In a terse pause to an otherwise feisty nationally televised address, CIA director George Tenet, speaking at Georgetown University on Feb. 5, said when it comes to interpreting intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, "history matters." Rolf Ekeus has walked through the bowels of that history.
As the first to head UN weapons inspections in Iraq, Mr. Ekeus became the longest-running lead official to track and eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. When his work began, he did not dream that questions about Saddam's WMD stockpiles would linger more than 12 years later.
As the white-haired dean of European diplomats, Mr. Ekeus in his WORLD interview from his offices in The Hague was surprisingly unequivocal in his support for the Bush/Blair war plan. Yet as a supporter, he nonetheless fears the United States may have botched the postwar weapons search in its quest for a dramatic discovery of "stuff" (WMD hardware) rather than weapons-making capacity (WMD software).
Also in the interview:
3» He candidly accepted responsibility ("I consider it my fault") for allowing international pressure and political manipulation by Saddam to hinder UN destruction of Iraq's dual-use facilities.
3» He expressed concern over the administration's selection of inspectors (choosing "brawn" over "brain"), and despite his praise for the Bush team's new head inspector, it may be "too late."
3» He tied President Clinton's bombing runs over Iraq to the end of on-the-ground inspectors and reduced monitoring efforts to remote-control exercises.
Starting in 1991, Rolf Ekeus and a team of chemical-weapons experts spent two years destroying what he calls a "huge quantity" of nerve gas and other lethal agents. They built two destruction facilities inside Iraq just to finish them off.
He oversaw a team of biological-weapons experts who uncovered "a large amount of growth media for anthrax, which was unaccounted for."
He sat down in Jordan on a summer evening in 1995 with Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Gen. Hussein Kamal, the country's biggest-name defector. For three hours the general, who was in charge of Iraq's weapons production, described the extent of Saddam's WMD program. He revealed crash-course efforts to develop nuclear weapons, including one to design and manufacture centrifuges disguised as an irrigation project within the Ministry of Agriculture. He described programs to equip long-range missiles with poison aerosols.
With that kind of past, neither Mr. Ekeus nor others from the inspection fraternity doubt that Iraq under Saddam Hussein desired to acquire unconventional weapons sufficient to threaten its neighbors and its enemies. The absence of chemical weapons in Iraq is "puzzling," he admits, but the former weapons chief believes criticism of U.S. and British policy over the war is "a distortion and a trivialization of a major threat to international peace and security."
Mr. Ekeus, a former Swedish ambassador to the United States, took charge of the UN Special Commission on Iraq, which came to be known as UNSCOM, in 1991. Only months before, the fourth-largest army in the world had been defeated in 100 hours of ground warfare known as the Gulf War. In pulling out of Kuwait, Iraq signed on to the UN's terms: economic sanctions until Iraq proved it had dismantled weapons of mass destruction and was no longer a threat to its neighbors.
With few exceptions, the dismantling process and inspections were going nowhere until Mr. Ekeus and two other inspectors interrogated Gen. Kamal in 1995. He confirmed something UNSCOM had come to suspect: that Saddam held few stockpiles of banned weapons.
"What Iraq learned in its war against Iran, where it used chemical weapons in massive scale, was to be wary of chemical weapons-based warfare agents that had been stored. It had great difficulty stabilizing nerve agents. If you cannot stabilize nerve agents, meaning to store them, the poison quality deteriorates. Then it no longer has strategic significance."
Rather than amass large inventories, Mr. Ekeus discovered, Saddam was more interested in quick means to produce them. Gen. Kamal's testimony revealed an active interest in perpetuating Iraq's manufacturing capacity.
Six months after that meeting and the debriefings that followed, Gen. Kamal was shot dead in Baghdad, a portent of the long and treacherous road ahead.
At that point sanctions had prohibited Iraq from selling oil for more than five years-a revenue loss estimated at $100 billion. Mr. Ekeus said he realized then the "enormous value" Saddam placed on his complex weapons program.
At the same time, UNSCOM was under increasing pressure to give Saddam a passing grade. "How many children are you willing to let die while you search for 'items' you 'are convinced still exist in' Iraq?" read the opening sentence of a June 1996 letter sent to Mr. Ekeus by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
An international campaign paraded starving Iraqi children. Private charities like Mariam Appeal (headed by British MP George Galloway, who is accused of taking millions from Saddam and was expelled from the Labor Party last October) staged protests over the severity of sanctions. They worked alongside UN agencies, particularly UNICEF, lobbying to have sanctions lifted even though Saddam had not complied with the WMD agreement.
The charged atmosphere would have an effect on the work of UNSCOM, not unlike the way today's debate over the war has pressured experts like former Iraq Survey Group head David Kay to reach a preemptive conclusion that Saddam did not have WMD capability.
"I can be considered culpable" in the current controversy, Mr. Ekeus said, "in that I certainly expressed my concern that Iraq would continue to strive for all these weapons, including nuclear weapons."
Although UNSCOM destroyed numerous chemical-weapons facilities in Iraq, it faced a dilemma with pesticide plants and other agricultural facilities. They played a vital role in keeping the food industry alive, but could be quickly turned to chemical-weapons production. UNSCOM left them intact because "there was an outcry against sanctions," Mr. Ekeus said.
"I consider it my fault we did not destroy any of those facilities in order to not be accused of starving Iraqis," he said.
The only way to be sure civilian facilities did not revert to WMD use was to enact rigid monitoring systems. And to restrict imports. That required site visits as often as once a week or more, sampling of air and water, and interviewing Iraqis. Intensified monitoring seemed to have an effect-until all inspections fell apart in December 1998.
Inspectors wanted access to Saddam's presidential palaces, where they believed documents and plans for reconstituting WMD programs lay. Saddam's regime said those facilities were off limits. They accused one inspector, former U.S. Marine Scott Ritter, of being a spy. Saddam blackballed other inspectors, including British weapons expert David Kelly, who committed suicide last year over WMD-related scandals. Soon UNSCOM found itself unable to carry on its duties. In December 1998, Richard Butler, who the year before had replaced Mr. Ekeus at the commission's helm, pulled his inspectors out of Iraq.
A few days later, Operation Desert Fox, a series of retaliatory bombing runs over Iraq by U.S. and U.K. forces, ended any prospect of UNSCOM returning to Iraq. Critics complained that former President Clinton launched the airstrikes as a diversion from an impending congressional vote on impeachment.
But motive was irrelevant to the outcome. Monitoring Saddam's WMD programs would have to be done by remote.
"I think we had very good insight in Iraq activities. From 1998 it was guesswork," said Mr. Ekeus. "My conclusion: Iraq could then develop a capacity to produce WMD from that moment on."
Developing new weapons would be dependent on whether Iraq could import essential materials-high-quality tools, advanced machines, and metals. That would depend on international cooperation to prevent imports.
Cooperation, at that time, started to flow toward Baghdad. In 1996 the UN launched its Oil for Food program, allowing Baghdad to export a limited amount of oil on the condition that the UN manage receipts and Iraq purchase only humanitarian goods. Just as inspections ended, the UN removed Iraq's oil-export ceiling. The surge in exports-not to mention UN mismanagement of the program or a growing black-market trade-paid for rapidly increasing amounts of hard-to-track imports entering the country. Homing in on disparate components for a WMD industry Saddam already had demonstrated he wanted to hide would be difficult.
Without good monitoring and onsite inspections, evaluating other forms of data became more difficult. Defectors were notorious wild cards, more so without a team inside the country. Satellite imagery alone cannot adequately interpret what is happening, say, when an unusually large convoy of trucks pulls up to a pesticide plant.
Left like a street cop without a beat, UNSCOM dissolved into another UN monitoring commission, known by its acronym as UNMOVIC. In 1999 it came under the direction of another Swedish-born diplomat, Hans Blix. Unlike Mr. Ekeus, Mr. Blix is an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war. Mr. Blix uncovered little in the way of new WMD data in the months preceding war. He stepped down last year and has not been replaced. UNMOVIC's next report to the Security Council is scheduled the first of March, despite its having no weapons teams in Iraq.
In the days and weeks following U.S. victory in Iraq, the Bush administration had at least a once-in-a-decade opportunity to uncover the real story about the WMD programs and to seize lethal weapons. Mr. Ekeus and other weapons experts WORLD interviewed fear the administration failed to capitalize on the moment.
"The U.S. should have brought in serious minds from the beginning to carry out WMD searches," said Mr. Ekeus, "experts like [former UNSCOM biological warfare advisers] Richard Spertzel and David Kelly. This was a serious misjudgment."
Mr. Ekeus faults the administration for focusing too much on what he calls the hardware, or actual WMD stockpiles, rather than evidence of a more sophisticated program to produce just-in-time weapons.
But he does not agree with Bush critics who say the absence of postwar proof that Saddam ran a WMD program indicates the program may never have existed, or that banned weapons never existed in the quantities CIA director Tenet and others have suggested. If Mr. Tenet and others made mistakes, Mr. Ekeus believes they were more tactical than strategic.
"They talked themselves into the storage idea, into not needing brain and needing brawn, and into wanting lean, young kids to find the weapons instead of looking to middle-aged experts with paunches."
Mr. Ekeus said he had heard from several former inspectors, who were contacted by Bush officials to go into Iraq as part of weapons-inspections teams in March or April. In each case, they were waved away at the last minute and not contacted again.
Mr. Spertzel, a 28-year military veteran and four-year head of biological inspections for UNSCOM, confirmed he was one of them. Contacted by defense and intelligence officials last February, he was asked to put together a team of 20 inspectors to be ready to depart for Iraq in early April. But on arrival at Bolling Air Force Base, he was told the plan had changed and he was not needed. He did not hear from anyone connected to the operation again, he said, until about a month ago.
A defense official confirmed that the Pentagon initially contacted "as many people with as widespread types of experience as possible" and later eliminated many potential candidates. He would not comment specifically on Col. Spertzel's case. He said the Iraq Survey Group initially was designed to enter Iraq "after hostilities ceased and the situation was determined to be proper for the Iraq Survey Group to function." But in fact the U.S. inspection team did not arrive in Baghdad until June and was not functioning until July-two months after hostilities officially ended-a delay the spokesman would only describe as a "decision made in Washington."
Does all this amount to a flawed rationale for war? Not according to the former inspection chief. "It is both plausible and correct to say that Saddam obviously was a threat. If sanctions had been lifted it would have been extremely naïve to believe that he was Mr. Clean."
The Bush administration will need to make up for its losses. "My sense is that the decision to re-equip the Iraq Survey Group with a new leader is a good one. It's an improvement over David Kay. His style in arms control is hardware. He was looking for stuff."
His replacement, Charles Duelfer, "is the right person too late." Mr. Duelfer, he believes, will look for "software," or knowledge about the whereabouts of WMD programs from scientists, engineers, and documentation.
Election season Bush-bashing overlooks the opportunities in post-Saddam Iraq. "The door is now open," according to Mr. Ekeus, "to remake the region into a WMD-free area and to shape a structure in the Persian Gulf of stability and security."
This, he said, is enough to justify the international military intervention and to press ahead in the hunt for banned weapons. The question is whether the president will make that case, and make it persuasively to the voting public.