RAY SUAREZ: From 1991 until 1998, and again from the end of November last year until just this past March, United Nations weapons inspectors searched Iraq for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. But since the war began, U.S. and British troops have combed the country for signs of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. At the United Nations today, chief weapons inspector Hans Blix argued that disarmament in Iraq should be conducted by an international organization. And he said his team is ready to go back in.
HANS BLIX: I said to the council that we are convinced about the objectivity and the determination of the inspectors who are there for the coalition forces. I have not the slightest reason to doubt that. But at the same time, I'm also convinced that the world and the Security Council, which had dealt with this issue for over ten years... that they would like to have inspection and verification which bear the imprint of that independence and of some institution that is authorized by the whole international community.
RAY SUAREZ: Earlier in an interview with BBC Radio, Blix faulted the U.S. and Britain for using what he called "shaky" intelligence before the war to insist to the U.N. that Iraq was hiding illegal weapons. And today, the Bush administration said it can handle the search for those weapons on its own. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Negroponte:
JOHN NEGROPONTE: The coalition has assumed responsibility for disarming of Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. Some initial work was done during the phase in which we were conducting active military operations. Now that there is a somewhat more permissive military environment, the coalition effort will be substantially increased.
RAY SUAREZ: So far, despite a number of early leads, the U.S. government has not announced any definitive proof that banned weapons have been found.
RAY SUAREZ: The task of finding that definitive proof falls in part to specialized teams within the U.S. Military. New York times" correspondent Judith Miller is reporting on the search conducted by units of the 75th exploitation task force. And she joins us now by phone south of Baghdad. Judith Miller, welcome back to the program. Has the unit you've been traveling with found any proof of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
JUDITH MILLER: Well, I think they found something more than a "smoking gun." What they've found is what is being called here by the members of MET Alpha-- that's Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha-- what they found is a silver bullet in the form of a person, an Iraqi individual, a scientist, as we've called him, who really worked on the programs, who knows them firsthand, and who has led MET Team Alpha people to some pretty startling conclusions that have kind of challenged the American intelligence community's under... previous understanding of, you know, what we thought the Iraqis were doing.
RAY SUAREZ: Does this confirm in a way the insistence coming from the U.S. government that after the war, various Iraqi tongues would loosen, and there might be people who would be willing to help?
JUDITH MILLER: Yes, it clearly does. I mean, it's become pretty clear to those of us on the ground that the international inspectors, without actually controlling the territory and changing the political environment, would never have been able to get these people to step forward. I mean, you can only do that when you know there is not going to be a secret policeman at your door the next day, and that your family isn't going to suffer because you're talking. And that's what the Bush administration has finally done. They have changed the political environment, and they've enabled people like the scientists that MET Alpha has found to come forth.
Now, what initially the weapons hunters thought they were going to find were stockpiles of kind of chemical and biological agents. That's what they anticipated finding. We now know from the scientist that, in fact, that probably isn't what we're going to find. What they will find, and what they have found so far, are kind of precursors; that is, building blocks of what you would need to put together a chemical or a biological weapon.
But those stockpiles that we've heard about, well, those have either been destroyed by Saddam Hussein, according to the scientists, or they have been shipped to Syria for safekeeping. And what I think the interpretation of the MET Alpha people is, is why he did this. They believe that Saddam Hussein wanted to destroy the evidence of his unconventional weapons programs, and that's what he has done-- not only since 1995, but also in the weeks and months that led up to the war itself. There was mass destruction.
And the scientist who has been cooperating with MET Alpha has actually said that he participated in... he kind of watched, you know, a warehouse being burned that contained potentially incriminating biological equipment. So clearly what Saddam Hussein wanted to do was cover his weapons of mass destruction tracks. And that means that the whole shape of the hunt here on the ground for unconventional weapons is changing.
RAY SUAREZ: When you develop a site through U.S. intelligence or from a source like the scientist you've been telling us about, how long does it take the unit you're traveling with to give it a good going over, figure out whether there's anything there that needs further inspection?
JUDITH MILLER: Well, let me give you an example. MET Alpha and I spent nearly a week at a place called the Karbala Ammunitions Production and Filling Station. This was a vast facility: Over 50 buildings, five square miles worth of ammunition, mortars, shells, and buried containers that were then ripped open by MET Alpha people.
And what they found was kind of dual-use equipment, biological equipment, things that could be used for peaceful or for military purposes. And at the time, because the scientist hadn't come forward, this remained a big mystery. You know, what did the Iraqis intend do with this plant and all the construction at it? What was all this equipment for, because this is supposedly an ammunition storage facility.
Well, now it becomes rather clearer, I think, that what the Iraqis were intending was to kind of distribute dual-use equipment at various ammunition and weapons storage places throughout the country, so that no inspector or even soldier would ever be able to find that smoking gun. You could find a little bit of the program. You would find a program very much, these days, in the research and development stages.
It was really the most calculated form of insurance, I think he thought. And it's just been an amazing process to watch a lot of these bits and pieces kind of suddenly fit together, kind of a collective "a-ha!" on the part of MET Alpha and, you know, the exploitation team as they begin to understand what Saddam Hussein's game was.
RAY SUAREZ: The chief U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, has offered to return to the country. Looking at the work of MET Alpha, do they have the same manpower, the equipment, the tools needed to do this work? Are you seeing an effort that's pretty similar to what the U.N. might mount?
JUDITH MILLER: The MET Alpha effort goes way beyond anything that the U.N. ever did. UNSCOM, the first group of inspectors, was much more aggressive, much more dogged and determined, and had... they were really much more skeptical than UNMOVIC, the people who worked under Hans Blix.
Hans Blix was never able to interview a single scientist in an environment in which he would feel, he or she, would feel free to talk. The feeling on the ground here, both among, you know, the American forces that I'm embedded with, but also Iraqis, is that if they would like somebody to guarantee their safety, they would much prefer it be an American soldier than an international inspector at this time. What's become clear is the extent to which Iraq and this regime was able to pull the wool over the eyes of the international inspectors.
RAY SUAREZ: Judith Miller joining us from Iraq. Thanks a lot.
JUDITH MILLER: Thank you very much.