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Newsmaker: Hans Blix

March 17, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And now to Hans Blix. He headed the U.N. weapons inspection team during the run-up to the military action against Iraq one year ago. The former Swedish diplomat has just published a book about that experience, called “Disarming Iraq.” Dr. Blix, welcome.

HANS BLIX: Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: The prime minister elect of Spain said on Monday that the United States and Britain organized the war on Iraq with lies. From the standpoint of weapons of mass destruction, do you agree with that?

HANS BLIX: Well, they certainly advanced weapons of mass destruction as the decisive reason for going to war, and I think the evidence was rather weak at the time. We had heard in the autumn of 2002 that the alleged aluminum tubes, for instance, which were thought, alleged to be for making the centrifuges, were probably more likely to be for making a rocket. And in January 2003, we had performed quite a lot of inspections to sites which were given by intelligence and they had not shown any weapons of mass destruction, so we began to be doubtful.

And among the 700 inspections that we performed, none brought us any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. I warned the Security Council about that. Yet, there might have been other evidence and Colin Powell came before the Security Council and he brought some evidence, which we could not check. And I think that by now most of the evidence has fallen apart.

JIM LEHRER: So was it clear to you and your inspectors and clear to others that you talked to at the time that there probably were no weapons of mass destruction there to be found?

HANS BLIX: No, that is going too far. I mean we…there were lots of question marks. You see, there were lots of things that were unaccounted for. We knew that they had had quantities of mustard gas and anthrax and other things, and they could not tell us with any evidence of where it had gone. Therefore, it was labeled unaccounted for. However, there was a tendency on both the U.S. side and the U.K. side to equate unaccounted for with existing. And that was an error.

JIM LEHRER: Was it an intentional error? Or what is your interpretation of what they were doing? Why would they look at the same information you were looking at and come to a different conclusion?

HANS BLIX: Well, I think there was not enough critical thinking, neither in the intelligence agencies nor at the governmental level. We were, for instance, asked to come through and report on anthrax that the U.S. intelligence had maintained that it existed and criticized in the newspaper, in the Washington Times, for instance, that we did not report on that to the Security Council. But we would only report on anything for which we saw the evidence. A simple report by an intelligence agency that there was anthrax was not enough.

And I think that we thus exercised much more critical thinking of what we saw just as in court. When you have a witness, you have a witness cross-examined before you really begin to assess how valuable it was. And I think this was lacking both in London and in Washington.

JIM LEHRER: Did you come away from that whole experience with an impression as to why that was lacking in Washington and in London?

HANS BLIX: Well, it’s clear that 9/11 had very much to do with it. I think Mr. Rumsfeld said that the situational evidence had not changed very much at 9/11, but they saw it all, all the evidence in a different light. They were more suspicious. Anything that really suggested that they had weapons of mass destruction was taken for evidence without a thorough examination. It was a little like the witch hunts, the same mentality as the witch hunts of past centuries that we are convinced they exist and then you are inclined to look at any evidence as proof of that.

JIM LEHRER: Based on your knowledge of the situation, were you surprised that once the U.S. and coalition forces went in there and the Saddam Hussein regime fell, that no weapons were actually found?

HANS BLIX: I think something changed importantly at the time when they had gone in, in April and May; and that was that the U.S. forces then were able to interrogate military people and scientists. And when we were interrogating them and interviewing them, they might have been scared of any consequences from the terrorist regime that Saddam Hussein was the head of.

However, when the U.S. had taken over, the same people would not have that scare, and on the contrary, they were probably rewarded both by money and other ways if they indicated any sites where there were weapons of mass destruction. And none of them apparently did so. Rather they said that, no, there aren’t any. And I think that was credible. So by April-May, I think it was pretty clear to me that there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction. [Inaudible] came to that conclusion but only much later.

JIM LEHRER: But had you had the expectation that there would be weapons found?

HANS BLIX: Well, if you had asked me in December 2002, what is your gut feeling, I would have said I’m not here to have any gut feelings. I’m here to inspect. But as we went into more inspections in January, then I became… and we didn’t find any weapons, I became more skeptical. And of course when Mr. El Baradei of the IAEA reported that the famous contract on import of uranium oxide was a forgery, there was an accumulation of indications that evidence was shaky. So we became doubtful. At the time of the occupation we could not have said, excluded that there still were weapons of mass destruction; it was only a little later I think that that conclusion, I think, was clear.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation before the U.N. Security Council. Looking back on it almost a year later now, what do you think of that presentation?

HANS BLIX: Well, I think the U.S. was a bit ambivalent as to how they would present the case against Iraq. On the one hand they knew that anything that would be called a smoking gun as a concrete evidence of that possession of anthrax or VX or of any biological means, that that was best, that would be the most convincing. At the same time, they were aware that this evidence was rather shaky. So they said that no, you don’t need a smoking gun. All that is needed is evidence that Saddam has had a change of heart, that he has taken a strategic decision.That was something fairly nebulous after all. So his presentation fell into the category of proving the smoking gun. It was very difficult to verify.

You take an intercepted telephone call as he played in the Security Council chamber and you don’t know who intercepted it and who are the persons, et cetera. So it might have appeared like a solid performance but I asked my experts about it and there were several of the cases, which we were skeptical about. As a result, I went into the Council and I reported on that skepticism.

JIM LEHRER: Did you express your skepticism to Secretary Powell directly?

HANS BLIX: Yeah, yes, he was in the Council I think when I expressed it. Yes, he was. He was present.

JIM LEHRER: You said in your book that there were monumental… that’s your word… monumental intelligence failures about the presence of weapons of mass destruction. What is the most monumental of all?

HANS BLIX: There are two, there are three monumental. The first one I mentioned, this was the alleged contract between Iraq and Niger on the import of raw uranium. Both the CIA and British intelligence had had that for months. It was referred to by President Bush in the State of the Union message in 2003. And the IAEA was asking to get it and they got it fairly late I think in February 2003. And it took them only a day to establish that this was a forgery. Now, I think with the intelligence agency with all their labs and their techniques, that was monumental that they had not discovered this.

In fact also, we know now that Ambassador Wilson of the U.S. had been to Niger and he had also expressed the view that this was not real. The other one was the British news of something that turned out to be a research essay by an Iraqi student at a university, and this was presented as something new, some new evidence. They had to pull it back eventually. So I think there were things that really were, in my view, rather scandalous.

JIM LEHRER: Scandalous?

HANS BLIX: But I’m not against intelligence– I’m not against intelligence. They are necessary of course and they have a difficult job and they often, even risk their lives. And I think that a combination, a good cooperation between inspectors and intelligence is desirable. Intelligence can see for instance by satellite that a building has been extended. But they don’t see what’s underneath. Inspectors in a country, they can go in and see if there is anything relevant underneath.

JIM LEHRER: Scandalous. That’s a serious word. Scandalous in what way?

HANS BLIX: Well, I refer to the uranium contract, the yellow cake. Isn’t it scandalous if something that the IAEA takes a day to see is a forgery can sit around the laboratories and intelligence agencies for months without their discovering it?

JIM LEHRER: Let’s move beyond this for a moment: the issue of whether or not it really mattered. In other words, in your opinion, that whether there was faulty intelligence, monumental blunders, scandalous blunders or whatever, does it matter that there was a false premise, a false premise for taking military action in the long run?

HANS BLIX: Yes, I think so. The argument that was advanced for justification for the intervention was the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Colin Powell would say, for instance, that we are talking about real weapons, about real anthrax, about real VX. And they were not. They were talking about something that didn’t exist. And I think that it would have been very hard for the U.S. and the U.K. to persuade both Congress and U.K. Parliament to authorize armed action if they had not contended that there actually were real weapons. So they had a need to do that.

I do not suggest that they were acting in bad faith. I have no evidence of that at all. I think they were inclined to think, and they wanted to think that there were weapons of mass destruction, but there was not enough critical thinking on their part. So we got a war that was…which was perhaps brilliantly planned but the diagnosis was the wrong one.

JIM LEHRER: What would you say to those who would say, okay, let’s put that aside. The fact of the matter is Saddam Hussein is no longer in power and that’s a good thing. Forget the reasons, even if they were wrong.

HANS BLIX: All right. I agree. I think it is a great thing that Saddam Hussein is gone. That’s the great benefit of it. But you still can’t sort of retroactively justify the war. You can say that it was fought and started on erroneous premises, but even something started on erroneous premises can have some good consequences.

You can make a balance sheet and I think there will be a lot of negative things on that — in that balance sheet. The continued violence, clearly, is a negative thing. There are many expectations that the Middle East peace process might be facilitated by this, that establishing democracy in Iraq would help very much. Let’s hope it does. But so far to me it seems the balance sheet is negative.

And I would also say that what was the alternative — I don’t think the Europeans actually were saying we would never exclude use of armed force. They did not. They rather said they would like to have longer period of inspections. And we broke them off at three and a half months, which was a very short time. There was nothing in the resolution from 2003 that suggested that it should be so short.

So if the Iraqis would have practiced cat and mouse in the spring of 2003 on inspectors, then I think the Europeans would have come along. There would have been an authorization of the Security Council and there would have been legitimacy for the action, which I think they now suffer from a lack of legitimacy.

JIM LEHRER: You say in your book that Vice President Cheney had disdained your work and the work of the inspectors from the very beginning. Why do you say that?

HANS BLIX: Well, he made a speech in August of 2002 in which he said that the inspection is useless at best. And I think that was pretty disdainful. It was clear also when I met him that he said that we will not hesitate to discredit inspections in favor of disarmament. I think they had a very deep root… some of the people in the U.S. administration, had a very deep rooted skepticism or even disdain for inspections – not all.

JIM LEHRER: You also suggest that Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz sought to discredit you personally and your professionalism. What’s that all about?

HANS BLIX: Well, I based it upon reports in the Washington Post at the time. The Washington Post reported that he had turned to the CIA in order to get information about me and about my performance at the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to the newspaper, he had received reports that I had done what really was possible within the parameters I operated and he had not been pleased with that. I’m recounting that story from the newspaper.

JIM LEHRER: You have no evidence…

HANS BLIX: I think Secretary Rumsfeld also asked about me if I remember rightly and they sort of distanced themselves and said it was fairly routine. In my view, if they wanted to know something about me, they could have asked the State Department, which had known about my activities since 1961 which was my first general assembly and the U.S. actually supported my reelection three times in the International Atomic Energy Agency.

JIM LEHRER: Whatever else, do you feel vindicated by events?

HANS BLIX: Well, I think the matter is too serious for any sort of feelings of vindication. Yes, I think it proved that inspections… international inspections, if independent or individual countries, and which is run professionally, came to conclusions which were closer to reality than intelligence agencies which were linked to political governments that had preconceived ideas.

And I think that’s a lesson for the future because the world will need inspections in the future in Iran, in Libya and in North Korea. And in my view, the best would be to have these inspectors coming in, demanding the cooperation of the countries and also have the leverage of the political and military support. I have no doubt that we would not have been admitted into Iraq if it had not been for the U.S. military buildup in the summer of 2002, so both are needed. But in both cases, I think critical thinking is essential.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Blix, thank you very much.

HANS BLIX: Thank you.