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Coming Clean

December 30, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Now for more on the new efforts to dismantle Libya’s suspected nuclear weapons program, we get two views: Joseph Cirincione is director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. And Paul Leventhal is founder of the Nuclear Control Institute, an independent research and advocacy group in Washington that promotes nuclear nonproliferation.

Mr. Leventhal, was this first inspection visit by Mohamed ElBaradei a good start?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: Well, there was a certain eerie familiarity to the way he was presenting himself and the agency’s views and it’s very similar to what the agency had to say about Iraq right after the invasion of Kuwait, where he described the Iraqi scientists as good citizens of the NPT, and when they visited Iran initially they said there was not a scintilla of evidence of a nuclear weapons program, and he is saying today that he feels in his gut that Libya was not pursuing a nuclear weapons program and that things are very primitive and preliminary stage, even though there are reports citing unnamed senior Western intelligence officials as indicating that the Libyans did have a centrifuge running and were producing enriched uranium.

GWEN IFILL: So you’re skeptical about that?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: I’m skeptical and I think we really have to wait and see.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cirincione, what do you think?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Well, I think inspections are off to a very good start and the IAEA has built up a very good track record so far with Iran, but as the State Department spokesman points it, it’s too soon to tell. This is just the first visit, just to four sites. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done.

The good news here is that the IAEA actually has improved its capabilities since 1991 when they made that mistake that Paul indicates. And it turns out in the run up to the Iraq war, the IAEA had better intelligence, had better understanding of Iraq’s nuclear program than the U.S. did. That is, Iraq did not have a nuclear program. The IAEA got it right.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s keep to Libya. Is there any way of knowing, does the United States know, does Britain know, does the IAEA know the extent of Libya’s weapons of mass destruction that they actually had in their possession?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: I think initially at least you have to defer to what the U.S. and the British intelligence agencies were able to uncover, and apparently by being able to uncover it, coerce Gadhafi into a cooperative mode. I think the colonel did not suddenly have a religious conversion, and I think he was confronted with the evidence and it was made clear to him that he would not be permitted to keep this program going and therefore there was an opportunity here for him to turn over a new leaf and to win international support and a restoration of trade relations.

And I think that’s basically what happened. My concern is that we may not know everything that is there. I think the U.S. and the Brits have a fairly good sense of it, they visited about 11 facilities compared with the four that the IAEA visited. But I think Gadhafi, excuse me, I think ElBaradei is overstepping when he comes to these conclusions at the very outset that suggests that it’s all very limited and that there is no weapons program.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Well, there’s a lot of evidence that indicates that Libya’s program is in fact limited. We ourselves at Carnegie track these programs around the world and last year we downgraded Libya from a high risk state, which we felt they were in the 1990s, to a state of some concern. Every indication that we had was that Libya’s program in fact was in the past, and there wasn’t significant activity towards building a nuclear weapon. So far that seems to be what the IAEA is finding, but this is just the beginning. Gadhafi’s promised to open up everything, to bring inspectors everywhere. I think if the U.S. wants to bring their own inspectors in, that’s a good idea, as long as it’s a supplement to the IAEA and not a replacement for it.

GWEN IFILL: Here’s a question about the — Mohamed ElBaradei’s group, the IAEA — are they capable of actually finding the weapons they’re there to find? I mean, that’s where all the skepticism is coming from, isn’t it?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: I think we have to face the reality of the situation that the IAEA can do a credible job when nations are willing to cooperate and when nations are determined to proliferate the IAEA does a terrible job. It missed Iraq, it missed North Korea, it missed Iran and it missed Libya, each of them parties to the nonproliferation treaty, and obligated to open up all their facilities to the inspectors.

So what is the lesson to be learned from this? The lesson to be learned from this is that the IAEA is limited in what it do, and I frankly find it shocking that ElBaradei makes the kind of sweeping conclusions as he did today in the segment that you showed, it’s way too early to come to any conclusions, except that there was a centrifuge program that the agency did not have a clue over.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Well, here’s good news. The IAEA is limited, it only has a $30 million a year budget, compared, for example, to the U.S. intelligence agencies, which have about a $30 billion year budget; now, neither the U.S. nor the IAEA knew that Libya had centrifuges. That’s the bad news. The good news is we now know that they do, that they’re opening them up and showing them to us and we have to track them, are these new? Were they acquired some 15 years ago, the way Iran’s apparently were? We have got to track all this down.

But the IAEA isn’t alone in this; it’s part of a network, a system of treaties and organizations and export control regimes including sanctions, which play a very strong role in both Iran, and now in Libya, convincing those countries to turn their programs off in order to avoid the sanctions that Libya is under.

GWEN IFILL: But it seems one of the questions here is, do you rely on Moammar Gadhafi’s good word that he’s going to be as transparent as possible, which is what they have said, or do you have to be equipped with whatever the IAEA have and whatever intelligence or other kind of cash assistance the U.S. and Britain may be able to provide to find out more?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: Well, I hope the agency and the U.S. government do not operate at cross purposes. There is past experience where the U.S. government cooperated in a very helpful and valuable way with the IAEA, for example, in helping the IAEA uncover and fully account for as far as we know, this South African nuclear weapons program. U.S. nuclear weapons experts cooperated. And now there seems to be a contest of wills between ElBaradei and the U.S. government.

GWEN IFILL: What’s that about?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: Well, it’s about embarrassment caused to the U.S. by ElBaradei’s statement before the U. N., for example, that the reported smuggling of uranium from Niger proved to be based on counterfeit documents. And it was also based on ElBaradei rushing to judgment in Iran and saying there’s no evidence of a weapons program.

But what I did want to add just one point. I think the one thing the IAEA could do that would be of immense help to clear the air would be to kiss close fully who the suppliers of Libya are, who the suppliers of Iran are, name all the companies, name all the countries that the companies are in, clear the air so that these companies and these countries are under pressure to come forward and disclose everything.

GWEN IFILL: So Mr. Cirincione, do you have any idea who those countries and who those companies might be?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: We’re about to find out. This is one of the very interesting things about this story. We’ve not only caught the guy selling drugs on the street, he’s now turning over his big time suppliers to us. Similarly, in Iran we’re starting to get information on where they came from. The one trail points to Pakistan; while we were looking at a lot of the rogue states, turns out one of our allies has been selling centrifuges to North Korea, to Iran, and now likely Libya.

GWEN IFILL: But that’s sticky, isn’t it?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: It is sticky, it shows that this problem is not just about rogues, it’s about any country that has this technology, any country that has these weapons, you got to watch them all, also the Europeans. It’s very likely a lot of this material came from German, perhaps from Dutch, Belgian firms, and this is where we really have to turn the screws on. The president’s got the right approach on this. We’ve got to make the transfer of these kinds of technologies as illegitimate as the transfer of drugs is, as aid to terrorists is. We have to hold a government accountable for what their corporations are doing, we can’t let them turn a blind eye and make a buck.

PAUL LEVENTHAL: If I could add to what Joe just said, these revelations point up not only the weaknesses of the IAEA, but also the failure of the so-called nuclear suppliers group which is a cooperative arrangement among the major industrial states to police their own exports and not to transfer certain items at all, and then some only under full scope safeguards, that is inspections on all facilities in the receiving country. And this system unfortunately has proven to be a bust.

GWEN IFILL: How afraid should we be of what we don’t know if indeed they got there and found all these centrifuges existed that we didn’t know existed, that it took Libya saying here it is, let’s puts it on the table for us to find out that this kind of effort was under way, what should we be looking for next? Where should we be looking next?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Well, fortunately this is a fairly limited problem. After Libya, after Iran, North Korea, Iraq, there really aren’t any major countries that we’re worried about. We’re not concerned, for example that Syria has a major nuclear program.

PAUL LEVENTHAL: I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: But nothing of any substance that we fear at this point. What it shows, this is ElBaradei’s point — it’s true you can’t find out what somebody is doing in a garage. But when you want to scale it up to a weapon that doesn’t require just dozens of centrifuges, which is what Libya has, it requires thousands, a very large energy supply, a large signature. That kind of thing we can detect that kind of thing — we can track, and fortunately our tools for doing that are improving all the time.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Leventhal.

PAUL LEVENTHAL: We didn’t detect it in Iraq. Iraq had its own version having a Manhattan Project and that was only uncovered after the first Gulf War. The IAEA didn’t have a clue, and frankly we didn’t either, or the Israelis who tend to monitor these things pretty closely.

I think what this points up is that there really needs to be a let’s take the rose colored glasses off reassessment of the IAEA, the nonproliferation regime and the kind of cooperation that exists among countries, and I think we have to put more authority in the U.N. Security Council and take it away from the IAEA Board of Governors, which has an inherent conflict of interest in the sense they don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt nuclear power development, and therefore they tend to withhold information.

GWEN IFILL: Time for a quick response.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: We’re just finishing a report at Carnegie that looks at the story of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and one of the conclusions we come to that David Kay himself cites, is that sanctions play a critically important role in this. As David Kay says, sanctions had a much bigger impact on the Iraq program than we ever thought. It’s time to reevaluate how successful our tools have been. It looks like they’re playing that same role in convincing Libya to rehabilitate.

GWEN IFILL: Joe Cirincione and Paul Leventhal, thank you for both for joining us.