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Inspect the Brains By: William Safire
The New York Times | Wednesday, December 18, 2002


The most crucial item in U.N. Resolution 1441 ordering Iraq to submit to inspections or else is this: The inspection teams are empowered to take Iraqi scientists and their families out of the country, away from Saddam Hussein's handlers, for interrogation.

Our National Security Council insisted on that clause for good reason: the best intelligence revealing Saddam's germ warfare program and nuclear plans has come from defectors with current knowledge of those "material breaches" of his decade-old surrender terms.

Russia and France, having pushed the Bush administration back into agreeing to a long period of "phony war," knew that their refusal to accept our interrogation-of-scientists clause would be a deal-breaker. They acquiesced, figuring that Hans Blix, the see-no-evil U.N. choice for chief inspector approved by Saddam, would not use that power to question the people who know the secrets.

Sure enough, as soon as his team entered Iraq, Blix assured Baghdad it had nothing to fear from the interrogation clause. "We are not going to abduct anybody," he announced, "and we're not serving as a defection agency."

By characterizing the needed interrogation of the people who know where the germs and centrifuges are as "abduction" and "defection," Blix undermined effective inspection at the start.

Abduct means "kidnap." The U.N. purpose is not to kidnap the brains behind Iraqi weaponry; to say so is to cravenly subscribe to Saddam's propaganda. The purpose is to get answers about past and present weapons production from all the key players at the technical table without having them fear for their lives. These include those scientists unconcerned about enabling mass murder as well as those with moral qualms about the perversion of their scientific work.

In a curiously muted response, U.S. officials let it be known they were displeased with this bureaucratic dismissal of a hard-fought Security Council decision. Blix then reacted by sending a signal to Iraqi scientists that all but guarantees their continued intimidation by Saddam.

Get this: he reluctantly requested a list from Saddam of scientists and technicians the Iraqi dictator thinks should talk to the inspectors. A minor Iraqi official said he'd draw one up in a couple of weeks.

If Blix has any interest in getting hard intelligence about germs and nukes, this is what he should do: Draw up his own list — the names and addresses of the leading 50 scientists are no secret — and then go and knock on their doors. Ask them to step into a helicopter, with families if desired, and transport them to a safe house outside the country for questioning.

The first interviewee should be obvious to longtime readers of this space: Rihab Taha, "Dr. Germs," the British-trained biologist who has been running Saddam's anthrax and botulism laboratories for nearly 20 years. In the mid-90's, when a U.N. inspector caught her in a flat lie, she replied, "It is not a lie when you're being ordered to lie."

Would Dr. Germs and her oil-minister husband tell the truth now, if spirited out of Saddam's circle? Unlikely; but if told their secret cooperation might ameliorate sentences at war-crimes trials, they might discreetly provide a few leads. Same with the smallpox virologist Hazem Ali, the anthrax expert Abdul Nassir Hindawi, the nuclear physicists Jaffar Dhia Jaffar and Mahdi Obeidi, all named in The Washington Post yesterday.

Even if these scientific Saddamites hang tough, such off-site interrogation of supposed Saddam loyalists would give cover to other Iraqi scientists similarly transported to places where the truth can be told safely.

What if Iraq refuses to allow the U.N. surprise outside interviews with scientists not on the regime's approved list? What if Saddam claims that all removals of scientists to safe houses would be — in Blix's damning words — impermissible "abductions" by a "defection agency"?

That would be a flagrant failure to comply with the U.N. resolution. Added to failure to disclose stocks of media in which germs and deadly viruses are bred, Iraqi refusal to make available unrestricted access to scientific brains (and their spouses and aides) would be a breach so material as to overwhelm even French objections.

Don't wait for that sanitized list of scientists, Mr. Blix. You know who and where many of them are. Start knocking on doors today. 


William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times.


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