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Newsmaker: Rolf Ekeus

November 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: What are the prospects for this new team of U.N. weapons inspectors, if and when they return to Iraq? To explore that, I’m joined for a newsmaker interview by Rolf Ekeus. He headed the former inspection team, UNSCOM, investigating Iraq’s chemical, biological, and missile programs from 1991 to 1997. Welcome back to the program. Do you think this new inspection operation is going to work?

ROLF EKEUS: I think with the reservation that they need time. Time will be of essence. If you recall, earlier inspections it took some four years to weed out biological programs, which they kept secret. So how can one be sure in a very short time span? So the time is of essence.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us first your idea what the baseline is. What did Saddam Hussein have in the way of remaining weapons programs when the inspectors left in ’98? And what do you think he at least theoretically could have now?

ROLF EKEUS: Well, I think it was very little left. There were some precursors.

MARGARET WARNER: Chemicals you mean?

ROLF EKEUS: Yes, with regard to chemical weapons. There were some support materials with regard to biological warfare agent production. These things, we don’t know if they were used for weapons, they could have lost them. But that was something, and also maybe a few missiles of intermediate range.

However, now he has had four years or three years, a little more than three years without control. And it can be anything from zero to quite a considerable quantity of weapons. And you come into the guesswork of what are his ambitions. So one has to be clear, it’s a political, psychological guesswork we’re talking about.

For me, I think it’s a high probability that he has tried to strengthen his capabilities, especially production capability — not so much to produce for storage, it’s no idea to have large stocks of chemicals — but production capabilities, and both with regard first to chemical weapons, but also with regard to biological warfare agents.

MARGARET WARNER: The administration is setting up that the first big test is this declaration that Iraq has to make on December 8th of what they have. Give us a sense of what’s really involved in a declaration like that?

ROLF EKEUS: Well, this is a rather interesting declaration because it focuses on two components. One I would say is the easy part — that is for Iraq to declare weapons, production capability for such weapons, and components. And these are well defined since many years. So Iraq should know already today. I think they could give a declaration on this or not on this – that’s another story.

But the new thing is also that Iraq should declare its other chemical and biological capabilities, which is a very vague and complex thing. Nuclear, should they also declare about that – we know what nuclear is. But in a country which is capable of producing its own detergent, soap, and of course agricultural support chemicals, it will be quite a tall order, and I’m afraid a lot of conflict about what should be reported and not reported.

MARGARET WARNER: And how hard will it be for the inspectors to assess whether he’s telling the truth?

ROLF EKEUS: It will be hard if you take it in a short time span. I think it was something like 60 days after this they started inspection they should give their first report to the Security Council. It may be that they will then detect some, you know, some foul game, but I’m not quite sure. However, what we know is that inspectors have an experience, and they could make use of their earlier experience, they could systematically approach this, and gain, however, a systematic approach and to patiently outline all the known, since all time known facilities and locations. You go there and visit. And in that sense you create one could call a baseline where there are potentials for weapons capabilities. In the meantime, they may well say… for some surprise inspection or non-declared locations and so on. But the key and base is a systematic approach.

MARGARET WARNER: So it sounds as if you don’t believe that on December 8th it’s really conceivable that Iraq would come up with a list and that U.S. intelligence or Hans Blix and his team would be able to say, aha, he’s left out these other places that we know exist from defectors or whatever the sources of intelligence are, we know he’s lying, we know he’s not cooperating, and go to the Security Council, you don’t see that?

ROLF EKEUS: Well, I mean, again, I think Saddam Hussein may have his shortcomings, his strategic thinking, but I think he has rather smart tactical approaches to these cases, so I think that’s my guess of course, he will make a relatively sound declaration of the weapons issues on the obvious things. But on the other area, which is non-weapon chemical biological activities, which is huge, there will be a very selective approach and space for a lot of dispute.

MARGARET WARNER: And from your years of dealing both with the Security Council and with Saddam Hussein, are you saying then that those are the kind of things that there, when you say dispute, you mean on the Security Council?

ROLF EKEUS: Yes. Iraq may say we have a number of chemical and biological activities, then inspectors say but what about this school laboratory, isn’t that worth to declare, hospitals have small laboratories — all sorts of veterinary activities, you may have a little, you know, set up for testing the health of cows. Is that a facility? I love all these wonderful, what a great time for lawyers, but now it is inspection regime. However, these are serious things the declarations, according to the resolution, it is now considered a material breach if it’s wrong; a material breach as we know is a code word for military action.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s say you get past that declaration and the inspectors actually start. How much, are they in a much stronger position under this resolution than you and your teams were back in the 90s? In other words, does the resolution give them a lot more authority or ability to ferret things out?

ROLF EKEUS: Theoretically. But I still think that the old system, had the same — it was more general language. So it’s not that, which I think it’s a difference with these resolutions; these resolutions strengthen first of all the unanimity, and secondly that it’s tremendous pressure in all these details, so the political psychological situation is that there is a trigger very close to any mischief.

In the 90’s Iraq could make a lot of fast complex, difficult things for the inspectors, then it was to report back, and the Security Council deliberated here and there, and a little vague outcome. And the chief inspector was myself or Richard Butler — we were hanging out a little. I think we were highly successful. But now it is much sharper, small mistakes should at least, according to the resolution, be punished. That’s another thing, when it’s brought to the Council how the members will react.

MARGARET WARNER: That does put a lot of pressure on these inspectors, does it not, knowing that if they report a violation, that could be the trigger for war. And yet if they don’t report a violation, they could be criticized?

ROLF EKEUS: That is I think a terrible burden put upon them, because they know that – Dr. Blix and Dr. Elbaradei–they know that if they report something of bad behavior, it may open up for a military attack. So and even if they say we will report facts, the way they present the facts will be a powerful, have a powerful impact in the Security Council. And even there we don’t know which are the stops and blockages for military action. That’s another interesting point.

MARGARET WARNER: You’ve known Hans Blix for years and I guess Dr. Baradei too. How aggressive do you think they’re going to be?

ROLF EKEUS: I don’t think that any of them are aggressive by nature, they are very fine reflecting men with good minds, both of them. I think they have the ambition to be absolutely fair. So they will try to judge carefully. But they will come into situations, which will be extremely judgmentally difficult, because it is, say a blockage of a platoon chief at the facility. Is it something which they should report to the Council which may lead to a war, or a misjudgment by a young lieutenant, for instance, commanding eight men at some place out in the desert.

Or if there is an omission in the reporting, they find another building, which was not reported. I mean, there are sloppy bureaucracies in every country and Iraq is no exception. Can it be asked if it was a mistake? And I think they must give the lead to the Security Council. And probably no matter who it is, if you are aggressive or non-aggressive, I think you have to be extremely prudent when you report back. So it is not easy for them.

MARGARET WARNER: How long — you talked about a length of time–How long would it take to fully inspect this country that the administration is fond of reminding us is as large as France, to really know whether or not all these programs have been ended?

ROLF EKEUS: Well, say that for 60 days they find, of course they confirm what Iraq has declared. But then to be sure there is nothing more, and maybe it’s very little Iraq declares. If there is zero reported, can we be sure that there is zero – of course not. We have to ask them to continue another time and then say half a year or nine months, zero. It can be one of two things: That there are no weapons, or that all weapons are so well hidden. And I think we must give them time, and with time I think they will be successful. I have great belief in the system.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think it’s possible that even if Saddam Hussein appeared to cooperate fully and the inspectors felt they had done everything they could, that Iraq could continue to, could fool them?

ROLF EKEUS: I don’t think Iraq could fool them in the long run. But the problem is that Iraq can keep production capability, which is impossible to understand. It can be a production line, which is laid out for production say of pesticides, rat poison, insecticide, but which quite easily can be reconfigured if the inspectors are out, to produce nerve agent, or blister agent of sorts for chemical weapons use. And the same goes obviously in the biological field. So it is, it will work, but only if they are allowed to take their time. And I’m not quite sure that the political scenario is organized so that we have time.

MARGARET WARNER: Rolf Ekeus, thanks very much.

ROLF EKEUS: Thank you.