IT'S NOT AS IF the administration hasn't talked about the danger posed by Saddam's WMD scientists. Whether Iraq had actual weapons or just "capabilities" didn't matter, it has long argued: Even mere capabilities could leak out to terrorist groups or the states that support them. During the presidential campaign, John Kerry and President Bush reached a rare point of agreement when both named the spread of nuclear weapons as the No. 1 danger facing the United States.
As it happens, Saddam's nuclear centrifuge program during the late 1980s was one of the most efficient covert nuclear efforts the world has ever seen. The scientists who pulled it off are very gifted men and women, many of whom are now out of work. Their names are still being kept secret by the international agencies familiar with their work. But a source close to one of those agencies recently said that of the 200-some scientists at the top of its nuclear list, all but three remain unaccounted for. In a country with porous borders, where everyone -- but especially those associated with the former regime -- is in danger every day, many experts say at least some scientists are bound to be tempted to sell their knowledge to the highest bidder. And as the Pakistani network exposed last year shows, the nuclear black market is alive and well.
"Weapons don't make themselves," says Anne Harrington, director of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control at the National Academies. "Somebody has to interpret how to take military doctrine and intent and make it real. Materials, particularly nuclear materials, are not something you scoop out of the dirt. The human element is critical in all of this."
Nobody knows how many Iraqi scientists may have been lured over the borders into Iran, Syria, or beyond. Nobody knows because no one is keeping tabs. But several observers agree that so little attention is being paid to Iraq's scientists, the war may actually have increased the chances of nuclear capabilities proliferating beyond the country's borders. Between its unemployed scientists and the disappearance of large amounts of WMD-related materials from former weapons sites, Iraq now poses a nightmare scenario, according to Ray McGovern, who spent 27 years analyzing intelligence for the CIA and afterward cofounded Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. "The danger is much more acute, both from the proliferation side and the terrorism side," McGovern says. "Before we invaded, there was no evidence that Iraq had any plan or incentive to proliferate. They didn't even have a current plan to develop WMDs. They just hadn't been doing it. Now, my God, we have a magnet attracting all manner of foreign jihadists to a place where the WMD expertise is suddenly unprotected. It just boggles the mind."
IRAQI SCIENTISTS have good reason to fear what might happen if they offer to cooperate with the United States. Obeidi's former boss and Saddam's top science adviser, General Amer al-Saadi, turned himself in to U.S. authorities just before I met Obeidi. He was promptly jailed and kept in custody for at least two years; a military spokesman told the Associated Press last year that the U.S. was also detaining up to a dozen other scientists. The chemist Mohammed Munim al-Izmerly -- also said to have worked on Iraq's former WMD programs -- was taken into custody for questioning in April 2003. Ten months later his body was dropped off in a U.S. body bag at a Baghdad hospital. He had been killed by a blow to the head.
In the weeks after the invasion, I got to know Obeidi quite well. He was no Dr. Strangelove. He loved science and the pure logic of an engineering challenge, and his eyes would light up when we talked about early Mesopotamian art or American history. He said he detested Saddam, and lamented how the Baathists had turned the best minds of his generation toward destructive ends. What he cared about more than anything was the welfare of his wife and four grown children. But as the U.S. occupation wore on, that seemed an increasingly elusive goal.
More than a month after our first meeting, our satellite phone calls had failed to produce any kind of safe-haven offer from Washington. Operatives from the Defense Intelligence Agency as well as the CIA had tracked Obeidi down through third parties, summoned him to their respective headquarters, and demanded that he surrender all he knew. The DIA agents threatened to imprison him, he told me, and then asked that he not speak to anyone at the CIA; soon afterward, the CIA sent armed agents to his home and took away a sample of his documents, promising to safeguard his family.
Then, early on the morning of June 3, 2003, more than a dozen soldiers jumped over Obeidi's garden wall, kicked in his front door, and put him and his family facedown on their living room floor at gunpoint. Obeidi's wife and children watched as he was handcuffed and put in a Humvee. Evidently, the Army had finally caught wind of Obeidi's significance -- and, just as evidently, the troops knew nothing of their own intelligence agencies' contacts with him.
Obeidi escaped the fate of his former boss when the CIA intervened with the Army and got him released. Knowing that he was a marked man, he decided that his only hope was to go public. He consented to an interview with CNN, and soon afterward the CIA whisked him and his family off to Kuwait, where he underwent weeks of interrogations.
On June 26, the CIA posted a press release about Obeidi's cache -- the most valuable WMD evidence the U.S. has yet obtained in Iraq -- on its official website. It also put up digital photos of the components and even one of the key centrifuge diagrams. The pictures, which Albright says could be "incredibly useful" to any regime trying to start a covert nuclear program, were online for almost a week -- long enough to be downloaded and made freely available on the Internet -- before the agency took them down. Literally buried for 12 years, some of Saddam's hoard of nuclear knowledge got out because of the U.S. government, not in spite of it.