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GWEN IFILL: Joining me from Baghdad is John Burns, foreign correspondent for the New York Times. This is his second reporting trip to Baghdad in the past couple of months. John, this is the fifth day of inspections. The President today said in a speech that the signs were not encouraging. What did you learn today?
JOHN BURNS: Well, the inspectors and the Iraqis have within in sort of a shakedown mode, getting used to each other. So far everything has been fairly routine, there has been some tension, a certain amount of mutual intrigue, but today things took a troubling turn at about the time that the President was speaking.
The inspectors who are looking at missile plants from one of the two U.N. inspection teams went to one of the principal missile sites in Iraq in Baghdad, they spent six hours there. And when they left, they issued a statement, which I have here, saying that on their visit to the al-Karamah General Company, as it’s called, which has been developing the al-Samoud liquid propellant missile, which is a long-range missile, and development of the Scud missile used during the Iran-Iraq war, and here I quote, “a number of pieces of equipment tagged by the United Nations during the 1990s during the previous inspections were missing,” and they conclude “none of these are currently present at the facility, it was claimed that some had been destroyed by the bombing of the site by the United States in 1998, some had been transferred to other sites.”
Now this is a bit of a watershed, because while there has been equipment missing at one of the previous 17 sites visited, an animal vaccine plant that was a front for biological weapons development, the inspectors were told that that equipment had been moved to a new veterinary plant north of Baghdad, and they found it. It was a fermenter that had been used in the biological weapons program. What happened today was different. They evidently were not told where the equipment that’s been moved has been taken. We were not told in their statement what that equipment was. But the tone of the message suggests that they’re quite seriously troubled by it.
GWEN IFILL: What did the Iraqis say — what did they say about where this equipment is, and what have they said over the past several days when it was apparent that the inspectors had found nothing?
JOHN BURNS: Well, of course their position from the start has been what the U.N. calls zero, zero, zero — namely that they have no banned weapons of mass destruction. As for what they said today, Brigadier General Mohammed Sali Mohammed [ph], a forty year-old engineer in charge of the plant, told the press about 30 or 40 of us who were admitted to the plant, as we are in every case, after the weapons inspectors departed, that the inspectors had found nothing amiss. We walked through the compound, about a dozen low, long brown stucco buildings with very high steel 20 to 30-foot high steel doors, which appeared to be some sort of testing…testing workshops. We were shown a pile of rubble in the center of the compound, which they told us was from the buildings that were destroyed in the bombing in 1998, which you’ll remember was a four-day bombing by the United States and Britain that followed the withdrawal of the last group of inspectors.
So they didn’t tell us that the U.N. had found anything missing. Now we know that when the U.N. found this unnamed equipment missing, the Iraqis said, well, better look for it in the rubble, it’s somewhere in there, or maybe we’ve moved it somewhere else. What’s troubling about this is that under the U.N. resolutions dating back to the Persian Gulf War, in addition to having inspectors here, the Iraqis were required and still are required to give a six-monthly accounting for all equipment used in banned weapons programs. In those six months accounting, there has been no accounting for any movement of equipment from that plant. So it’s a troubling development. The Iraqis may clear it up, I have no doubt we’ll hear more about this in the coming days.
But it’s not an encouraging sign for the United Nations inspectors who came here, I think quite genuinely committed or hoping that they would not uncover secret weapons sites. I think they suspected that they may, but they hoped that they wouldn’t, because everybody understands that if new banned secret weapons programs are discovered, it would be a major step towards war.
GWEN IFILL: Now describe for us, you as a journalist have been along on some of these inspections, as an observer as it were. Describe for us what these inspections are like: are we talking about forced marches, or are we talking about people going out in an organized way, fanning out across the countryside? Describe it to us.
JOHN BURNS: Well, they begin with a scene every morning that is somewhat reminiscent of that Gene Hackman car chase in the “French Connection.” The inspectors pull out of their headquarters in a dilapidated former hotel on the outskirts of Baghdad and they engage in a dash — first this way, then that, north, east, west, south, pursued by Iraqi officials of the so-called national monitoring directorate. This is an agency set up to cooperate with the inspectors.
This initial phase, which is carried out at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour, often on rain-slicked highways in heavy traffic, is an attempt by the inspectors to disguise where they are going. Our feeling is it’s not very effective, because eventually they settle on a course and as soon as they settle on their course the Iraqis with radio communications in the cars behind them are able to alert all the established weapons sites, that’s the sites that the U.N. inspectors identified and tagged, badged, during the 1991-1998 period, all those sites are then alerted that the inspectors may be coming their way.
In consequence, since, until today, all the sites that the inspectors had been to were these so-called established sites, when they’ve arrived at the gates, the Iraqis are ready for them, they’re well prepared, the gates are opened promptly, there’s great courtesy, there’s quite a considerable amount of geniality and smiling, and the inspectors have told us they don’t actually seriously expect to fine major breaches of the past resolutions or Resolution 1441, the one passed last month at these sites, and that’s why I say it’s a sort of shakedown cruise. There have been one or two problems, a piece of equipment missing here, some documents missing there, but the Iraqis have accounted for these.
And up until today I would say that the general tenor of this was, well, so far so good. It was today that there was this change with the missing equipment at the missile plant. And I should say, the significance of this, which may very well be explained by the Iraqis, and one might say one would hope that it would be, the significance is that the ban on developing missiles of over 90-mile range, of course was very important. Why? The Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq war already had variants of the Soviet-built Scud missile that could hit Tehran, the Iranian capital, several hundred miles east of Baghdad. Those were then banned because it was discovered they were building chemical and biological warheads, as well always a nuclear warhead, which could strike to the west. Among the potential targets of course most obviously Israel, which would have been well within the range of the longer range missiles the Iraqis were developing if they had been placed at the western borders of Iraq where Iraq meets Jordan.
They were also developing a missile with an approximate range of about 1800 miles, which of course could hit certain parts of Europe. This is a serious matter. I must emphasize that it’s not clear at this point from the statement that I’m holding here what the equipment missing was — it’s not clear that the Iraqis will not be able to account for it. But it’s certainly troubling that at a site they must have expected would be inspected, this site is only about three miles from the U.N. headquarters, that something was missing.
GWEN IFILL: John, do these inspectors, do they feel the pressure of the international scrutiny? When the President comes out once a day and makes a statement signaling his distrust of the process and when the President’s spokesman comes out and says we know, we have access to intelligence, which we know that they are doing things that are in violation of this resolution, do the inspectors themselves who you deal with every day feel that pressure or feel pressured in any way from, especially the U.S. and Britain?
JOHN BURNS: Well, the leaders of the field inspections teams will tell you on the one hand that they’re professionals and they will do a professional job and they will not be swayed by politics. Privately they tell you that they feel themselves to be in effect between a rock and a hard place, between the Iraqis who they suspect may have banned weapons programs, and the United States which as we know has threatened to go to war upon the discovery of any banned weapons programs which are not admitted when the Iraqis have to make their full declaration this Sunday, which is a very important watershed day, December 8th.
So yes, they do feel pressure. They feel caught between the United States and Iraq. They realize that they’re walking here, in effect, a tight rope. Their hope is that the, in effect, Resolution 1441 with its warning of serious consequences for Iraq, meaning of course war, with the United States, will lead the Iraqis to make now for the first time a full complete and truthful declaration. They are worried men, there’s no doubt about it. It’s a very tough job logistically. They are presently about 30 inspectors. They expect to have 100 here by the end of the year, possibly as many as 300 eventually. But Iraq is a big country, there are a lot of sites to inspect, about a thousand of them. So you have a lot of logistical and technical complications, and now on top of all this they have the feeling that the arrows of war are pointing over their shoulders and that’s worrying for them.
GWEN IFILL: And December 8, we expect what from that declaration?
JOHN BURNS: Well, it’s difficult to say. On the one hand, all the senior leaders of Iraq but not Saddam Hussein himself, and that’s very significant, all of them effectively have said now for many weeks, we have no banned weapons programs, we’re out of that business. But they are now saying that they expect to produce a declaration that could run over a thousand pages.
Now, it has to be said that in Resolution 1441 they are required to state all related work in civilian fields in the chemical, biological, nuclear and missile fields, and it may very well be, that’s a daunting prospect for any country, that may constitute most of those thousand pages, and they may very well say we have though banned programs. But either way this is going to be a tricky moment.
If they say we have no banned programs and President Bush and Prime Minister Blair actually have evidence to back up their claims that they do have banned programs, then you’re going to find the United States and the United Kingdom claiming that Iraq is in, as they say, material breach of the resolution almost right away. If they say they do have banned programs, then they’re going to have to account for the fact that they’ve been denying that now for all this time. So I think we’re entering into a very, very tricky period over the next week or so, with absolutely unforeseeable consequences.
GWEN IFILL: All right, John Burns, stay safe. Thank you very much.
JOHN BURNS: It’s my pleasure.