spying on saddam
dr khidir hamza: interview
He was Iraq's Director of Nuclear Weaponization and is the highest-ranking scientist ever to defect from Iraq. He fled Baghdad in 1994 and is a senior fellow at the Institute for Science and International Security.
navigation, see below for text
Let me ask you about the report that, on the eve of the Gulf War, Iraq was nearly ready to assemble a first crude kind of nuclear bomb.

dr. khidir hamzaYes. There was a program--that's called the Crash Program--to use the French fuel, which is bomb-grade, [and] extract the uranium out of it. ...The process of cutting the fuel and preparations started, and the bomb model was made, a complete bomb mock-up without the fuel. It was a little too big. And the strategy of the time was not to explode the device, which would be undeliverable. You have to have credibility that you can deliver also the device. So, Kamel insisted on miniaturizing the mock-up.

This is Hussein?

Hussein Kamel, yes.

And the idea was, you don't need just a nuclear bomb, you need a missile?

If they are going to do a test, the consensus was best as that can be done, is a missile in the Western desert. And then you prove deliverability and a bomb that can be used as a weapon and capability to deliver it. So, they needed miniaturization. And the processing of the fuel was put on hold. And that's in November, November '90.

Then the war became too close. And by the onset of the war, they still have not managed to miniaturize it. So, the fuel was not processed ....

So, the Crash program failed to deliver?

Failed to deliver. It was close. They had the mock-up. All they needed was the fuel. And the fuel was there. All they needed was to process it. But it was not a deliverable weapon. It was a device that you could explode anywhere ... (inaudible) in a stationary form.

Who ordered the Crash program?

Hussein Kamel...of course... on the orders of Saddam. It was a last, some sort of a last resort, a point of last resort, to demonstrate capability. Iraq was off-limits then to inspections. So, nobody would know if you had more of this or not. ...[B]ut it failed, because it needed a lot of work to miniaturize the device. Better explosives. Better manufacturing. Also, it needed the processing itself. They were not sure if they lost material, lost uranium, during the processing.

You were involved for a long time with an Iraqi nuclear weapons development program. Tell me about the scope and the scale of that program.

Initially, in 1972, we proposed a program, actually, to get some attention from the authorities, and some support. We had no money. The Atomic Energy was a small, almost dying organization. But then Saddam apparently caught on to the proposal as a possibility. And he wanted it. Actually, originally, now, as we understand things now, originally he solicited that proposal.

So, Saddam wanted nuclear weapons?

He took over Atomic Energy in '73, become chairman. ... He supervised our purchases from France, Italy, other places. And we were on our way to a plutonium bomb. We built a reactor. We bought a separation facility that reprocessed the fuel and gave the plutonium out. A small lab, but you can easily duplicate it. It's the same process. Just make more of it.

And these things you're buying from the West?

Oh, yes. We bought from France, from Italy, mostly. When the Israelis destroyed the Iraqi reactor in June of '80, then Saddam ordered an alternate program for the bomb, a direct one. ... So, we went underground with a secret program to [en]rich uranium. ...

In '82, we started the Office of Research and Development, started, headed by Dr. Jafr. And we started, I was with him, I was on the defusion [staff] and ... he was running the MS electromagnetic separation for uranium .... We continued on that till '85. I was asked in '85 to start the development of nuclear weapons.

How big a program was this? Give me some sense of how serious this was, what kind of money, how many people--?

MS costed around $5 billion.

Five billion dollars?

....A lot of it went into private accounts. But it cost $5 billion. And, actually, the estimate is the $5 billion only for Tarmiya. The other one, the alternate support to this program, would have estimated also another $5 billion. But the $5 billion that was spent on the war covered the MS. The program overall, with the nuclear weapon program development, probably cost in the range of $10 billion. And some support was given also from some Arab countries when Osirak was hit, for replacement of Osirak. It was used also for the bomb program.

According to Saddam, Iraq, with these weapons, will be distinguished in the Middle East as the only powerful state. A match for Israel.  And that's what he wants. With these weapons, Saddam will be the ruler of the whole region; more or less, he'll be like Nasser. The staffing till the war, was about 7,000. Included several hundred high-degreed people with PhDs and MS, probably a couple of thousand BACs, and the rest were mostly supportive staff and technicians. During, or after the war, immediately after the war, a huge recruitment started, presumably, on the face of it, to rebuild the country through Atomic Energy capabilities. Which happened, in a sense. Atomic Energy rebuilt power stations, telephone exchanges, refineries, including Saddam's palaces. And that brought in another 5,000.

So, Atomic Energy now is in the range of 12,000. That includes the civilian portion, the declared portion, and the portion working in the military industry. So, you have a total staff of 12,000 fully capable, seasoned now, working in all these rebuilding programs, with achievements behind them. They got the country back on track. There is electricity and telephones now. And gas and oil and everything. And this is all Atomic Energy. So, they have achieved-- Now they are heroes, because of their achievements. Now they are more confident, more experienced, and now, if you ask them again, they will do a better job, I guess.

Do you think Iraq still wants to make a nuclear bomb?

There is no explanation for all this give and take with UNSCOM and those confrontations, and Iraq's defiance over all this period,unless it wants to preserve this capability.

Now, Saddam took over the program personally. And ran it personally. And supervised it personally. And actually Atomic Energy was part of the Ministry of Higher Education. It was part of the educational system. It was transferred to the Revolutionary Council, to be directly under his command. OK, when we wanted to develop weapons, he put us under Kamel, who runs the Special Security Forces that protect him personally--so, again, under his personal protection system.

So, the same people who were protecting Saddam Hussein were in charge of developing nuclear weapons?

Nuclear weapons. So, you can see, throughout, that this is a personal interest. He has a very personal interest in developing the bomb. It was his hand, directly, that was doing it and supervising it, and protecting it.

This is a program that, eventually, $10 billion is being spent on, as many as 12,000 people working on it, how is it that Iraq was able to keep this program essentially secret from the international inspectors. Not UNSCOM. I'm talking in the past, IAEA--

Yes. The IAEA actually was at a very disadvantage, relative to a program like this. When a state is determined to deceive the IAEA, the IAEA, as an international body, works within consensus. That is not a monolithic institution that can take care of things on its own. It works within a system, an international, the UN system.

Now, they didn't have photographs, aerial-- There were aerial and satellite photographs of ... It was beginning to become huge. And we were worried of being discovered, because of the growth of buildings and all. And the IAEA was now allowed to go into those buildings. And it was not given intelligence information by the West and by the countries who knew-- Intelligence was not shared with the IAEA. The IAEA cannot be too aggressive. It will be thrown out, to lose cooperation. ... It knew of the centrifuge, it was published in Der Spiegel at the time, and there was a huge scandal about it.

Because that had come from Germany.

Yes. And with German expertise. So, but still, if it had followed on it aggressively with Iraq it would have lost some of its cooperation with Iraq.

So, there are always the Western economic interests here?

Western economic interest, its own interest, its accessibility, the accessibility of the states to IAEA inspectors at stake here. The IAEA is a weak organization. If it's thrown out, I mean, OK, it could raise some fuss about it. But it really has no great leverage, except what the big powers give it.

...What did you think of UNSCOM back when they first started, after the Gulf War, they're coming in, this is this new type of inspection from a new organization, supposedly backed by the Security Council?

Two organizations were formed, actually--UNSCOM and the action team, which had an IAEA angle. The action team was after the nuclear and UNSCOM was after the rest of the weapon systems--biological, chemical and missile. ... Both organizations initially worked the same and achieved a great deal, ... destroying most of ... what they knew existed, what were allowed or seen by them. There were some confrontations along the way.

But by 1995, when Hussein Kamel defected and revealed, and the Iraqi government, revealed a huge number of documents, they discovered the extent of deception, .... Iraq, for example, did not declare much of its nuclear weapon program. ... ['T]ill '95, the Iraqi admitted only a research capability, that they were doing some small-scale research. ....

In '95, they had a documentation, though partial, not full--the other documents were partly destroyed, some pages taken out, some of the valuable information removed--but still they had some admission by the Iraqi government--. ... So, they have to be followed. The gaps have to be filled. And the gaps in knowledge has to be understood. There has to be a wholly new picture. That's where the trouble started.

Then the Iraqi government made a mistake, it realized later, in delivering all these documents. But it wanted to preempt what Kamel was going to say. That was the idea. But it was a mistake. They gave a lot of documentation to international organizations and they had to fill in the rest.

--and so they then had to cover their tracks--

So, they have to come clean. They wanted to come clean, OK? They could not come fully clean, then they'll have to declare things they don't want to give. So, they give partial documentation in a hurry. There were some notes, there were some documents they shouldn't have, if they wanted, if they were serious, they shouldn't have.

...There were two problems at the time. First, access to scientists. The access to scientists wasn't much there before that, because they didn't know who I am, for example, when I left. There is not much information about what's going on in the scientists' angle. There was more pressure on that.

Iraq fears most the losing of the scientists--more than equipment. Equipment are replaceable. Scientists are not. These are highly trained people, experienced, and what's going on with Iraq now, nobody is coming back in. People who left with scholarships, who trained in the West, very few of them are coming back in. Iraq is losing its capabilities. It lost most of its university and high-level cadres, most of its doctors, the good ones ... and such.

... They can't travel, their families cannot leave the country, they are under strict surveillance. Saddam evaluated this more or less correctly, that equipment he can buy, destruction of buildings, there's nothing cheaper than cement in Iraq, OK? Basic material on buildings available, equipment can be purchased or smuggled in--and he has a huge smuggling operation. And so, what he cannot replace is a scientist who leaves.

UNSCOM started becoming aggressive in that direction, too, and the action team. Which is good. And I sense this is the real disarmament, is removing the people who can reconstitute the programs. And the problems are started more on that direction.

So, the range, the full range, of the weapon industry in Iraq, the proscribed ... industry, became better known and better understood. But the capabilities are still there.

...[I]n your estimation, is Iraq still capable of making a nuclear bomb?

I still think it is. If it managed to get fissile material, and that's the bottleneck there. If it managed to get that, either from Russia, from some of the ex-Communist states, one way or the other, then it is within two to six months, ... because they already built a mock-up, complete. They already have a trigger system. They already have the explosives--not as good as they should be, but they had plenty of time, eight years, to develop better explosives. And these are not proscribed. Iraq can work freely on explosives. OK? Casting, they perfected before the war. They can cast uranium. They had the explosive necessary, but they have better ones now, I'm sure. They have better design and development after the war. This is all they had to do.

As you know, the weapons inspections have been halted now for several months. And there's no immediate prospect that they would start again. What do you think must happen?

Now, why would you throw the inspectors out, unless you have something to hide or something to do, right? Why would he create such havoc with the inspection system and with your own possibility of being let go again, in trade and without sanctions, and sell his oil as freely as he did before.

Now, Saddam thinks only in military terms. Thinks in terms of weapons, in terms of armies, in terms of-- His power base is this: It's not a democratic country, certainly is not a popular base, it was shown. Fourteen districts, governments in Iraq, out of the 18, rebelled against him immediately and toppled whoever was running those governments. So, he does not have faith anymore that he has a secure base in Iraq. His secure base is his own security forces, his own Republican Guard, and his weapons. And he has to have all those.

Now, his weapons will give him immunity from being attacked again, from being weakened. It will give him aura in the Arab world of power and invincibility. Iraq is the only Arab state with all these capabilities, don't forget that. Nobody else has these capabilities....

So, Iraq, with these weapons, will be distinguished in the Middle East as the only powerful state, according to Saddam, in Saddam's understanding. It will be a match for Israel, and that's what he wants. So, with these weapons, and with sanctions, Saddam will be the ruler of the whole region; more or less, he'll be like Nasser, then crowned ruler of the region. Nasser used, the aura of Nasser toppled many governments in the Middle East, including Iraq's.

So, after all these years of bombing, of trying to contain, of trying to eliminate his arsenal, you're saying that, left uninspected at this moment, he could be as strong as ever?

Yes. And in a short period, too. He knows time is not on his side. He definitely knows that. He has a very good sense of his situation. And he knows time is not on his side and he needs to expedite whatever he's doing. Now, he has more experienced teams now. And don't forget, Atomic Energy is the only organization ... that has the full capability of rebuilding whatever it wants to rebuild. So, it rebuilds a factory, rebuilds refineries, power stations, ... it can rebuild chemical and biological, too. It can design things and build them from the ground up. It's the only organization in Iraq capable of doing that. That's why it was used to rebuild Saddam's palaces.

.... Actually, he's better organized, more experienced now. The old guards like me, who wouldn't really go all the way with him, are replaced now. People who are in charge now are more in line with what he wants. They are not scientists trained in the West and they have their own egos and their own thinking of what should be done. These are people who'll do exactly what he tells them to do.

Why did you choose to defect?

The war did it. By entering Kuwait, we are not dealing with a rational leadership now. I mean, many people, even including in his party, were horrified of entering Kuwait. I mean, it never happened, an invasion of an Arab state to another Arab state, for reasons of money.

It just didn't make sense. So, we knew we are going down the drain now. The whole country is going down the drain. When it became obvious--the invasion was in August--by December, it became obvious that we are not getting out. There were promises of leaving Kuwait within two weeks when we entered Kuwait. And war is imminent, I resigned. It was just insane. It just didn't make sense.

Now, building a bomb for this system, is real insanity now. It just didn't make any more sense.

I had difficulty resigning, because, at the time, it was not regarded as patriotic or loyal to resign in the middle, over a month before the war I resigned. But I had good connections. ...[Kamel] had some respect for me and a good idea about me. So, he said, "Let me go. He's tired now. It's really nothing. Just let him go." That was a dangerous, at the time, period for me.

Then I planned on leaving. Then it became obvious what I was thinking was correct, after the war. The Shiites were massacred, the Kurds were massacred, the whole country fell apart, 14 governments rebelled against the state. So, and the massacres of the Shiites itself--I am a Shiite myself, and I come from the south--I lost a brother, I lost some members of my family. So, it became personal by then. But the decision was made earlier, in general principles.

It gradually became dangerous. I was out of the system and the system was crumbling. And when states crumble, they become more dangerous. They become more of a police state, suspicions become much more rampant.

So, they started killing scientists. One was killed in Jordan, who worked on the centrifuge. One was killed and then thrown in a ditch in a farm near mine, on a ranch near my ranch. And I knew the process had started of elimination, of getting more control. So, I decided it's about time to leave. I left everything: my family, my property, everything, just walked out and went to the safe haven in the North.

Everybody pushed me to leave, actually. Everybody said, "It's too dangerous to stay. Just get out." .... When they pick you up, you're finished. There's no recourse after that. You have a choice now of getting out rather than staying, but, after that, you have no choice.

... [T]here are now charges from Scott Ritter, who was one of the inspectors, saying that Western intelligence agencies undermined UNSCOM's efforts by ... using UNSCOM as a way into Iraq to spy. Do you have any reactions to those kinds of charges?

In a sense, Ritter, by doing this, almost destroyed now UNSCOM.

... Probably these revelations, which he had to share, the international inspection system itself now is in danger, because not many states would be forthcoming in allowing such an inspection system anymore, without calculating the possibility of ... having spies from the big power in charge of the teams.

Now, but UNSCOM, in a sense, had no recourse. I mean, Saddam used his own special security organization to be in charge of the weapons systems--their safety, their transport, their whatever. So, saving the weapons was given to SSO, the Special Security Organization.

Now, if you spy on the SSO, to try to find where the weapons is, you get some extra information. And this is what happened in many cases. Gradually, you have to get in deeper and deeper into the layers of the Iraqi government, and closer and closer to Saddam, to know what's going on. Because only the people around him know what's going on. So, they have to go to those people.

Now, in getting so deep, you will find many of Iraq's secrets. Now, Iraq is an enemy to the US now. ... And the people who work in these groups have nationalities ... so they would, we'd expect, and they would use-- And that's been classic. I mean, even in old organizations that happened--infiltration, information that leaks to various states, and information reported directly to the other states. We had that in IAEA. We had two informers in the IAEA, who will report to Iraq directly.

You had Iraqi informers inside the international--

Inspectors, yes, inspectors. They were to report to us directly. ... And they told us many of the inside secrets of the IAEA.

So, that's used. I mean, why everybody is surprised about it, I don't know. But the end result of it, it will undermine the international inspection system, so I don't know what's the point of it right now?

One imagines, if you had informers inside the IAEA, that Iraq was trying to do the same thing with UNSCOM?

... Oh, yes, Kamel employed one of the guys as a secretary to one of the groups, and when he was being debriefed [by UNSCOM after he defected from Iraq], that guy was present there, so Kamel threw him out. He told him, "I employed you, why are you here? You were reporting to me."

... There's nothing new. Everybody uses it. So, the hue and the cry is, I don't know what it's about. Everybody uses this. I'm not trying to say it's alright. It did undermine the international inspections. But why does it have to come now? And why is it made such a big deal right now, with all these revelations, when the whole system now is about to-- ... Anyway, it ended up almost, now, destroying UNSCOM and putting all the inspection under suspicion and Iraq would be now in a better position to probably dictate who is going to come, on a nationality basis.

... And your point is that if inspections, and tough inspections, don't continue--

Oh, he'll get weapons in no time.... Without ongoing monitoring, Saddam won; it has to be there. It has to be ongoing, to prevent him, at least make it difficult for him to rebuild his system. And real monitoring, not the old monitoring we used to have from the IAEA ... .

Let me ask you a political question that's been raised. ...[Y]ou hear the argument made that economic sanctions are harming the Iraqi people more than Saddam, and that women and children are suffering and dying. What do you think about that argument?

What is happening-- Now, Iraq is selling oil, alright, for what, more than a year now? Now, the rations has not increased. So, where's the oil money going? ...Several cases [of smuggling] are reported by UNSCOM and other organizations. So, ... if the sanctions are removed, this is what is going to happen: Oil money will be freely spent by Saddam without restrictions ... removing sanctions would benefit the people, I think, is a false claim. It will never go down to the people. It will stay with Saddam and his clique and his cronies, and his favorite groups. ...

So, the ultimate answer here is, it sounds like, the end of Saddam Hussein?

Yes. Keep him under lid, keep him without money, reduce his power, keep him under inspection, until a solution is found, to get rid of him. This is the only way. If you allow him to sell as much oil as he wants, which he's more or less doing now, and spend it as he wishes, and it goes to his people, to weapons, to more weapons of mass destruction. People will get nothing out of it.

I mean, even during the Iran-Iraq war, with Iraq pumping ... his ration of oil with the OPEC, and more sometimes, ... [t]here were no medicines in the market. There were shortages. There were always shortages. And money was going to weapons of mass destruction, to Atomic Energy, to chemical weapons, biological weapons ... .

home + experts' analyses + photos + interviews + what it took + join the discussion
readings & links + chronology + synopsis + tapes & transcripts
frontline + pbs online + wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation