TCS Daily

From Lapdog to Watchdog

By Melana Zyla Vickers - January 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Until inspectors' discovery Thursday of empty chemical-weapons rockets in Iraq, it was looking as though the UN team, led by Hans Blix, was doing more to cover for Saddam Hussein than to expose him.

Chief inspector Blix had waved away a Jan. 27 deadline for reporting his findings to the UN, saying it's not relevant. He had downplayed the UN resolution's expressed requirement that Iraqi weapons scientists be interviewed outside the country, their families safe from the clutches of the regime, and agreeing instead to in-country interviews in the presence of Saddam's thugs. And from his tone in interviews, one would have guessed that Washington was the rogue capital, not Baghdad.

The chemical-weapon findings give the tiniest bit of hope that Blix is beginning to understand his job description. Now more than ever, therefore, Washington needs to pressure Blix on one of the most important aspects of the inspection regime: that he demand that Saddam let the scientists out of the country. Without those out-of-country interviews, any information gleaned from Iraqi weapons scientists will be piecemeal and poisoned by propaganda.

As the U.S. rightly presses Blix to demand the scientist interviews, however, it would do well to reflect on an uncomfortable scientist problem of its own: Many of Iraq's weapons experts, as well as weapons scientists from countries deemed by the U.S. to be sponsors of terrorism, received their PhDs right here in the U.S. Top Iraqi nuclear-weapons scientist Khidir Hamza, who trained in the U.S. but who defected from Iraq in 1994, has said that Iraq's "best scientists are trained here."

All told, 112 Iraqis received PhDs in the sciences and engineering in the U.S. between 1990-99, according to a recent study led by Paula Stephan of Georgia State University. Four other countries that the U.S. labels state sponsors of terrorism account for an additional 1,174 science and engineering doctorates: 102 went to Syrians, 86 went to Sudanese nationals, and 875 went to Iranians. Add to the list another 20 countries, ranging from Algeria to Yemen, about which the U.S. has special anti-terrorism concerns, and the number of their nationals receiving U.S. science and engineering PhDs jumps to 5,469.

President Bush in 2001 signed a directive prohibiting "certain international students" from studying or being trained in sensitive subjects in the U.S. But anyone who has looked at this issue knows that such high-minded restrictions quickly get red-taped into uselessness: Consider that an Immigration and Naturalization Service program to keep track of foreign students' addresses and areas of study, initiated by Congress seven years ago, has yet to be implemented in full. That's not to mention the debacle in which two of the Sept. 11 terrorists received visas to study in the U.S. months after they died in their murderous attack.

An additional problem with restricting students from terrorist-sponsoring states is that, rather obviously, not all are terrorists. The biggest proportion of falsely tarred students is from Iran - many of the PhDs are pre-Islamic revolution emigres to the U.S., and even more likely to support the U.S. fight against radical Islam than are average Americans.

Nonetheless, the U.S. has to come to grips with the fact that it may be training the very terrorists who plan to attack this country. It may also be training scientists who, upon return to their home countries such as Iraq, can be compelled by their governments to use their knowledge against the U.S. Since blocking their studies here might not be that effective, at a minimum the U.S. should use its intelligence community aggressively to track the scientists while they're here and after they return to their home countries. Indeed, one hopes and expects that the U.S., through such tracking, has good leads about the scientists in Iraq right now.

Why is it that Saddam was willing to let them out for studies, but not for questioning? Because the scientists are defection-prone, and defections have proven so costly to the Iraqi regime that they're to be avoided at any price. To illustrate with a few examples:

  • Hamza, the U.S.-educated nuclear scientist who defected in 1994, unceasingly appears in the world's media to paint a detailed and chilling picture of Saddam's nuclear weapons program.

  • Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law and head of the Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization who defected in August 1995, humiliated the regime and essentially ended Iraq's ability to deny it had a nuclear and biological weapons program. He was later killed by his father-in-law's henchmen.

  • Muayad Naji, a centrifuge program worker who escaped from Iraq in 1992, showed how just about any scientists' defection is considered a high risk by the regime. He was shot dead by Iraqi intelligence agents in Amman, Jordan, shortly after fleeing there with his family.

What's more, Iraq knows all too well that the knowledge and skill of the scientists who defect can't be replaced as readily as machine parts. Their disappearance would set back Iraq's weapons programs.

All of which makes the likelihood of Saddam letting the scientists out of the country almost nil. Given the snowball's odds of seeing any scientists let out of Iraq, the value of this scientist tug-of-war lies almost exclusively in public relations: Saddam's unwillingness to comply with the UN resolution demanding the scientist interviews proves to all who are paying attention that he's in "material breach" of his weapons agreements.

Perhaps the U.S. can use the American-educated scientists for an additional, if smaller-scope, PR dimension as well. If the U.S. or inspector Blix were to demand that Saddam produce for interviews the dozens of Western-trained scientists he claims to employ in peace-loving tasks, he'd be in an embarrassing position. His refusal will further discredit him.

Such PR campaigns have worked before. During the Cold War, Ronald Reagan while visiting Moscow had his presidential car, international TV crews in tow, drive to the apartment of atomic scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, calling the communists' bluff on the conditions in which dissidents lived. The ploy unleashed a torrent of revelations about the Soviet Union's human rights abuses, and embarrassed the Moscow regime.

"Reaganesque" isn't a compliment that uber-Euro Blix would likely want to receive. But using the PR tools at his disposal to push harder on the scientist question is the only way he can truly move from being Baghdad's lapdog to Baghdad's watchdog.

TCS Daily Archives