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Newsmaker: Mohamed ElBaradei

January 28, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Our Newsmaker with the United Nations chief nuclear weapons inspector Mohamed ElBaradei. Gwen Ifill spoke to him this afternoon from the United Nations.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. ElBaradei, welcome.

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: Thank you very much, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Yesterday in your appearance before the United Nations you said that good progress — are the words you used — was being made in the nuclear inspections in Iraq, which, by contrast to your partner Hans Blix’s assessment, a much more bleak assessment of where the inspections were, seemed pretty optimistic. Is there a contrast between your two views?

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: I think the contrast, Gwen, is the result of us dealing with different files. The nuclear file started from a different base line in 1998, we neutralized Iraq’s nuclear program when we left Iraq. Hans Blix, when he left or his team left Iraq in 1998, they had so many open questions in the chemical, biological, and long-range missiles. It’s also because in the nuclear area we have a number of sophisticated techniques to be able to detect any radioactivity or nuclear activity. So the result of a different base line, the result of different techniques, enable us, in fact, to make much more progress than Hans Blix did in the chemical, biological and missile area.

GWEN IFILL: When the president spoke on the subject last October, he said, “The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.” Are you saying that so far you found no evidence of that?

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: I think when we returned to Iraq eight weeks ago, there were a number of concerns. President. Bush mentioned some. Prime Minister Blair mentioned some. But over the last eight weeks we were able to eliminate some of these concerns. For example, there were many buildings being constructed at different locations. We were able to visit all these sites and satisfy ourselves that they are not used for nuclear activities. There were talks about aluminum tubes that could have been used for the manufacturing of or production of uranium.

We have, I think, have been going through thorough investigation and so far we believe that these tubes were meant for conventional rockets; however, the investigation is still going. There were reports about Iraq importing uranium from Africa, again, we are going through that, that investigation, and we haven’t seen any evidence. So overall, we haven’t seen any evidence of revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq, but we have not done, we have not completed our job yet, Gwen. That’s why we have been saying that we need few more months before we complete the job.

GWEN IFILL: Do you believe that Britain or the United States or other allies may have intelligence, which will be helpful in helping you to complete your job, like, for instance, on uranium imports?

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: I think they might have — on the uranium importation we haven’t yet seen any specific actionable intelligence. On other — in other areas we have started to receive intelligence information, and some of them have been quite helpful, but we have only started to receive actionable information in the last three weeks or so, so we need to see more specific information. We need to run a lot of these tests on Iraq different activities. We need to test different scenarios for diversion; we need to follow a number of leads before we can come and say, yes, we are now satisfied that Iraq does not have a nuclear weapon program.

But we’re inching forward, and that’s why I said, give me more time, and I believe in the next few months, barring exceptional circumstances, we should be able to give you some good credible assurance on the nuclear program. That is different from the chemical, biological, and missile area; as you have stated. Hans Blix has painted a rather bleak picture that has not really made much progress in this area not because he believes that they have or have evidence that they have chemical and biological weapons, but because there are so many open questions and, therefore, he cannot exclude that possibility. And he’s pleading …

GWEN IFILL: I’m sorry. Go ahead.

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: Sorry, what he’s pleading for is additional evidence, so the key in his area is more, more evidence.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and you mentioned also that you asked explicitly for more time. Yet, Hans Blix, who needs the additional evidence, did not make that explicit request. Why do you think that is?

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: Well, I’ve been talking to Hans Blix today; he did not want to say that I want more time because that might create the impression that he’s making much progress. I think he wanted to put the accent on the need for Iraq to cooperate before he can ask for more time, but he was saying, if I’m asked, do I need more time, the answer is yes, so it’s really a different nuance.

GWEN IFILL: And when you say more time, are you talking about — as you just suggested I think — a few months, or as for instance the South African ambassador, who this has been compared to so much, has been saying it took a couple of years.

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: No, no I’m talking about a few months. I mean, do not forget that by 1998 we eliminated Iraq nuclear program, so our focus right has now — has anything happened in the last four years — in the intervening four years that changed our understanding of Iraq nuclear activity, so our job is rather discreet, and South Africa was different.

When we went to South Africa, we had to dismantle the complete nuclear weapons program in South Africa. And that’s something we have done already between 1991 and 1998 in Iraq, so what we need is something rather — four to six months, I hope — barring exception as represented by unforeseen discoveries, we should be able to complete the job.

GWEN IFILL: The Bush administration seems to have a very specific idea of what the inspector’s role should be, specifically that it should be ore passive, that Iraq should be bringing you information, rather than inspectors going out to root it out. What is your take on that?

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: I think we need both, Gwen. We need active Iraqi cooperation because that will speed the process and will make it much more credible, but we also need very proactive inspection process. I mean, the inspection process is based on fact finding. It is not simply that a country tells us here’s what we have and we simply say, yes, that’s fine, we can give you a clean bill of health. That’s not the way it works.

That’s why I said yesterday at the Council that inspection is not based on trust. We do not judge intentions; what we do is judge facts, verify facts, and come to credible conclusions, so even if Iraq is fully cooperative, we still have to do a thorough inspection using the full complement of the inspection process.

GWEN IFILL: I guess it’s the cart and the horse question. I want to press you on this a little bit. Do you disagree with the president who believes that the role of inspectors in Iraq ought to be to assess the information for disarmament rather than seeking it out?

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: No. I’m not disagreeing with him but what I’m saying that Iraq should be proactive and we will assess their information Iraq were to provide but if — but we have also to verify the veracity of the Iraqi declaration. We cannot just say this is a comprehensive declaration, so we need proactive Iraqi cooperation and we need a very thorough inspection process.

GWEN IFILL: What is your reaction when the Iraqi ambassador, al-Douri, says flat out Iraq has complied with a resolution? Do you just flat out disagree?

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: It is not helpful because Iraq, as I have been saying, needs to change heart. Rather than say we have done everything possible, they should say let us see what an inspector wants — inspector wants more — and let us try to get out of our way to satisfy the inspectors’ demand, because only in satisfying our demand that they can see light at the end of the tunnel. It is only through positive reports by Hans Blix and myself that sanctions can be suspended or lifted in Iraq, but to continue to say we have nothing more to provide, we have no more evidence, I don’t think that’s helpful.

Last week when we were in Iraq, Gwen, we impressed on the Iraqis that they are already suspected. Resolution 1441 said you are in material breach, so they really, they are considered to be guilty unless proven innocent, and that means that the level of confidence we need to establish in the case of Iraq, particularly because of their past pattern of behavior is very hard. And we need to…

GWEN IFILL: I’m sorry. And yet neither you nor Hans Blix yesterday used that term “material breach.” What can Iraq do to satisfy you at this point?

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: Well, they need to come with people to interview — and that’s particularly in the area of chemical and biological –and as I said, I think in our area we are getting good cooperation in many areas, except the area of interviewing people where we would like to interview people in private and also would like to see some additional documentation, but in the area of chemical, biological, when there is no progress or very little progress is made, they need to come with physical evidence.

When they say things are destroyed, they need to show the inspectors remnants of what, of the item that has been destroyed. If they do not have documents, they need to come with people to be interviewed. I think interviewing scientists, for example, in private is a very good confidence-building mechanism. Yet, we have not been able to interview one Iraqi scientist in private, so there are things Iraq can do to build confidence, and, as I said, they need to build a high level of confidence before the Security Council can declare them clean from weapons of mass destruction.

GWEN IFILL: When you mention — when you’re speaking of weapons of mass destruction and you mention specifically chemical and biological concerns, are those the greatest concerns right now for you that those are the biggest unanswered questions — what became of a lot of the materials that you knew Iraq had last time you checked and now they have not accounted for their disposition?

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: That’s correct. I think chemical and biological and also missile, long-range missile. These are the issues when there are so many outstanding open questions. On the nuclear issue, although it’s the most lethal type of weapons of mass destruction, I think the number of questions are fairly limited and we are making progress on answering these questions.

GWEN IFILL: Sec. Powell has suggested that he may be sharing in public some more intelligence next week or later this week on these subjects. Is this what you’re hoping to hear from the United States, that there’s additional intelligence that can lead you to some of these chemical and biological stores?

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: Yes. We have been having a good dialogue with U.S. and with many other countries in terms of intelligence sharing, but I’m happy to hear that there are more intelligence coming, and we would be very happy to receive the information and act on it. The more intelligence information we get, the more places we can visit, the more techniques we can use, the more we can provide assurance that Iraq is clean from weapons of mass destruction.

Remember, we have to prove the negative, which is a rather difficult and complex process; it is not that we — it’s easy to prove that there is a weapon in Iraq but it’s much more difficult to prove that there is no weapon in Iraq, and that requires a complementary set of activities, and over a sustained period of time before we can generate that kind of confidence and transmit it to the Security Council.

GWEN IFILL: Mohamed ElBaradei, thank you so much for joining us.

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: Thank you very much for having me.