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"President Bush's Frankenstein"
For George H. W. Bush's secretary of state James A. Baker III, the Cold War ended on 3 August 1990. That day at Moscow's Vnukovo International Airport Baker and the Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, stood side by side and jointly condemned Saddam Hussein's massive and ongoing invasion of Kuwait, a small, wealthy, but largely undefended country southeast of Iraq on the Persian Gulf that produced about 10 percent of Middle Eastern oil. Iraq, the Soviet Union's most important client in the region, was heavily armed with Soviet tanks, missiles, and artillery; Shevardnadze's willingness to condemn Iraqi aggression signaled to Baker the beginning of a real partnership between the United States and the U.S.S.R.
During the long Iran-Iraq War that had ended in 1988, two years before Iraq invaded Kuwait, Saddam Hussein had been the enemy of America's enemy Iran, and thus, if not a friend, at least something of a surrogate. The United States had remained neutral during the first two years of the war, but when an Iranian offensive in spring 1982 succeeded in breaking through the Iraqi line and forcing the Iraqis to retreat, the Reagan administration had begun to favor Iraq. An affidavit sworn by a National Security Council (NSC) staff member, Howard Teicher, who helped develop the new policies, describes the result:
In June 1982...President Reagan decided that the United States would do whatever was necessary and legal to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran. President Reagan formalized this policy by issuing a National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) to this effect in June 1982....CIA Director [William] Casey personally spearheaded this effort to ensure that Iraq had sufficient military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to avoid losing the Iran-Iraq war. Pursuant to the secret NSDD, the United States actively supported the Iraqi war effort by supplying the Iraqis with billions of dollars of credits, by providing U.S. military intelligence and advice to the Iraqis, and by closely monitoring third country arms sales to Iraq....The CIA, including both CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director [Robert] Gates, knew of, approved of, and assisted in the sale of non-U.S. origin military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to Iraq.
In the same spirit, the State Department removed Iraq that year from its list of states that sponsored terrorism. Two years later, in 1984, Donald Rumsfeld, a corporate executive at that time who was serving as a Reagan special envoy to the Middle East, met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad to discuss areas of cooperation, including restoring diplomatic relations after a seventeen-year hiatus. That meeting, on 20 December, produced the video, later to become notorious, of Rumsfeld shaking Saddam's hand. Saddam "was pleased that [the] US wished to see further development in its relations with Iraq, including exchange of ambassadors," a secret State Department summary noted. "Iraq valued this positive appreciation by the US of the need for a high level of relations."
Israel, which had been selling arms to the Iranians, also offered at that time to assist Iraq. ("I do not remember even one discussion about the ethics of the matter," an Israeli defense ministry official told the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman about the sales to Iran. "All that interested us was to sell, sell, sell more and more Israeli weapons, and let them kill each other with them.") Teicher, the NSC staff person, testified that he attended the meeting in Jerusalem at which the Israeli foreign minister, Yitzhak Shamir, briefed Rumsfeld on the offer, as well as the meeting in Baghdad when Rumsfeld passed the offer along to the Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz. Aziz was horrified, Teicher recalled: "Aziz refused even to accept the Israelis' letter to Hussein offering assistance, because Aziz told us that he would be executed on the spot by Hussein if he did so."
Despite the warming of U.S.-Iraq relations, both the United States and Israel were aware that Iraq was pursuing a program of nuclear development; Israel at least was following the Iraqi program with concern. Iraq had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a nonnuclear state, thus committing itself not to develop nuclear weapons, but the U.S. and Israel suspected that it was cheating on its commitment. Iraq allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect its nuclear facilities, as its NPT commitment required. At that time, however, the treaty terms restricted IAEA inspections to facilities that the parties to the treaty had officially declared; nor was the IAEA authorized to conduct surprise inspections or to probe beyond official declarations. The United States might collect intelligence and bide its time; Israel was not prepared to depend on Iraq's honesty and goodwill. In 1981, striking from the air with sixteen 2,000-pound slick bombs selected and spin- balanced for accuracy, the Israeli Air Force destroyed a French-built 40-megawatt light-water reactor at Al Tuwaitha, a large nuclear- research complex eleven miles southeast of Baghdad on the Tigris River. The reactor had not yet been loaded with fuel. France had delivered the first of six fuel loads, however-twenty-six pounds (11.8 kilograms) of uranium enriched to 93 percent U235 (highly- enriched uranium, or HEU), about two-thirds of the amount needed to charge one first-generation atomic bomb-and that uranium survived the raid undamaged in a bunker.
Iraq, which also operated a five-megawatt Soviet research reactor at the Al Tuwaitha complex fueled with twenty-two pounds (ten kilograms) of 80-percent enriched uranium, made no effort to rebuild the larger French reactor, but in consequence of the Israeli raid it reorganized its entire nuclear program away from plutonium production by reactor to the clandestine production of HEU by uranium enrichment.* David Kay, the American expert who would play a major role in investigating the Iraqi bomb program after the 1991 Gulf War, writes that "the deciding factor in this decision was the desire of the military and security services not to attract any undue attention to Iraq's developing nuclear program....The argument ran: 'Let Israel believe it destroyed our nuclear capacity, accept the sympathy being offered for this aggression, and proceed in secret with the program.' "
In the 1980s, even while fighting its costly war with Iran, Iraq rebuilt and extended Tuwaitha. Building after building was added to the complex, which was divided into four subsections by earthen berms a hundred feet high that kept IAEA inspectors unaware of the expansion (and protected the complex from another Israeli bombing attack). It was perfectly possible for IAEA inspectors to tour one section of the complex while clandestine activity continued beyond its walls, screened as well by trees and the careful placement of interior roads. If Iraq chose not to declare some of the nuclear facilities at Tuwaitha or elsewhere in the country, there was no IAEA mechanism for discovering that fact. The building additions were visible to U.S. and Soviet intelligence satellites, but the clandestine activities that went on inside them were shielded from overhead surveillance.
Nor were IAEA inspectors necessarily alert to diversions, David Kay comments:
Al Tuwaitha was visited every six months by IAEA safeguard inspectors who announced, at the conclusions of such visits, that there was no sign of diversions of nuclear material. The inspectors gave a general clean bill of health to the facility; two deputy director generals of the IAEA and many staff members visited Al Tuwaitha, all of whom indicated that they saw no suspicious activity....The IAEA inspectors were only allowed to visit portions of three of the almost one hundred buildings at Al Tuwaitha....While the restrictions on the movements of these visitors could have been viewed as a warning sign, they were not recognized as such by most of the visitors at the time. The safeguard inspectors were routinely subjected to such restrictions in almost every country they visited.
Saddam Hussein himself had been the president of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission beginning in 1973, when he was the vice president of Iraq. He gave up the position when he became the Iraqi president in 1979 but he accelerated the commission's work. Iraq began buying uranium abroad that year, purchasing more than 11 tons of unenriched uranium dioxide from Italy under IAEA safeguards. Uranium dioxide is a form of uranium that can be converted directly into reactor fuel, though not fuel useable in the type of reactor Iraq was then building. In 1980 Iraq bought 138 tons of yellowcake-partly refined uranium ore-from Portugal, notifying the IAEA that it had done so. Niger supplied another batch of yellowcake, something more than 200 tons, in February 1981, four months before the Israeli strike on Tuwaitha, and once again Iraq notified the IAEA. After the air strike, however, Iraq no longer reported its purchases: 148 tons of yellowcake from Portugal in 1982 and a total of 32 tons of uranium dioxide from Brazil in 1981 and 1982, without IAEA notification. Iraq also hired a Belgian company to design and build a plant for producing yellowcake from indigenous phosphate ore (phosphate rock contains an average of 50 to 200 parts per million of natural uranium). Construction began in 1982 and was completed in 1984; the plant delivered its first batch of Iraqi yellowcake in December 1985, producing a total of 168 tons by 1991.
Why Iraq might be buying large quantities of uranium ore which it had no known facilities for using-no natural-uranium-fueled reactor and no machinery for enrichment-is not a question that anyone has publicly acknowledged asking during this period. Just as, after the Second World War, the United States had doubted if the Soviet Union possessed the industrial capabilities to develop a nuclear-materials complex, so also did U.S. and international experts in the 1980s underestimate Iraq.
In another historical parallel with the early American atomic-bomb program, Iraq in 1987 designed and tested a radiological weapon-a "dirty" bomb. In 1943, shortly after the secret Manhattan Project bomb-design laboratory at Los Alamos, in northern New Mexico, opened its doors, concerned that Nazi Germany might be ahead in the race to build the atomic bomb, the Italian physicist and Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi had proposed to Los Alamos's director, Robert Oppenheimer, that the pioneering nuclear reactor Fermi had recently started up at the University of Chicago might be used to make radioactive material to poison the German food supply. Responding to Fermi's proposal, Oppenheimer had commented, "In this connection I think that we should not attempt a plan unless we can poison food sufficient to kill a half a million men, since there is no doubt that the actual number affected will, because of non-uniform distribution, be much smaller than this." As bomb development advanced, Fermi's project lapsed, although U.S. experiments with radiological weapons continued after the war.
Iraq developed its dirty bomb to use against Iranian troop concentrations and human wave attacks and to contaminate contested building complexes and territory. "The fact is that during the Iran/ Iraq war, it was masses of people attacking Iraq," an Iraqi senior government official testified later. "I have to say that these masses, if they do not die, they would be unhappy. Because they know that by dying, they go to heaven. So it was masses of people attacking Iraq. Any idea that was presented to us to find a solution to this problem on the border of 1,200 kilometers was welcomed." Zirconium, the metal selected for irradiation, with a half-life* in its irradiated form of only 75.5 days, would lose most of its radioactivity in a matter of weeks, allowing Iraqi forces to secure contaminated areas after radiation levels declined.
But the 1987 Iraqi tests proved to be both incompetent and ineffective. The bombs tested, twelve feet long and weighing more than two thousand pounds, were built around three-foot-long, lead- lined capsules containing the radioactive zirconium powder, to be dispersed at the appropriate time by high explosives. They "produced only minimal levels of radiation," writes the proliferation expert Gary Milhollin, who reviewed the 1987 Iraqi test report when Iraq finally disgorged it a decade later. For the third and most successful test, the Iraqi Air Force dropped two bombs from a plane. They generated large radioactive clouds, but most of the radiation dispersed with the clouds. "The maximum level of radiation was only 3 millirem per hour at a distance of 10 meters from the point of impact," Milhollin notes. "According to the report, this is only equal to the dose allowed to be received internationally by radiation workers....Such a dose, by definition, would have little or no health effect over the lifetime of the person receiving it." The bombs would have to be recharged in a nuclear reactor every week to be even minimally effective, another fatal defect. Iraq abandoned its radioactive-bomb program after the 1987 tests and continued to work toward a real nuclear weapon. In 1988 it decided formally to develop a nuclear arsenal, with the expectation that a first bomb would be ready by summer 1991.
The next clear sign that Iraq was advancing toward developing nuclear weapons appeared in 1988, when an Iraqi representative contacted two U.S. companies seeking to obtain a quantity of a special type of vacuum tube known as a krytron. In previous years both Israeli and Pakistani agents had been caught shipping krytrons to their respective countries; now it was Iraq's turn. Krytrons are extremely fast electronic switches; triggered by an electric current, they can open in as short a time as five nanoseconds to pass that current through. In 1988 they were used in high-speed flash photography and in copying machines, but the rugged krytron the Iraqis were seeking was designed specifically to trigger the detonators of a nuclear weapon. Its export required a U.S. government permit, and the Iraqi request for such a permit was denied.
The Iraqi procuring agents regrouped. If they couldn't buy krytrons directly, perhaps they could buy another necessary and more generic element of a nuclear-weapon firing set, a device known as a capacitor. Capacitors accumulate and store electric charge. Attached to a battery, they can accumulate charge from the battery current up to whatever capacity they've been designed to hold; when they discharge, they discharge the entire stored charge at once. An electric fence uses a capacitor to accumulate charge between discharges, typically five thousand volts or more, which is why a mere nine-volt electric-fence battery can deliver such a painful shock. A firing set for a nuclear weapon might thus consist of one or more batteries, which are connected to an array of capacitors, which are connected to krytrons, which are connected to exploding-wire detonators, which are inserted into high-explosive blocks arranged in the form of a sphere of concentric shells of explosives and other components, at the center of which is a sphere of HEU or plutonium. This method of detonating a subcritical mass of fissile material-by squeezing it to a denser supercritical state with an inwardly moving shock wave generated by shaped charges of explosives ("explosive lenses")-is called implosion.