Dangerous Minds

No one knows exactly how many scientists worked on Saddam’s WMD programs, but according to international agencies the figure is likely in the thousands. Most of their identities remain classified; of the few whose names have become public, most have ended up either dead (as in the case of a prominent nuclear physicist who was shot by U.S. troops in his car in 2003) or in prison (as with the bioweapons researchers whom U.S. officials have dubbed “Mrs. Anthrax” and “Dr. Germ”). That’s in stark contrast to scientists from other formerly hostile nations — notably the Nazis’ bomb builders, and the men and women who worked for the former Soviet Union’s vast weapons complex.

In Operation Paperclip, a top-secret program at the end of World War II, more than 700 former Nazi scientists and their families were brought to the United States to keep them out of the hands of either the Soviet Union or a resurgent Germany. One of those scientists was Wernher von Braun, who went on to help build America’s nuclear missiles (and inspired Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove character). Forty years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Congress created the Nunn-Lugar program, named for its cosponsors, former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). It has provided up to $1 billion each year for 30 programs to safeguard and destroy weapons and WMD-related material. Among its projects is the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC), which has distributed more than $600 million to fund projects for more than 58,000 former Soviet scientists. In one of the center’s programs, former bioweapons experts are monitoring bird flu in Siberia; in another, scientists from the nuclear program are building Russia’s first fuel-cell power plant. Congress has also passed legislation creating a special visa category for former Soviet scientists seeking to come to the United States.

The programs have had their share of snags and controversies. “A big hindrance was the liability issue of who would be at fault if something bad happened on a project in Russia — a spill or a contamina- tion or something,” said Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of nonproliferation programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Critics also maintain that Nunn-Lugar’s $1 billion annual budget — while 500 times more than the amount set aside for Iraqi scientists so far — is nowhere near enough to lock down the ex-USSR’s vast stores of weapons material and knowledge.

Still, says David Albright, a former member of the United Nation’s weapons inspections team in Iraq and now president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, the projects reveal a crucial difference in the administration’s attitudes toward two sets of former adversaries. The Soviet scientists “were treated like colleagues and looked after and given assistance,” he says, while the Iraqis — many of them U.S.-trained — were treated as villains. “The golden opportunity to get all kinds of good cooperation from these people was lost in April, May, and June of 2003,” Albright points out. “Instead of going out and creating good will among the scientific community, the U.S. went looking for criminals.”


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  • Kurt Pitzer is a New York-based author and journalist.