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Search for Evidence: Discussion

April 22, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: So who should be running the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? We get two views on that. Stephen Black was a headquarters staffer and weapons inspector with the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq, or UNSCOM, from 1993 to 1999. His focus was chemical weapons. He’s now an independent consultant on proliferation issues. And George Lopez is director for policy studies at Notre Dame University’s Joan Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He’s also chairman of the board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Before the war, he compiled a database that tracked the progress of U.N. Inspectors in Iraq.

Welcome to you both. Before we get into our argument, Steve Black, what did you make of what Judith Miller just reported about this Iraqi scientist? Does she sound like the silver bullet, as she put it to you?

STEPHEN BLACK: I think human sources like that in investigations of this type have always been the secret to getting inside an issue. But what it really highlights and what some of the uncertainties in her commentary highlight is that there is a big difference between finding that first example of hidden illegal weapons of mass destruction and getting to the bottom of the programs. You can’t eliminate the Iraqi WMD programs without knowing the full scope of their facilities, equipment, the people involved, their level of technical expertise. And that’s going to take a very long focused effort in order to come to that kind of understanding. It is something far beyond listening beyond this one scientist and the things that he knows about.

MARGARET WARNER: What did you make of it, George Lopez?

GEORGE LOPEZ: Well, I think Steve’s right and I think the scope is really the critical issue. We have an unprecedented opportunity and maybe a declining amount of time. Let’s remember we’ve just experienced, over the last ten days, the difficulty of securing various ministries and art treasures in Baghdad. The documentation lost, the potential loss of scientists themselves in this mix really calls not for an either UNMOVIC or the United States, but really a joint international and national effort in this regard.

We have three problems. The first is the problem on the ground that Judith talked about and that is how do you understand material you’re finding; the second is documents, evidence that has been looted from ministries; and the third is how do you talk with the experts. I’m a little less enthusiastic about this individual being a silver bullet simply because you still have the same difficulty that you have with defectors or people under interrogation, and that is you’d like to, as the scientist in question ingratiates yourself as much as possible to those people who are speaking with you so you are a valuable commodity. As with any criminal or other investigation, you’ve got to cross check this against other people and other evidence.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Lopez, the big argument at the U.N. today of course was Hans Blix saying I’m ready with my team to go back in. The U.S. was saying thanks but no thanks. Who’s right?

GEORGE LOPEZ: Well, I’m not sure it is a who’s right but what’s necessary. The issue is how would 300 independent experts compromise this effort? I think they would only empower it. Let’s remember — earlier in the week Don Rumsfeld talked about the possibility of changing the focus of two of the MET teams that Judy talked about. The United States has four of these MET teams on the ground in a country we are told is replete with weapons. We need a thousand more inspectors, U.S., British, German, Australian, and UNMOVIC is one of the keys to making this happen. How or why this would compromise the coalition effort or U.S. Security effort on the ground is really unclear to me.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Black, how do you feel about that? Let U.N. Inspectors back in?

STEPHEN BLACK: I don’t know that compromise the effort is the right way to look at it — what Hans Blix is talking about and what his organization is organized to do is do inspections – in other words, receive a declaration — we have weapons of mass destruction, we don’t have them, look at that, conduct inspections, talk to people, evaluate efforts and make a determination about the accuracy of that declaration. What Judy Miller is talking about, what these MET teams are doing is exploitation. These are wide area search, trying to start from scratch without any leads provided by the government of Iraq, to try to piece together this program. And I think George is right. There is definitely a role for both efforts here.

But what I would suggest looking at in terms of when the different groups play their parts. I think right now there’s really nothing for Hans Blix’s organization to do. There is no government of Iraq to provide declarations. There is no government of Iraq to facilitate answering questions about dual-use activities, things like that. So right now, I think it’s a role for these exploitation teams, not inspections, but exploitations to go interrogate scientist, search for documents, search for these facilities. And when they’ve put together a full picture of the Iraqi program, the best they can do, perhaps there will be a role for Hans Blix’s organization, the U.N. to come in and literally inspect the picture that the U.S. or coalition has created of the Iraqi weapons program to see if it is accurate and complete.

MARGARET WARNER: What is wrong with that scenario, Mr. Lopez? Of course the U.S. hasn’t even lover offered to go along with that idea, but to let the U.S. and the British, the coalition group in there now run this inspection and then maybe at a future date, have U.N. inspectors come in and essentially verify what the U.S. has found?

GEORGE LOPEZ: There’s a practical and political dilemma it seems to me. One, the timing on the practical side is you want to do this while the evidence is hot. We’re a little bit in a situation that’s analogous to a local police investigation who is holding at arm’s length the state police and the FBI coming in to assist. The U.S. and the British simply do not have the manpower on the ground to look at the 16 other sites that are like the one that Judy’s team is at right now. And I think it is not just about inspections turned over from government. We have people on Blix’ team who are able to use, with skill, the neutron spectroscope and other things one would use to see when weapons were destroyed, how much remnants are left, what the degree of toxicity of this is, and, quite frankly, some of these are the best experts in the world that are sitting on the sidelines. So it’s a practical dilemma.

The political dilemma may be more serious this. Was a war for the hearts and minds of the larger Middle East and the world. The U.S. wants very badly to make the case that the weapons existed. If interview or interrogations as Steve says of Iraqi scientists occur behind closed doors only by U.S. officials, that will be made hay of in other capitals of the world. We need the scientists of UNMOVIC talking with the scientists of Iraq without there being a spectrum of complicity or the prospect that rewards that often worked with defector and those who spilled the beans in earlier times and proved to be enhanced stories and less than true, being the remnant that’s left in the minds of world opinion. We need accuracy. We need independence. UNMOVIC can assist with that.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Black, what about that argument? That is one that certainly Hans Blix was alluding to today, that essentially, if the U.S. is running the show without any independent oversight, then no matter the U.S. finds, it’s not going to be believed internationally. It’s not going to have credibility.

STEPHEN BLACK: I think that’s exactly the role for Hans Blix to play in the future, is to look at the picture that the U.S. has put together — literally as odd as it sounds to have the coalition play the part that was always supposed to be played by the government of Iraq. In other words, to yield up these weapons, to produce a declaration of about what they had done, what they had purchased, what they had manufactured. The coalition, these site exploitation teams are going to be, in the fullness of time, presumably putting together a picture like that. That would be a good thing for the U.N. to be able to verify.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And what about Mr. Lopez’ other point that the U.S. teams there just don’t even have all the equipment they really need, nor are there just enough of them, and that they could use the additional help and expertise?

STEPHEN BLACK: It is not so much of a mechanical on the ground thing of number of people or hardware available. I think the much more concerning thing here is who would be in charge of the effort and would the U.N. be, as Hans Blix has said, are they going to be led around on a leash to these different sites? Or are they going to have supremacy and control of this operation? I don’t think that’s something the exploitation teams and their much larger and much more complex effort are going to want to yield to the U.N..

MARGARET WARNER: That is a point. How would this work, the idea of having other inspectors in there? I mean a lot of these scientists some of them are volunteers as the one Judith Miller talked about, but others are ones that have been apprehended or arrested; they’re being interrogated about all kinds of things like where other regime leaders may be or terrorist ties. How do U.N. inspector interviewers fit into that picture, especially when… go ahead.

GEORGE LOPEZ: Well, I think you fit into it based on the kind of agreement that’s going to be forged between the coalition forces and the United Nations. The question at hand is why there’s such an unwillingness to even engage in that discussion at this moment. This is somewhat in the weapons area, unprecedented territory, but it’s not unprecedented at the end of other violent conflicts in the area, for example, of human rights and exhumation of graves and the like.

The international community has a team that wants to go in and examine human rights violations and collect evidence for future trials. Locals on the ground and those who have liberated the area want to dig up the graves as well — quite different interests. And they always reach accommodation and are always able to administer this in a joint venture operation.

I’m sure the capability is there between the United Nations and the United States to do this. There has not been a manifest political will by the United States and I think in a short -sighted way based on stubbornness in the difficulties we faced building the coalition for the war. I think we need to let that go and think about the practical dilemma at hand and work hand in hand with Mr. Blix and the council in making this happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that’s part of it, Steve Black, why the U.S. doesn’t want Hans Blix and the inspectors involved? That they’re looking at the track record, they feel Blix tried to frustrate them at the U.N.?

STEPHEN BLACK: I’m not sure what their thinking is but because the exploitation operation is run by the military and it’s part of the military process of reconstruction of Iraq, this tail end of the conflict, I think the notion of bringing a new body in and separating that command and control of this effort is something they definitely the mid-level military people would rail against on a strictly operational basis.

To me, that carries a lot of weight. Blix’s organization is crafted and created, structured and trained to deal with Iraqi counterparts, to deal with the government of Iraq. When I was doing the inspections, we would send faxes back and forth between UNSCOM and Baghdad constantly with questions and requests and answers back and forth. There is no one to do that with right now. So I just think this is a task that is outside the bounds of what UNMOVIC, Hans Blix’s group was created to do. As I said, at the tail end, when we have a picture that they can verify, they may come back into the effort. But right now it’s just not something they’re constructed or configured to do.

MARGARET WARNER: Brief final thought from you, Mr. Lopez. Could you imagine a compromise of the kind that Steve Black just suggested that U.N. Inspectors would come in later?

GEORGE LOPEZ: I think a compromise may be too sequential to actually serve the interests of either the U.N. or the U.S. There is a whole area we didn’t talk about here, which is documents and evidence. Maybe UNMOVIC should be back on the ground to search for documents and other materials and other persons they know on the basis of past work exists but has vanished from some agencies.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Black and George Lopez, thank you both.