I MET THE MASTERMIND of Saddam Hussein's former nuclear centrifuge program outside the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad a few days after U.S. troops took over the city in 2003. Despite the midday heat he was dressed in a sport coat and tie, which made him look incongruous amid a scruffy crowd of protesters gathered to shout slogans at the U.S. Marines guarding the hotel. He said his name was Dr. Mahdi Obeidi, and he showed me a printout of a prewar Washington Post story in which he was named as one of the Iraqi weapons scientists whom the U.S. government had very much wanted to interview. His eyes darted nervously back and forth between the protesters and the tense-looking Marines inside the cordon of concertina wire.
Minutes earlier he had approached a photographer friend of mine on the street, saying he wanted to reach out to Washington with some important information about Saddam's nuclear program. It was a desperate move. He had tried contacting U.S. troops, but they had rebuffed him and threatened him with arrest if he showed up again. Now he wanted to know if I could use my satellite phone to help him.
At first I didn't know whether to believe him. But that night, at his urging, I dialed the Washington number of David Albright, a former American member of the United Nations weapons inspections team in Iraq. When I explained who had given me his name, the line went silent for a moment.
"You are actually talking to Obeidi?" Albright finally asked. "Where is he? What did he say?"
Albright had met Obeidi in Iraq in the 1990s, when the U.N. inspectors were dismantling Saddam's WMD programs. Saddam had kept Obeidi's identity secret longer than that of any other scientist, Albright said. If anyone could say for sure what had happened to Iraq's nuclear program, it was him.
The next day we dialed Albright from Obeidi's walled garden, and the two former adversaries exchanged a long series of pleasantries, exclaiming about how many years had passed since they'd last spoken and asking after each other's health. Then Obeidi repeated to Albright what he had told me -- that the Iraqi nuclear program had been dead since the start of U.N. weapons inspections in 1991. He spoke slowly, choosing his words with caution.
"David, there are some things the inspectors never found," he said. "I am speaking of some important materials and documents. But I am afraid of saying more until I can be sure of my safety."
At the end of the conversation, Albright promised to bring the case to the attention of the U.S. government and intelligence community. He cautioned us to be patient -- the Bush administration, he noted, didn't seem to have much of a plan for dealing with Saddam's WMD scientists.
So we waited. A dapper 59-year-old, Obeidi arrived every day to greet me wearing an elegant abiyaa robe. When he felt especially nervous, we met in clandestine locations: by lamplight at my translator's home or in the courtyard of an Iraqi acquaintance. At other times, we sat on plastic lawn chairs in his garden, trying to figure out how he could avoid arrest by U.S. troops, as his wife and daughters served us cookies and tea. Every now and again, he would drop hints about the secrets he wanted to reveal.
Then one day, he gestured toward a spot in the garden. Buried under the lotus tree next to his rosebushes a few feet from where we sat, he said, was the core of Saddam's nuclear quest: blueprints and prototype pieces for building centrifuges to enrich uranium to bomb grade. Twelve years earlier, he had buried them on orders from Saddam's son Qusay -- presumably, he said, to use them to restart a bomb program someday.
Obeidi dug up the cache a few days later. When he showed me the four prototypes, his hands shook. The machine parts looked alien, like pieces of a futuristic motorcycle, most of them small enough to fit inside a briefcase. He explained that these components and the three-foot-high stack of diagrams were still immensely valuable -- and immensely dangerous. They represented the core knowledge it would take to jump-start a covert bomb program, anywhere in the world.
This was why Obeidi was so anxious. On any given day he might be arrested by U.S. forces who would consider him a "bad guy," or killed by Saddam loyalists who would see him as a collaborator, or kidnapped by some other country interested in what he knew. The decision to come forward had been a hard one.
The news from Albright over the satellite phone was discouraging. U.S. intelligence on the ground was hopelessly disorganized, and there was no guarantee that American troops wouldn't imprison Obeidi even if he offered to help them. As the days wore on he felt the clock ticking, and sometimes his fear and exasperation would show through. "Why aren't they more interested in finding out what I have to offer?" he once asked in the textbook English he had learned as a student at the Colorado School of Mines in the 1960s. "I can answer many of their questions. Surely for a great nation like the United States, it is no big deal to offer me security in exchange for everything I want to divulge. Why don't they want to help me?"
I didn't have an answer. Just weeks earlier, before the invasion, President Bush had railed against Saddam for intimidating his WMD scientists and hiding them from inspectors. Colin Powell had appeared before the United Nations Security Council and warned that Obeidi's centrifuge program posed a threat to the world. It was hard to explain why, having gone to war ostensibly to get control of Iraq's dangerous knowledge, the United States was now doing so little to follow through.