Nuclear Weapons: Saddam And The Scam Artists

Vice President Dick Cheney once famously declared, shortly before the outbreak of war, that Saddam Hussein had, "in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." When no such weapons turned up, administration officials said that what Cheney really meant to say was that Iraq had "started reconstituting its nuclear program," which is what the CIA, in a secret (but later declassified) October 2002 intelligence analysis sent to the White House and Congress, said that "most" U.S. intel agencies believed.

But judging from some of the evidence turned up by U.S. search teams in Iraq after the war, even the CIA's more cautious prewar assessment may have been overheated. According to an intelligence source, one of the more significant files relating to Iraqi nuclear ambitions found in the archives of the Baghdad headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Saddam's intelligence service, included documents that reported an approach Iraq received in 2000 from a middleman based in Nairobi, Kenya. The file said that the middleman could supply Iraq with quantities of diamonds, cobalt and uranium, all produced in the mineral-rich Congo. But the file also included a note, apparently made by a Mukhabarat officer, indicating that Iraq did not take up the middleman's deal. The note indicated that the offer should not be pursued because Iraq's alleged WMD programs were under too much international scrutiny at the time. It added that Iraqi intelligence should "maintain contact" with the middleman in case it became easier for Baghdad to buy sensitive commodities in the future.

Also found in Iraqi government files after the war were what appeared to be an offer from Pakistan made in 1993-1994 to supply Iraq with what amounted to a whole nuclear-weapons program. Though his name was not on the documents, some U.S. investigators suspect that the man behind this offer was A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's "Islamic bomb" program, who earlier this year was reprimanded--but not penalized--by his government for running what probably was the world's most damaging nuclear-weapons-proliferation ring. And U.S. intelligence officers found several Iraqi-government file cabinets full of offers Saddam had received for quantities of "red mercury," a supposedly ultrapowerful nuclear material that scientists say does not really exist. U.S. intelligence sources say that what the documentation really seems to show is that while Saddam never lost his lust for nukes, over the last several years Iraq in effect had become a favorite target of the world's nuclear scam artists. At best, the evidence suggests, Iraq's A-bomb program was in hibernation. A senior Defense official familiar with the work of the Iraq Survey Group, the U.S. team that hunted Saddam's WMD, said that evidence collected after the war indicated Saddam wanted a nuclear program--but it probably "was not being aggressively pursued."