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Scientist Surrenders: General Amer Hammoudi al-Saadi

April 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the surrender today of Iraq’s top science policy advisor to Saddam Hussein, and how it may affect the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: To explore the implications of the surrender of General Amer al-Saadi, I’m joined by two men who have dealt with the Iraqi scientist: Khidir Hamza is the former director of Iraq’s nuclear weapons development program. He defected in 1994, and authored an autobiography entitled “Saddam’s Bomb Maker.” He is planning to return to Iraq shortly as part of Gen. Garner’s reconstruction team. Stephen Black was a headquarters staffer and inspector with the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq or UNSCOM from 1993 to 1999. UNSCOM dealt with Iraq’s chemical, biological and missile programs. And joining them also is Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Welcome to you all.

All right. From the two of you, first of all, Mr. Hamza, just tell us about al-Saadi — what kind of a man was he, and how significant a figure was he in the weapons programs?

KHIDHIR HAMZA: I worked with him actually 1987 for about six months, he was technical director then of the Iraqi military. And, as such, I needed his supports for the nuclear project. He seemed to be, as gentlemanly mannered, quite mild in manners and as such quite liked by many people — a little more reserved than others, but also a little gentler than others.

But he is a main figure, actually the main figure technically, in the Iraqi military industry — as such chemical, possibly biological, but I don’t think much in the biological area, but definitely chemical and missile areas; actually started the missile area work by sending five people to Yugoslavia in the 70s and directed it since then.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that statement?

STEPHEN BLACK: The first thing you notice about Amer al-Saadi is how suave and debonair the man is. He is very clever, very highly educated, and very smooth. He speaks fluent idiomatic English and he can really sort of charm people who aren’t used to dealing with him. Underlying that, though, is the man is a consummate liar, and he has told just repeated lies with a completely straight face, and even some of the seasoned inspectors were taken in by some of his charm.

MARGARET WARNER: We should explain, he was often the point man, the liaison between the entire weapons program and the inspectors.

STEPHEN BLACK: Yeah, and we had a long history of dealing him both throughout the inspection process that I was part of, and then Hans Blix and his people, with UNMOVIC also dealt with Amer al-Saadi and I think had a similar experience with him.

MARGARET WARNER: You said you weren’t sure, Mr. Hamza, how involved he was the biological program him but he gave an interview to 60 Minutes in 2001 in which he spoke very precisely about how they had never an able to get the anthrax into powdered form, he talked about having botulism toxin. I just wonder if you could clear that up.

KHIDHIR HAMZA: He directed it possibly; as director, technical director he had to be involved in it. But I guess my point was that he directed it from the outside. And the chemical establishment, the chemical and missile, he started it, he established the department for the scientists; he directed them in detail. The biological weapon had its own people which run it. He had a hand it in, but I think it’s more from the outside rather than in detail. I think I would like to comment on his refusal today — I don’t know if you are coming to that next.

MARGARET WARNER: Go right ahead.

KHIDHIR HAMZA: Today his comments that there is no chemical and biological weapon probably could tell on his foresight and seeing that with what that means for him. If he is involved in this, in production and detailed working on this, then he could be implicated in the human right abuses in which these weapons were used, especially the Halabja thing where 5,000 people were killed and more maimed. Also the angle of experimentation on humans, which is a repeatedly reported by various prisoners such as Dr. Sharistani, who was in prison for 12 years… repeated sightings of this kind. And this could involve him in war crimes of immense dimension.

STEPHEN BLACK: I think it’s absolutely right, and I think we have to look at what’s going on inside Amer al-Saadi’s head right now. He’s gone from a very cushy position in the regime, very high ranking, had a good quality of life and now all of that that is gone away. And what he has to do is somehow reengineer that level of comfort in his new existence. He knows, he’s seen the writing on the wall, he sees it before most other people do, he knows that he’s going to be called to account for these things he’s done in the past. So he has to string out his value to you the coalition, to these investigators for as long as possible to really milk every bit of resource he can get out of them.

MARGARET WARNER: So hearing what you’ve heard about his position, Joe Cirincione, what kinds of questions, should he be able to answer, the inspectors always wanted answered and were unresolved and the U.S. now wants to know?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Oh, he’s the man; he’s the key guy. It’s nice to start off at the top. We’re looking for the scientists, the technicians, the officers who have been involved with these programs, so he should be able to answer where these weapons were stored, how much remain, are there any Scud missiles left, are there any, President Bush has talked about 30,000 rockets that may be and aerial bombs that may still be around. He should be able to give definitive answers to those questions.

MARGARET WARNER: Should he also know, not only what happened to the old weapon stocks, but if there were still ongoing programs, for instance when Secretary of State Powell went to the U. N. and talked about the mobile weapons lab, was his position such that if there were still things going on he would definitely know?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: It’s possible there are secrets within secrets, that there were layers of protection here, and it’s possible that either for his own protection or others wanting to shield him or keep him in the dark, that he was not told certain things. But, you know, he was the chief liaison with the U.N. inspectors, I mean, he was being asked to give definitive answers to all these questions, since October of last year. He’s familiar to most Americans because he did the press conference on Nov. 7, where Iraq gave its full and final declaration, and he went into all these in great detail. So we would expect him to know about the mobile labs and to know just about every aspect of the programs.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think, Steve Black, that if, as he said again today, everything was destroyed, it’s what he said back in the 60 Minutes interview, is it possible that he was kept in the dark on anything?

STEPHEN BLACK: I think it’s highly unlikely that from a production and research and development standpoint he would be in the dark. I think the area that he definitely has information is on what Iraq might be hiding — what kind of projects they were involved in, what technical approaches they were using. But the thing that he really might not know about is just where these things are hidden right now, who is hiding it, how they’re being hidden — because Iraq does have a compartmented system for handling this weapons information. So he may have attended meetings where concealed materials were discussed in general, but someone else at that meeting was responsible for the mechanics of hiding these things.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Right, as you got down to the operational level and started to deploy these, if there were any, he might not know where they are.

STEPHEN BLACK: Precisely. Who is controlling the concealment itself, manning those, he may not be aware of it. The other thing to keep in mind here is that particularly connecting this problem with Amer al-Saadi’s past and things he might be trying to hide with this level of information that he has, is the fact that he’s not the only person in that government that knows these things.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask Mr. Hamza about this, because of course the U. N. inspectors and the U.S. always said they wanted to talk to these scientists alone. What impact would this surrender, which if anyone was listening to the news they’re going to know about, what effect is that likely to have on other scientists?

KHIDHIR HAMZA: They’ll think the might be talking and they might start talking themselves, and, as such, it would open the whole floodgates of information for whoever is doing the interviews to put together and stop contradicted stories, things that don’t fit and gradually they’ll get the thing out of — don’t forget, al-Saadi has considerable property in Iraq -

MARGARET WARNER: Property.

KHIDHIR HAMZA: Yeah, a lot of land Saddam gave him. He gave some four or five Mercedes a year as a gift.

MARGARET WARNER: Four or five?

KHIDHIR HAMZA: Yeah, at least, at least. I was with him six months, during that six-month period got at least three Mercedes cars, top of the line Mercedes and a lot of bonuses. And so he might want also to leverage whatever he knows into trying to keep this property. Probably that’s why he didn’t leave, because he has a lot to lose if he leaves and just live like a refugee in Syria somewhere.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Let me add one point before we leave. We’ve talked about these weapons and we all assume that Saddam had these weapons. But he may not. I mean, the truth is we simply don’t know. There’s a broad spectrum of possibilities here going from zero or very few weapons up to hundreds of tons, thousands of weapons. The administration has constantly stressed the higher end of the scale, but the reason Saddam didn’t use these weapons may be because there actually weren’t that many to use or not that many delivery vehicles to deliver them. But all of this should become clear in the next few weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s your theory about, one, what is your belief about the level of weapons of mass destruction that still exist there, and your theory about why nothing has been discovered yet?

STEPHEN BLACK: Well, I think first and foremost the parts of the country that the coalition has had control of for the longest period of time are the areas that the central government rarely had any confidence in. So they’re not going to store their crown jewels in what they basically consider a bad neighborhood. We also have this problem that while in the past people have used this analogy, it’s the shell game, which I think is a good analogy for this, but now that the regime is gone, or more specifically these regime security organizations, there’s nobody moving the shells around, but you still have a physically very small amount of material, weapons mass destruction are odd in that a physically small amount is actually very important under a whole bunch of different shells. Every chicken shed in Iraq could contain a truck that has some of these materials in it. So it’s going to be some time before either through informants or peoples stumbling across it, we start to come across these things. They don’t store them in the obvious places like ammunition depots, and they haven’t since 1990.

KHIDHIR HAMZA: Actually he’s right, and in a sense; the actual possession of these weapons is with the S SO -

MARGARET WARNER: The Special Security Organization.

KHIDHIR HAMZA: — Special Security Organization.

MARGARET WARNER: — which is the very elite inner, inner circle -

KHIDHIR HAMZA: –Saddam’s protection, the eyes and ears of the various armed forces units. They are representative there to assure Saddam’s orders are carried. — and weapons of mass destruction – the Iraqi military industry — and their main bases are not in the south because it is not safe for them — this is not the place they would like to be, there is no support for them there. So we expect that most of their bases will be in the middle area, western and middle areas and north of Baghdad. So these areas when it is more explored, and these guys talk to the SSO, people, the officers and such, talk to them, we would know where they hid them there.

MARGARET WARNER: A final question. What are the ground rules for interrogating this man? He is a general. But is he treated as a prisoner of war, in a military sense, is he treated as a scientist?

STEPHEN BLACK: Well, there are various approaches to interrogation, I think probably what they’ll start out with, with Amer al-Saadi is to try to go in soft and play to his ego, play to this notion of we will give you money, we will give you a condo in Florida, we will do all of these things for you, because the thing that we have to remember is that there is nothing, and this goes for all of the Iraqis that might be interrogated, there’s nothing that we can even threaten them with that does not pale in comparison to the system they operated under. So these are some pretty tough people, and trying to go at them with a sort of a hard questioning is unlikely to pay off.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there. Thank you all three very much.