TCS Daily

Catching 'Little Bugs'

By Melana Zyla Vickers - November 22, 2002 12:00 AM

"Once more from the top, this time with sensing." That could be the new slogan of United Nations weapons inspectors who have been hyping the sensors and other new technologies they've acquired in the hopes they'll detect Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

Too much optimism about the UN's technology is unwarranted, though. Not only is it of limited utility, but the inspections' success will ultimately hinge on other factors.

In the New York Times and on television, spokesmen for the inspection team have been touting several technologies they didn't have when they were in Iraq, off and on, from 1991 to 1998. While each is powerful, the technologies are flawed, not least because they're often dependent on the inspectors already knowing where a weapons program is.

-The commercial satellite imagery the UN is touting cannot monitor Iraqi territory as regularly or intensively as needed. The UN is promoting the fact that it has bought the services of commercial satellites that can take detailed pictures of buildings, factories, and arsenals. These are useful, but there are only a handful of them and they take pictures largely in the daytime, and only when the satellite orbits over the country. By contrast, the U.S. military has since the end of the Gulf War shared with UN weapons inspectors satellite imagery that is taken more often from more satellites, and is taken both during the day and night. And even monitoring by those more-vigilant U.S. satellites has been circumvented in the past - for instance, the Indian military four years ago succeeded in setting up its nuclear-weapons tests undetected, by moving equipment into place when spy satellites were not orbiting over India.

-Germ detectors require inspectors to know where to look. The UN is touting detectors that are portable and that can quickly evaluate whether an air or soil sample contains anthrax or other germs. The detectors certainly will speed up the time it takes to evaluate samples. But they require inspectors to know whence to seize the samples - a formidable challenge in a single city or square block, let alone in a country Iraq's size.

-Biological and chemical weapons sensors have limited ranges. Sensors that can monitor the air, water and soil are useful but require the inspectors to know roughly where they are looking for the weapons material. Such a task might prove extremely difficult if, as has been reported, Saddam's bio-weapons labs are housed in mobile, refrigerated trucks that could be indistinguishable from all other refrigerated trucks in the country, and that are free to travel Iraq's roads.

-Nuclear-material sensors are better but far from fool-proof. Such sensors, while more sensitive than the bio-sensors, also have their limitations. They might help inspectors confirm weapons activity at a site they've already identified; they could secretly install a sensor and wait for it to get results, for example. But the sensors aren't strong enough to find a weapons site itself. What's more, Saddam Hussein has been known to play tricks with his weapons programs - during the Gulf War in 1991 he buried radioactive material in the desert some distance from a weapons site, for example.

While those buried materials were ultimately found by inspectors, Iraq has successfully obscured other weapons programs from the UN. First, there are the bio-weapons programs already discussed. Secondly, it took a bomb launched during Desert Fox - the four-day campaign that followed the inspectors' ejection in 1998 - to blow the roof off a facility where Iraq was housing drone aircraft, and thereby expose a potentially powerful delivery vehicle for biological or chemical arms. More recently, U.S. intelligence has learned that Iraq probably has weaponized smallpox - a finding that eluded the inspectors in the 1990s.

The limits of technology don't apply only to UN weapons inspectors. While similar technologies can aid the U.S. in protecting American soil from biological, chemical, and nuclear attack, they are weak without the support of an aggressive war on terrorism and a vigilant FBI and other agencies.

Ironically, the improvements in the inspections regime that the UN is not touting are the ones that are most significant. They'll allow inspectors to search where they haven't before, and to gain insight into the weapons programs from insiders.

-Genuine improvement No. 1: Scientist interviews. Under the new, U.S.-brokered Security Council resolution, inspectors this time have the ability - and obligation - to interview Iraqi scientists about weapons programs. Protecting the integrity of such interviews is the rule that the scientists and their families must be taken out of reach of government reprisals, and without government minders, in order to be questioned. It's worth remembering that the inspectors learned nothing about Saddam's bio-weapons program, despite 30 searches through the early 1990s. It took a defector, Saddam's son in law Hussein Kamal, to tell U.S. intelligence in 1995 that Iraq's security forces had a series of secret laboratories for germ-weapons production. (Kamal was later lured back into Iraq and killed by the regime.)

Genuine improvement No.2: No off-limits locations. In the past Saddam had a series of presidential palaces and retreats that were off limits to inspections. It's widely believed that that's where he hid many elements of his weapons of mass destruction programs. This time he'll have no such refuge, and inspectors will be able to seal off areas for examination. Nonetheless, it's still an open question whether 100 inspectors can thoroughly search all possible sites where weapons might be built or stored. After all, consider how difficult it was for the U.S. and Afghan troops to find Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan last year, or how difficult it was for the FBI and Washington-area police to find the culprits in the recent sniper murders. Moreover, the Iraqi regime could quickly work to reconstitute weapons programs after the inspections.

Genuine improvement No. 3: If Saddam doesn't reveal a site that intelligence services may know of, he will instantly be in "material breach" of the Security Council resolution. This bit of legal talk takes the onus off the inspectors and puts it on Saddam's shoulders. If he doesn't reveal, in his complete report due on Dec.8, information that the U.S. or other UN member-states may have gathered clandestinely, then he instantly will be found to violate the will of the United Nations and to be deserving of retaliation.

None of these inspection details is a silver bullet however. Even the chairman of the UN inspection commission, Hans Blix, admits that inspections may not totally disarm the Iraqi regime. "There can always be some little bug or proscribed item hidden somewhere," he said in an October speech.

In the past, "little bugs" that got by without Blix's notice have included North Korea's entire nuclear-weapons program. Since Iraq's potential "bugs" include killers such as smallpox, anthrax, or nuclear weapons, wielded not only by the Iraqi military but by Al Qaeda terrorists that it may be protecting, the degree of uncertainty that Blix seems willing to live with is intolerably high. Ultimately, the only way to lower the uncertainty further still will be to remove from power the man, and the regime, that has caused these weapons programs to exist.



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