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Wed, 16 Apr 2003 U.S. Arrogance on Weapons Inspection May Cost Soldiers, Civilians Dearly

So, what's the best way to guarantee that Iraqui uranium goes missing: continue a U.N.-backed inspection regime, or bring war and anarchy to the region with un-briefed, un-trained military personnel?

It's not a trick question. On his Thursday, April 10th weblog entry, Andrew Sullivan posted this brief and provocative bit:

IS THIS IT? Fox News reports on a labyrinth of tunnels and labs in Southern Iraq, where buildings are testing positive for radiation. This may not turn out to be a nuclear research facility. But it strikes me as a sign of what we might soon find.

Sullivan linked to Fox News, where an article here with the headline "Weapons Grade Plutonium Possibly Found at Iraqui Nuke Complex" in which they state:

While officials aren't prepared to call the discovery a "smoking gun," two preliminary tests conducted on the material have indicated that it may be weapons-grade plutonium.

Is this the same kind of "preliminary test" which found sarin and other chemical agents in containers of pesticides? Note the rather provocative wording: "weapons grade plutonium" and "nuke." Wow, this is big news, right? Iraq actually had nukes? Damn, we were right! Hold that thought.

The Fox News story goes on (Good Lord, does it ever):

The discovery of the underground labyrinth of labs and warehouses was unexpected, Fox News has confirmed...

Is this credible? Did American ground troops find something new and threatening that the weapons inspectors were unaware of? Fox News quotes a Capt. John Seegar:

"I've never seen anything like it, ever," he told the Tribune-Review. "How did the world miss all of this? Why couldn't they see what was happening here?"

Then they quote "Former Iraqui Scientist" Gazi George:

"The high levels of radiation suggest it's a high-level nuclear waste that was stored underground, trying to hide it for the process of repurposing it for the future... or just to make dirty bombs out of the material that's down there," George said.

"If the material has not been disclosed by Iraqis to the United Nations... [then] definitely this material was hidden there to use it as a source for extracting plutonium chemically and using it in dirty bombs."

"Saddam always tried to hide... uranium or other nuclear fuels so we could use them in the future for weapons of mass destruction."

George said it's important the coalition find Iraqi scientists who know about these weapons so they can hunt down the harmful material and destroy it.

"I think this demonstrates the failure of the U.N. weapons inspections and demonstrates that our guys are going to find the weapons of mass destruction."

Wow, an insider who knows all about this stuff. This is hot news, right? Those moronic inspectors; that useless U.N. Right?

It took me barely ten seconds of googling to determine that, in reality, yes, this was a "nuclear research facility." But it is far from a revelation.

Gazi George has been in exile from Iraq for twenty years. He lives in the Detroit area now. See this link. Twenty years is a long time. Now, I'm not claiming he doesn't know a lot about what was going on in Iraq twenty years ago; I'm sure he does. And quite likely, the statements he gave Fox News were measured and reasonable, especially given his personal experience. But note his phrasing: "If the material has not been disclosed..." The material has been disclosed. And inspected. Many times.

In fact, this facility is the Tuwaitha nuclear complex: see this page from http://globalsecurity.org, and also this page, which contains the following text taken from an UNSCOM report in 1997:

Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center: Main site for Iraqi nuclear program. Activities included: several research reactors, plutonium separation and waste processing, uranium metallurgy, neutron initiator development and work on number of methods of uranium enrichment. Tuwaitha also is the location of the Osiraq reactor bombed by Israel in 1981. All nuclear fuel at this site was removed under IAEA monitoring. Equipment directly tied to the nuclear weapons program was destroyed in place.

And according to Haaretz,

...the Vienna-based IAEA [International Atomic Energy Commission] - which has inspected Tuwaitha at least two dozen times and maintains a thick dossier on the site - said Iraq was allowed to keep several tons of low-grade uranium and other nuclear material there under IAEA seal because the material could not be used directly for weapons.

Later in the same article:

Tuwaitha contains 1.8 tons of low-grade enriched uranium and several tons of natural and depleted uranium. The uranium was inspected by the UN nuclear agency twice a year.

IAEA inspectors visited Tuwaitha about a dozen times since December and most recently on Feb. 6. It was among the first sites that IAEA inspectors sought out after the resumption of inspections on Nov. 27 after a nearly four-year break.

It may have been inspected even more recently: see this report which indicates that at least a cursory inspection was performed on March 10th of this year. So what do we have here? This was a place where a lot of material from Iraq's nuclear program was found, but left in place, because it was easier and safer to leave in place and inspect it, than to attempt to remove tons of uranium from a presumably highly contaminated site. Material suitable for weapons-building was removed.

Does Fox News do any research whatsoever? Or is that just a dumb question? Geez, there are even some primary source documents (a declassified, edited CIA report) out there for the plucking. There are frickin' PowerPoint slides of a visual walkthough of the place. Ten seconds of Googling.

It gets worse: Fox News doesn't even search its own archived stories. This Fox News story here, dated December 9, 2002, describes an inspection at the site. I guess Fox News has a short memory:

Inspection teams scoured the three nuclear sites near the town of al-Tuwaitha, 15 miles southeast of Baghdad, picking up from where U.N. nuclear agency inspectors left off in 1998, when they left Iraq amid disputes between Baghdad and the United Nations.

Many buildings at the three sites -- including the giant al-Tuwaitha nuclear complex -- were destroyed in heavy U.S. bombing in the 1991 Gulf War. Through the 1990s, al-Tuwaitha was scrutinized by U.N. nuclear agency inspectors under a postwar U.N. monitoring regime to ensure Iraq did not develop weapons of mass destruction."

But their journalism of late 2002 is not inflammatory enough to use in 2003. And Fox News knows it is preferable to whip up hysteria than it is to offer information. And, apparently, so does Andrew Sullivan. He suggests this may be a "smoking gun." He links to the Fox News story that claims possible plutonium when none is likely to be present, and which implies that the world did not know what was going on at Tuwaitha, until the brave American soldiers uncovered this horror. And this "money quote," to use a term Sullivan likes to use, will be the one that people remember. Fox would love to leave us with the impression that the inspections were a farce. Certainly, Iraq was deceptive; certainly, Iraq was uncooperative. But the inspectors did know a thing or two.

Now, the thing is, this is a scary news story. But not because of plutonium, and not because of "nukes." There are parts of the story that we should consider to be the scary parts, if we think straight and don't resort to hysteria. There's some talk about a hidden underground complex that one source claimed the inspectors may have been unaware of. That's interesting and possibly frightening, but I'm waiting to form an opionion on it, as any reasonable person should do, until I see corroborative evidence. (Recall that the inspectors had ground-penetrating radar, and certainly had the detectors necessary to find radioactive materials, but if they were unaware or kept out of certain hidden parts of the complex, that's news). There are reports of recent construction at the Tuwaitha complex. That's interesting. There's also a report of a Finnish "centrifugal pump," which may be a revelation that some parts necessary for enrichment were not destroyed (but enrichment requires a large- scale operation). These don't rise to the level of "scary" yet. But there are two parts that do scare me.

The first part is that marines, apparently completely uninformed about Iraq's nuclear program, were entering the facility. Throwing open doors and examining drums of highly radioactive material, watching their radiation detectors go "off the scale." That's crazy. The Tuwaitha complex was known by the inspectors to be highly radioactive! The apparent ignorance may have put these soldiers at grave risk and just underscores our lack of planning, organization, and willful refusal to even use information provided by the inspections process. But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at this, given our willingness to expose our own troops to depleted uranium on the battlefield.

The second part is that there is a possibility that the seals have been broken on this material and that some may have been removed. This was not the case at the time of the last inspection on February 6th, and may not have even been the case as of March 10th. But that's what the latest reports are saying.

The power is out at the site. Looters are cutting through the electrified fences and entering the buildings. One possible conclusion is that in the "fog of war," with the demolition of the ongoing inspections regime, we've created conditions for an undetected "smash and grab" of radioactive material, not highly enriched uranium, not plutonium, but still dangerous, and suitable for creation of a dirty bomb to be used within Iraq, against our own troops (as if the battlefield depleted uranium was not enough), or against America on our own soil.

In fact, this isn't the first time we've increased, rather than decreased, the risk. Take a look at this story from Gulf War I. We bombed the Tuwaitha complex. And we wonder now if it might be leaking. During the bombing, Iraq refused to report on the whereabouts of 20 kg. of "highly enriched" (suitable for making a real weapon) that had gone missing.

It is war that leads to the chaos in which this kind of thing can happen, and peace and the cooperative application of international law that prevent it. And those are the part of the story that scares me. Can I get an "amen?"

P.S.: I've written Andrew Sullivan a note informing him that citing such a distorted and inflammatory story from Fox News just makes him look uninformed, and advised him to distance himself from the story's implication that U.S. ground forces "discovered" the activities at the Tuwaitha complex, with a followup post on his site. No response yet.

P.P.S.: This piece has been edited: I removed references to nuclear power in Iraq. It isn't clear to me from the record whether Iraq's reactor(s) were ever used for power generation; although Iraq claimed to be working on reactors for civilian (power-generation) use, it appears they may have been used for "research" (that is, the weapons program) only. Scott Ritter's book "Endgame" talks about Iraq's efforts at building a nuclear weapon and their failure to achieve it.

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