the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq. The CIA couldn't help him cross into the Kurdish zone, but if he got there on his own, the CIA could get him out to the West. If he wasn't ready to defect, the CIA wanted Sawsan to ask him a series of questions about Saddam Hussein's efforts to build nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The CIA was convinced that Saad Tawfiq knew the most sensitive secrets about Iraq's weapons programs and that he might be willing to tell his sister the truth about Saddam Hussein's ambitions.
Sawsan found it hard to believe that the CIA didn't have some other way to get information out of Baghdad. But after thinking hard about it, she decided she was willing to do her part. She had not seen her brother since 1989, on a brief and nervous visit to pre-Gulf War Iraq, but she thought he might want to help. She told Chris she was willing to try.
Sawsan was volunteering for a late, desperate Hail Mary pass by the CIA. As President Bush and other administration officials were turning up the rhetorical heat on Iraq, key leaders within the CIA faced an uncomfortable fact: the United States did not have the proof to back up what the president was saying publicly about Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction. Worse, the CIA had been operating virtually in the blind about Iraq for years. Its evidence was either old and obsolete, or from secondhand, thirdhand, or fourthhand sources, defectors and exiles who had their own political agendas. Almost every analyst at the CIA assumed that Iraq had WMD but they didn't have hard evidence to back it up. What was worse, many of them knew it.
In 1998 the United Nations had withdrawn its weapons inspectors from Iraq after a showdown with Saddam Hussein over access to key sites in the country. President Bill Clinton launched a four-day bombing campaign to punish Iraq for its refusal to cooperate with the UN inspectors, but the bombs had no real effect. The withdrawal of the inspectors severely hampered the CIA's ability to keep track of Iraqi weapons efforts in the years before the 2003 war. Throughout the 1990s, the CIA had relied almost entirely on the UN inspectors for intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs. After their withdrawal, the CIA failed to develop reliable sources of its own inside Iraq to report on Baghdad's weapons programs.
In the year before the 2003 war, the CIA had only one case officer spying from inside Baghdad. He was posing undercover as a diplomat working in the embassy of another country. But that case officer did not develop or recruit any sources who knew the status of Iraq's weapons programs. The agency had also developed sources within the Iraqi military, largely through the Iraqi National Accord, an exile group led by Ayad Allawi (a CIA asset who later became the interim prime minister of Iraq), but none of those military officers had any firsthand knowledge about Iraqi WMD. By mid-2002, most of the agency's information was at least four years out of date.
Charlie Allen, the CIA's assistant director for collection and a legendary figure within the agency, was the highest-ranking CIA official willing to try to do something about the problem. Allen had carved a unique niche for himself within the U.S. intelligence community. He looked for collection "gaps," intelligence targets that were not being adequately covered by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. He realized that Iraqi WMD represented an enormous intelligence gap.
While other top CIA officials, including CIA Director George Tenet and Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt, dithered and failed to mount any serious operations to get more spies into Iraq to find out what was going on, Allen, an old hand who had little time for Tenet and the circle of yes-men and yes-women on Tenet's senior staff, began a renegade effort to search for new sources of information.
He pushed for several new collection programs, including one that called for approaching members of the families of Iraqi scientists who were believed to be involved in secret weapons programs. At the time, the CIA had no direct access to key Iraqi scientists, and so using family members as intermediaries to find out what the scientists were doing seemed like the next best thing. Most of the key scientists who had been involved in the weapons programs in the past had been interviewed repeatedly by UN inspectors during the 1990s. During those earlier interviews, they had all insisted that the weapons programs had been abandoned. But the United States was convinced that the scientists had been lying, since they were always closely watched by Iraqi security during the interviews. At least, thanks to the UN inspections, the CIA had a fairly comprehensive list of Iraq's senior weapons scientists. Charlie Allen realized that list gave him something to go on.
Allen's collection team began contacting family members living outside of Iraq, asking them whether they would be willing to help the agency by going back to Iraq to talk to their relatives about their scientific work. At least thirty relatives of Iraqi scientists agreed to cooperate, including Sawsan Alhaddad. The CIA was eager to get her on board. Saad Tawfiq had long since been identified as one of the senior figures in the Iraqi nuclear program. He was a Shia Muslim, never completely trusted by the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein, yet Saad was one of the true technical experts that Iraq couldn't do without. The CIA had initially contacted his younger brother, who was living in Houston. After he rebuffed them, Charlie Allen's team approached Sawsan in Cleveland.
Throughout August 2002, Chris became a regular in Cleveland, meeting Sawsan at restaurants and at her home in suburban Moreland Hills, finally bringing a CIA technician along to train Sawsan in the rudiments of espionage. The agency had put together a long list of questions she was to ask her brother, but Sawsan couldn't just walk into Bagdhad carrying a memo from the CIA. So the technician tried to teach her the art of secret writing, showing her how to read and write using invisible ink on fast-burning paper. Sawsan was a practical woman, and she realized that the CIA's techniques were too cumbersome and dangerous if done incorrectly in the heart of Iraq. She finally told Chris she would skip the secret communications and would memorize the questions instead. Privately, she decided to use her favorite crossword puzzles to guide her. She wrote mnemonic aids into crossword puzzles that she could take with her on the plane to Iraq, key words to remind her of the questions she was supposed to ask.
Before sending Sawsan, the CIA wanted to make certain that her brother would be willing to talk with her once she got there. Sawsan offered the perfect intermediary to get word to him. Her mother-in-law was visiting Cleveland from Baghdad and was due to return home in early September. She could tell Saad that the CIA wanted to talk to him through Sawsan, and could ask him if he would do it.
Frightened but willing, the mother-in-law agreed, returned home to Baghdad, and found a moment to talk to Saad on the street outside his home, away from the listening devices that were almost certainly planted inside.
They want to talk to you, and they will send Sawsan, the old woman told Saad Tawfiq. Sawsan will call you tonight, and ask how you are feeling. If you are willing, tell her that you are okay.
Sawsan called her brother, asked him how he was feeling, and he said that he was okay. She repeated the question three times to make certain that she heard him right.
Sawsan left for Baghdad a few days later, explaining to Iraqi authorities that her mother had just died and that she needed to settle her estate. Since she was now carrying an American passport with her married name (which was different from the family name on her old Iraqi passport) it didn't register with the Iraqis that this was the same woman who had escaped so many years before.
It was early September. The Bush administration was now raising the stakes on Iraq, warning that Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program posed an immediate threat to the United States and the White House was strongly suggesting that war could not be delayed. On September 8, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice coined a memorably ominous phrase on a Sunday talk show when she said, "while there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly" Saddam Hussein can acquire nuclear weapons, "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." Just as Rice was making the public case against Iraq, the Defense Intelligence Agency issued a classified report entitled "Iraq's Reemerging Nuclear Weapons Program," which concluded that Baghdad was on its way to building the bomb. Vice President Cheney, sounding impatient with any further debate, went on a Sunday talk show to add that "this problem [Iraq] has to be dealt with one way or another."
To ratchet up the pressure, the Bush administration leaked information to the American press. The New York Times published a story on September 8 the same day Rice issued her mushroom cloud warning making public the evidence that Iraq had acquired aluminum tubes to rebuild its nuclear weapons program. The story stated that "More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today."
When Sawsan stepped off the plane at Saddam International Airport in Baghdad, she didn't even recognize her brother. When they finally spotted each other, it was a joyous reunion. Saad had a friend in the Iraqi security services, and he helped Sawsan sail through the Iraqi customs and immigration bureaucracy. On the ride into town, Sawsan could also barely recognize the city of her youth, Baghdad had changed so dramatically. She was surprised to see that so many women were now covered. Baghdad didn't seem as secular and open as it once did.
They returned to Saad's house it had been their parents' home in the old days in the affluent Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad, located right next door to the headquarters of the Mukabarat, the Iraqi intelligence service. Sawsan was depressed to see that years of war and privation had led to the steady deterioration of their family home. It had been damaged repeatedly in U.S. bombing raids targeting the neighboring Mukabarrat building, both in the first Gulf War in 1991 and in a 1993 raid to punish the Iraqis for trying to kill the first President Bush. She spent her first day catching up with family and old neighborhood friends, then waited until late the second night of her visit to speak privately with her brother.
Until that night, she had never really had a candid conversation with her brother about his work in Iraq. She had seen him only twice in twenty-five years. He had been allowed to come to the United States once in 1983 for a professional conference, and she had returned once to Iraq, in 1989 for a medical convention. On that visit, Sawsan had noticed that her mother was unhappy and worried that her son was involved in work that might get him hurt, but Saad had refused to talk about it. They had tried to keep in touch since, but it had been difficult, and so her brother's life was something of a mystery to her.
Saad Tawfiq's entire career on the inside of one of the most ruthless regimes in modern history, his life as a key member of the most secretive scientific team in the world the team that tried to build a nuclear bomb for Saddam Hussein had hinged on one moment, a moment when he was forced to choose between freedom and family responsibility.
He was raised a son of privilege and standing in old Iraq, an Iraq in which family and education meant something, before it was twisted and corrupted by Saddam Hussein. Born in 1951, Saad was the son of a doctor and spent much of his youth in the southern Iraqi city of Basra until he was sent away to boarding school in Baghdad. There, he attended the finest prep school Iraq had to offer, Baghdad College, run by American Jesuit priests from Boston College. In college Saad first met many of the boys who would later run Iraq. The American Jesuit teachers instilled in Saad Tawfiq a hunger for learning. He also learned to play baseball and basketball, and he gained a glimpse at the wider world of possibilities beyond his Arab homeland. It didn't matter to him that he was a Muslim Shia attending a Catholic school.
From Baghdad College, Saad went to Baghdad University to study engineering, and his academic prowess landed him a graduate fellowship at the University of Sussex in Britain. Throughout the late 1970s, he worked on his doctorate at Sussex and lived in Brighton with his Iraqi wife and growing family. It was an idyllic time, when all things still seemed possible. His PhD thesis in electrical engineering, in his specialty of systems and control, dealt with optimizing the control of harbor cranes for rapid ship unloading, a supremely practical issue that allowed him to dream of transforming his hometown, the harbor of Basra, into a world-class port.
Saad completed his thesis and received his doctorate in August 1980. He had been in Britain for four years, and Iraq increasingly seemed like part of his past. He was quickly offered two different jobs by Western firms doing business in the Middle East, and accepted one from a British firm handling the construction and air-conditioning of tunnels in Saudi Arabia that were to be used by Muslim pilgrims on the path of the Haj to Mecca.
In January 1981, he was all set to move to Liverpool and start his new career when he received word that his father had died in Baghdad. Four months earlier, Iraq had invaded revolutionary Iran. The brutal war between the two neighbors was already chewing up the Iraqi Army and giving Saddam Hussein an enormous appetite for fresh troops. Even though Saad was now a thirty-year-old scientist with a wife and child, a return trip to Iraq now meant an almost certain ticket into the army. But Saad was the oldest son, and his mother was now alone. His two sisters and his younger brother had all escaped to the United States. For Saad, there really was no choice he had to return. He knew it meant the end of his dreams of a life beyond Iraq.
As soon as he returned, Saad was dispatched into the army, but before long a friend told him of a unique job opportunity, one that could gain him an exemption from further military service: the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission was looking for new scientists. There was an added fillip a free parcel of land, courtesy of Saddam Hussein.
By mid-1981, Saddam Hussein had already become desperate to find new weapons that could break the grim calculus of war with Iran, and he was enamored of the terrible possibilities offered by weapons of mass destruction. The centerpiece of his efforts was a French-designed nuclear reactor then under construction in Tuwaitha, just south of Baghdad. The reactor was part of a larger complex that included a second, smaller French reactor and a Soviet-made test reactor that was already in use. Once the plant was completed with the help of French engineers, Saddam Hussein hoped the reactor would bring him one step closer to turning Iraq into a nuclear power. Although the French had not provided Iraq with the technology to use the reactor to reprocess weapons-grade fuel, that was clearly Saddam Hussein's ultimate objective.
Saad Tawfiq was told nothing about a weapons program when he was hired. Instead, he was assigned to a series of scientific research projects, none of which had anything to do with bomb making. Yet on June 7, 1981, the day before Saad Tawfiq was due to start work, the Israeli air force bombed the Tuwaitha plant in a stunning and high-risk raid by F-15 and F-16 fighters. The French reactor, known to the outside world as Osirak but called Tammuz 1 by the Iraqis, was destroyed. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced that it had conducted the raid in order to block Saddam Hussein from obtaining an atomic bomb with which he could destroy Israel.
Paradoxically, it was the Israeli strike on Tuwaitha that led Saad Tawfiq into the clandestine world of nuclear weapons development. As Saad and others dug through the rubble at Tuwaitha, trying to salvage whatever equipment they could, Saddam Hussein began searching for a new path to nuclear weapons. Finally, a scientist under house arrest offered the regime a solution. Ja'afar Dia Jafar, a Shia who had fallen out of favor with Saddam, said that he knew of a way to develop a bomb without a large reactor. He said Iraq could follow the original path of the American Manhattan Project, which built one of its first bombs using a technique that was later abandoned because it was so slow and tedious, and required enormous amounts of electricity. But those problems were offset by two advantages. The old Manhattan Project technique would be hard for the outside world to detect, and better still, much of the Manhattan Project's technology was now in the public domain and would be relatively easy for Iraq to duplicate.
Jafar was describing a uranium-enrichment process known as EMIS electromagnetic isotope separation which calls for the use of large magnets to help separate ions of two different uranium isotopes. EMIS can produce weapons-grade material in a relatively straightforward manner, and it can do so without the use of a modern nuclear reactor. Of course, EMIS still wouldn't be easy for a small country like Iraq. "The Americans had eleven Nobel laureates to do EMIS during the Manhattan Project we had none," recalled Dhafer Rashid Selby, who was a top manager in the Iraqi program working for Jafar. But EMIS was such a slow, labor- and energy-intensive process that every other nuclear power in the world had abandoned it. No one in the West would ever guess that Iraq was now secretly using it.
Jafar's proposal was adopted, and he was released from house arrest in order to create a new EMIS program. One of the first people he tapped to join his new team was Saad Tawfiq. Before long, Saad would become one of Jafar's protégés. He followed his lead throughout the rest of his career and eventually became one of his senior managers.
The nuclear program was given a cover name Petro-Chemical 3 to convince outsiders that the team was involved in oil-related work. No one, not even Jafar, ever came to Saad and told him he was now assigned to work on a nuclear bomb. Even within the team, there were no explicit orders announcing the bomb program. The team just came together and began working, with subgroups assigned to very specific tasks. Left unsaid was the fact that the only end result that could come from the combination of all of the specific tasks of all of the various subgroups was the creation of an atomic weapon. "It was unspoken; no one ever said it was a weapons program," recalls Saad. "We would talk about the subsystems we were working on, about magnets, power supply, but we wouldn't talk about the overall program, even though it was obvious to everyone. We would sometimes talk among ourselves about it, but we couldn't talk openly." Saad never even told his wife any details about his work.
At the time, Saad didn't have any qualms about trying to help Iraq build the bomb. He believed that it would help create an "equilibrium with Israel," he recalled. "And I didn't think Saddam was a madman."
A key source of nuclear technology for Jafar's new team was the United States itself. In fact, Jafar had recommended using the EMIS process in part because so much old American technological information was publicly available. A major breakthrough for the team came in 1982, when Imad Khouri, the head of information programs for Jafar's team, traveled to the United States and obtained Manhattan Project designs for EMIS from public sources in American libraries. When Khouri returned to Baghdad, Saad Tawfiq and the other scientists were given Manhattan Project data related to their subsystems.
Saad came to the United States to obtain crucial data as well. In 1983, he attended a professional conference in Houston and joined the Instrumentation Society of America, which issued instrumentation standards critical for Saad's systems. With his membership in the ISA, the organization regularly shipped Saad dozens of books and sophisticated software packages produced in the United States that helped him mechanize the design procedures his team was working on.
By 1987, the EMIS program was working just as Jafar had hoped Iraq was slowly making progress in uranium enrichment, and Jafar's team had developed several prototypes of EMIS separators. There were some glitches, particularly when Jafar insisted that the team deviate from the processes used by the Manhattan Project. Still, they had managed to work for six years without anyone outside the regime detecting their operation, certainly not the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Israelis, or even the Americans.
Despite the later fears and suspicions of the CIA, Iraq did not need to buy uranium from Niger in order to provide fuel for a bomb. Early on, Jafar's team relied on small amounts of uranium furnished by the Italians in the late 1970s. Later, a small quantity of uranium was purchased from Brazil. Once Jafar's team was ready for full-scale production, there was plenty of uranium in Iraq. It was extracted from a phosphate-mining region known as Akashat. To handle the natural uranium, Jafar's team built a uranium purification plant in a hilly area thirty kilometers west of Mosul, and began mining uranium in the Akashat region in the early 1980s. Later, before the second Gulf War, when Saad Tawfiq heard the allegations of Iraqi uranium purchases from Niger, he knew that the "information did not come from anyone in Iraq who knew anything."
Throughout the mid-1980s, a string of facilities related to the EMIS process were clandestinely constructed, giving Iraq a large nuclear infrastructure that the West had still not detected. But in late 1987, Saddam Hussein, evidently impatient with the slow pace of the project, placed his thuggish son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, in charge of the nuclear program. Kamel saw the nuclear program as the crown jewel in the regime's WMD efforts, but his demands to accelerate the program, creating new teams to enrich uranium through more advanced means, ultimately backfired. The Iraqi campaign to obtain dual-use technology for the more advanced techniques demanded by Kamel attracted unwanted international attention and suspicion. "We had always wanted to do things indigenously, but Hussein Kamel thought you should just go out and buy what you need," recalled Saad. Two of Hussein Kamel's men were arrested at Heathrow Airport after trying to buy American nuclear triggers. Jafar's effort to mask the program was unraveling.
It was Saddam Hussein's decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 that proved to be the fatal mistake. The nuclear program had become a major enterprise, with at least eight thousand workers. Yet it was still two to three years away from producing a weapon. Eight separators had been installed for the EMIS program, but significant enriched-uranium production was still far in the future.
If Saddam had waited to attack until the nuclear team was ready, his power and influence in the Middle East might have been secured. But with the Kuwaiti invasion came intense and unrealistic pressure on the team to produce. Hussein Kamel ordered that they work around the clock during the long months between the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the U.S.-led Desert Storm campaign. Saad Tawfiq spent almost every waking moment during those months at the nuclear facilities. There was discussion of trying to rig a "dirty bomb" an explosive device stuffed with radioactive material already on hand but the orders never came and the plan was abandoned. In the end, Jafar's team could not produce the bomb that Saddam needed to ward off the international coalition.
The end for the nuclear program came almost by accident: the Americans destroyed the Iraqi program from the air without even realizing it. In early 1991, a U.S. aircraft that had completed its raid on another Iraqi target had turned for home with two bombs left. The pilot began searching for another target to drop his remaining weapons and was directed to a complex of buildings in Tarmiya, about 30 kilometers north of Baghdad, that the United States apparently believed was part of the Iraqi Military Industrialization Commission. The pilot bombed the largest buildings in the complex and headed for home. Surveillance photos of the bomb damage intrigued American targeteers. There was unusual activity around the damaged buildings, and the Iraqi behavior at the bomb site suggested that this compound was more important than previously believed. A B-52 strike was ordered to hit it again. The B-52 carpet bombing utterly destroyed the Tarmiya uranium-enrichment facility, known to the Iraqis as the Safa factory. It effectively ended Iraq's nuclear ambitions. Jafar's program never recovered.
By May 1991, UN weapons inspectors were in Iraq trying to determine the state of Iraq's WMD programs. At the time, they still did not know that Iraq had had an EMIS program, and Saddam Hussein wanted to keep it that way. In June, Saad and other members of Jafar's team were called in to the presidential palace and told by Jafar that the program was over and that they must now get rid of all of the evidence of its existence. "My orders were to destroy or hide all incriminating evidence, and leave only the equipment that could be shown to be dual-use technology." In the space of seventy-two frantic hours, Saad and other scientists loaded equipment onto 150 tractor-trailers and escorted them out into the western desert. The scientists tagged the equipment as best they could, but so much of it was thrown into the trucks and jumbled together that it was difficult to keep track of it all. For Saad, the worst came late one night when he and his truck convoy got lost in the desert, uncertain which way to head. Finally, the truckloads were turned over to Saddam's Special Security force to conceal and bury.
It wasn't long before the IAEA inspectors began to figure out that Tarmiya had been the site of an enrichment facility. In the summer of 1991, the Iraqi regime's lies about its past nuclear program began to unravel. Under mounting pressure, Hussein Kamel flip-flopped and ordered the scientists not to hide anything. "There were so many changing orders, hide everything, then don't hide anything," recalled Saad. About three months after the tractor-trailers loaded with equipment had first gone into the desert, the inspectors were shown the buried equipment. The combined force of the bombing raids during the war and the inspections afterward brought the nuclear program to a close. "The program was finished and we had no purpose in life," Saad recalled.
In March 1992, Hussein Kamel convinced Saddam to let him keep the nuclear scientists together within his organization, the Military Industrialization Commission. There, Saad and the rest of the team found themselves working on Hussein Kamel's pet industrial projects, all the while knowing that they were biding their time until the UN inspections and sanctions were lifted so they could resume their nuclear work. "Hussein Kamel's idea was to keep people together under the MIC and then see what happened," recalled Saad. In the meantime, "we were there to work on Hussein Kamel's dreams." Any staff members from the team who left to find other work were arrested and jailed until they agreed to return to the MIC.
Yet as the inspections and the sanctions dragged on throughout the 1990s, it became less and less likely that the nuclear program could be easily reconstituted. Finally, in 1995, Hussein Kamel defected, then redefected, and was executed. The MIC and Jafar's teams drifted in his wake. Money for Saad and his team began to dry up, and the scientists had to scramble to find new projects to work on. By the time his sister Sawsan arrived in 2002, with war once again looming, Saad was still at the MIC, working to develop a nitric acid plant for fertilizer production, and was also teaching on the side at the University of Technology in Baghdad. He wasn't doing anything that could lead to the development of a nuclear bomb, because Iraq's nuclear program had been dead for more than a decade.
Sawsan could tell that her brother was very nervous about her visit and that he was reluctant to speak candidly. Despite all of Iraq's problems, he and his family had carved out a reasonably comfortable life for themselves in Baghdad. His children were in good schools, and he was reluctant to do anything to upset his family's status. "He was not into cloak-and-dagger stuff," Sawsan remembered later. He refused to take any time off from work while Sawsan was visiting, and he was clearly afraid to bring attention to the fact that his American relative was in Baghdad at a time when political tensions were so high.
When they finally were able to find time alone to talk late on that second night, Sawsan and Saad took a walk outside. She quietly told him that the CIA wanted him to defect. They want you to get to the Kurdish zone.
Her brother scoffed. How can I get across to the Kurdish area? They are always watching. It was impossible, Saad told her. Particularly since the CIA wasn't offering him any help to get out of Baghdad. As planned, Sawsan then told Saad that the CIA had given her questions to ask him about the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. How close were the Iraqis to having a nuclear warhead? How much weapons-grade fuel did Iraq already have? How advanced is the centrifuge program? What process are you using for isotope separation? Where are the weapons factories? Can you identify the scientists involved in the weapons program?
Saad Tawfiq gave his sister a look of worldly incredulity. Where did they come up with these questions? Don't they know that there is no nuclear program?
Sawsan was stunned. "He just kept saying there is nothing," she remembered later. The nuclear program has been dead since 1991, he explained. There is nothing left. There hasn't been for over a decade. They must know that.
Sawsan tried to continue with her list of questions, but they all seemed to Saad to be the product of some fantasy. We don't have the resources to make anything anymore, he told her. We don't even have enough spare parts for our conventional military. We can't even shoot down an airplane. We don't have anything left. If the sanctions are ever lifted, then Saddam is certain to restart the programs. But there is nothing now.
Saad told his sister that he was fed up with all the talk of war, and that maybe, between the two of them, they now had an opportunity to do something about it. Now, he was briefly starting to get energized by her visit. Maybe if we tell the CIA that we don't have anything, no weapons, maybe there won't be another war. Saad told his sister that he worried that America was going to invade for no reason, when there was nothing left of the weapons program. He had seen the effects of war on Iraq before, and he didn't think the country could stand another.
It was sometimes hard for the brother and sister to find time to talk privately during her ten-day stay. Saad was teaching at the university, but also had to attend meetings at night related to his primary job as a manager at Iraq's Military Industrialization Commission. Saad also had a secretary who came to his house several times while Sawsan was visiting. Only after the 2003 war did Saad discover that she was an informant for Iraqi intelligence.
One night, they couldn't arrange time alone until 2:00 a.m. Sawsan again suggested they take a walk outside. Saad said no; they would arouse suspicions, and their actions might be reported. So he unplugged the telephones and turned up the volume on the television, and they whispered to each other. Sawsan told her brother that the CIA wanted to know what he thought about information they had received from one former Iraqi scientist who had defected to the United States, and who was now telling the Americans that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction. Saad was dismissive, saying that the guy was a phony and never knew anything. He was just saying those things to get paid.
Just before Sawsan left to return to the United States, Saad told her again that he didn't think it would be worthwhile for him to risk trying to defect. Why take the risk, he said, when all I can tell them is that there is no program. It would be up to Sawsan to carry that message back to the CIA.
Sawsan flew home to Cleveland in mid-September and was quickly contacted by the CIA, which then flew her to Washington for a series of meetings with the agency's analysts. Four CIA officers met Sawsan in a hotel in suburban Virginia, eager to debrief their agent from Iraq.
Sawsan told the CIA men that her brother was unable to answer their carefully prepared list of questions because there was no nuclear weapons program in Iraq. She explained that the defector they were relying on for information about the nuclear program didn't know what he was talking about. She said that Saad had said that even before the first Gulf War, Iraq was three years away from producing a nuclear bomb and that the program had been abandoned after the war. Saad had told her that there was no effort under way to rebuild the nuclear program. It would have been impossible to restart the program without it being noticed, he had said.
She apologized that she was unable to get specific answers for many of their detailed questions, but her brother had repeatedly told her that there simply wasn't any nuclear program.
I'm sorry I don't have more for you.
As they sat and listened to Sawsan in the Virginia hotel room, the CIA officials all nodded and seemed sympathetic. Every answer is helpful, they told her. Sawsan noticed that they didn't seem surprised that her brother had insisted that there were no weapons programs left. What about purchases of uranium from overseas? Sawsan had been told to ask Saad about the Niger shipments.
No, Saad said that was not going on, Sawsan recounted. Nothing like that was going on. In fact, Sawsan said, Saad kept wondering where the CIA was getting these crazy questions.
This is good, the CIA men repeated. All the information you brought us is good.
Sawsan's debriefing lasted a couple of hours, and then the CIA men packed up, thanked Sawsan for her time, and put her back on a plane for Cleveland. After she returned home, Chris from the CIA's Pittsburgh station came to visit again, and this time brought a small gift: a wood and glass case containing a folded American flag that he said had flown over CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The CIA, he told her, wanted to express its gratitude for her bravery. Sawsan was touched, but something Chris said to her husband during the visit worried her.
We think that Saad is lying to Sawsan, Chris told Sawsan's husband. We think he knows much more than he is willing to tell her. To Sawsan's husband, that didn't make any sense, and he said so.
Why would he lie? What does he have to gain from it? You wanted him to defect, but he said there was no program to talk to you about.
The CIA man smiled, nodded, and left. Sawsan Alhaddad's debriefing report was filed along with all the others from the family members who had agreed to return to Baghdad to contact Iraqi weapons scientists.
All of them some thirty had said the same thing. They all reported to the CIA that the scientists had said that Iraq's programs to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons had long since been abandoned. Charlie Allen's program to use family members to contact dozens of Iraqi scientists had garnered remarkable results and given the CIA an accurate assessment of the abandoned state of Iraq's weapons programs months before the U.S. invasion in March 2003.
CIA officials ignored the evidence and refused to even disseminate the reports from the family members to senior policy makers in the Bush administration. Sources say that the CIA's Directorate of Operations, which was supposed to be in charge of all of the agency's clandestine intelligence operations, was jealous of Allen's incursions into its operational turf and shut down his program and denigrated its results. President Bush never heard about the visits or the interviews.
The agency's Directorate of Intelligence, in charge of analyzing information collected by the agency's spies and other sources, did not even consider using the information from the family members. Analysts responsible for intelligence reports on Iraqi WMD never included any of it in their assessments. The reports from the family members of Iraqi scientists were buried in the bowels of the CIA and were never released for distribution to the State Department, Pentagon, or the White House. The CIA had obtained hard evidence that Saddam Hussein had abandoned his efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction and the agency chose not to share that information with the president of the United States, who was about to send American troops to fight and die in Iraq. Sawsan's dangerous trip into the heart of Saddam Hussein's Iraq had been for nothing. Saad Tawfiq's desperate hope that his sister could carry a message back to the CIA that might prevent a war was dashed by the petty turf battles and tunnel vision of the agency's officials.
In October 2002 one month after Sawsan Alhaddad's trip to Baghdad the U.S. intelligence community issued a comprehensive report, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, on the status of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. It was supposed to be the agency's best effort to pull together everything known about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs, while providing the intelligence community's most judicious assessments of where the programs were headed in the future. It confidently stated that Iraq "is reconstituting its nuclear program."
One of the only advantages to living next door to the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service was good television reception. By accident, Saad Tawfiq had discovered that, with a few adjustments, it was possible for him to capture the satellite television feed as it beamed down into the intelligence headquarters next door. Since Iraqi intelligence officials were obligated to know what the world was saying about their extremely demanding boss, Saddam Hussein, they got all the Western news channels, including the BBC and CNN. Free satellite television didn't make up for the shattered windows, blown-out doors, and other collateral damage his house had suffered over the previous decade, but it was something.
From his home in Baghdad in February 2003, Saad Tawfiq watched Secretary of State Colin Powell's televised presentation to the United Nations about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. As Powell dramatically built the American case for war, Saad sank further and further into frustration and despair.
They didn't listen. I told them there were no weapons.
Copyright © 2006 by James Risen