The Thinker

Why Didn’t We First Secure Iraq’s Nuclear Sites?

At the moment at least Americans seem to be giving President Bush a pass for his little oversight of sending in our armed forces to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that aren’t there. According to this article in Saturday’s Washington Post, Americans seem to be inclined to overlook the whole reason why we went to war with Iraq in the first place because, well, we found lots of mass graves and Saddam Hussein turned out to be a really bad guy — like we didn’t know that already.

You know, of course, that had something similar had happened when Bill Clinton was in office there would be investigation upon investigation about how our intelligence failed and why we went to war when our facts were wrong. With Republicans in control of all branches of government don’t hold your breath. But it is very discouraging that even my fellow Democrats can’t be bothered to hold Bush accountable for what is at best faulty intelligence and what is at worst a bold faced lie to Congress and the American people about the essential facts about Iraq.

I suspect in time as our occupation continues to falter this will resurface as an issue but for now there is no political traction to it. What is more compelling to me at the moment though is how the United States dawdled and failed to protect known nuclear sites in Iraq. By the time these sites were investigated their contents was largely looted and carried off. If weapons of mass destruction was truly the issue, why didn’t we first go in and protect these sites? It is pretty clear that while Saddam was in charge these sites were at least secured and given the enmity between Saddam and al Qaeda there was zero chance that any nuclear materials would fall into the hands of terrorists. But during the anarchy unleashed at the start of the war these sites were quickly pilfered. If I were a terrorist organization I’d be looking for an opportunity like this to easily acquire these materials. It now appears that through bungling the United States may have facilitated a process by which terrorists could easily get their hands on nuclear materials.

This excerpt from today’s Washington Post tracks a WMD team for a week and includes this harrowing account:

On April 10, the day after Hussein’s statue tumbled out of its boots on Firdaus Square in Baghdad, Allison was dispatched to two of Iraq’s most important nuclear sites. One was called the Tuwaitha Yellowcake Storage Facility, where the International Atomic Energy Agency keeps track of tons of natural and partially enriched uranium. Close by stood the forbidding berm walls of the Baghdad Nuclear Research Center, where Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in 1981 and the United States bombed a Russian-built reactor 10 years later. Between them, the two facilities entombed most of Iraq’s former nuclear weapons program.

Just that morning, according to U.S. and U.N. sources, the Vienna-based IAEA had sent an urgent message to Washington. The twin complexes at Tuwaitha, the message said, were “at the top of the list” of nuclear sites requiring protection of U.S. and British forces.

A Marine engineering company had found the sites abandoned a few days earlier. The captain in command reported looters to be roaming the compounds. Allison’s task was to measure the radiation hazard.

“We couldn’t get close because we were receiving too high a dose” of radiation, Allison recalled. But the team found disturbing signs, even from a distance. The door to a major storage building, one of three known jointly as Location C, stood wide open.

Deal’s personal dosimeter warned him to leave the scene, but first he shot a few seconds of videotape, by reaching his hand with the camera around the doorframe. The jerky images showed office debris strewn alongside scores of buried drums. Those drums, and others nearby, were supposed to contain 3,896 pounds of partially enriched uranium and more than 94 tons of yellowcake, or natural ore.

Looters had plainly been inside. At a minimum, they had exposed themselves and their families to grave health risks. More ominously, they might have taken some nuclear materials with them.

“There were also containers of what looked like medical isotopes on the ground,” Allison said. “We backed off because we didn’t have the capability to deal with radiation that high.”

Before Team 3 could complete its survey, Allison received a “frago” — a fragmentary order — to leave at once. Tuwaitha was at the center of an unresolved dispute between the Bush administration and the IAEA, which monitors compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and Bush’s advisers were divided among themselves. Until it had clear instructions, the headquarters for U.S. ground forces in Iraq wanted nothing to do with the site.

Standing under the desert sun with an Iridium satellite telephone at his ear, Allison raised his voice in angry protest at orders to leave the nuclear center unprotected. Eventually his superiors agreed to allow Marines to stay. Allison’s report later that day said that even so “the maneuver commander did not have sufficient forces to secure both sites.”

“I hope somebody has done something,” Allison said, recounting the story some time afterward, “because a lot of that [material] is just laying around.”

Tuwaitha was not Team 3’s last brush with nuclear chaos. On April 24, two weeks later, Allison received orders to survey a warehouse holding the disabled machinery of Iraq’s former nuclear weapons program. The Ash Shaykhili Nuclear Facility was a kind of boneyard for bombed reactor parts, broken vacuum pumps and heat exchangers and gas centrifuges rendered inoperable by U.N. inspectors.

Allison’s assignment was to focus on an underground facility at the site. Whatever U.S. intelligence suspected there, sources in Washington said it was enough to place Ash Shaykhili in 11th place on the priority list of Iraqi weapons sites to be surveyed.

When Team 3 arrived, it found a nightmare unfolding.

The warehouses already had been “completely destroyed by looters, all burned up,” Allison recalled. He saw charred pieces of what looked like equipment for electromagnetic isotope separation. A damaged glove box had been tossed in a scrap metal pile.

And the looters were not finished. Scores of civilians still swarmed the site, wrenching and cutting prizes away and loading them onto wheelbarrows, cars and trucks. They paid almost no attention to Allison’s small team.

“There was no security anywhere to be seen,” the team reported later that day. “Local civilians were in the process of looting and dismantling the facility when the team arrived, and remained during the entire exploitation. Site Survey Team 3 only had adequate security for force protection for team members.”

Seated on a folding canvas chair, recalling the scene in an interview eight days afterward, Allison raised his eyebrows and shook his head.

“If there was something there” to reveal an undeclared Iraqi weapons program, he said, “it was long gone.”

One would hope that such accounts would trigger a congressional investigation. But don’t hold your breath. I guess we just have to wait and see. If terrorists got this material and turn it into a radiological weapon we’ll probably eventually find out, to our sorrow. Whatever material is there appears to be gone, and no one can find it. Before the war it was at least centrally stored and guarded. Now it is scattered about Iraq and it will be dumb luck if none of it ends up in the hands of terrorists.

 

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