By Bob Drogin ~ Los Angeles Times
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein's intelligence services set up a network of clandestine cells and small laboratories after 1996 with the goal of someday rebuilding illicit chemical and biological weapons, according to a former senior Iraqi intelligence officer.
The officer, who held the rank of brigadier general, said each closely guarded weapons team had three or four scientists and other experts who were unknown to U.N. inspectors. He said they worked on computers and conducted crude experiments in bunkers and back rooms in safe houses around Baghdad.
He insisted they did not produce any illegal arms and that none now exists in Iraq. But he said the teams met regularly and put plans on paper to quickly develop weapons of mass destruction if U.N. sanctions against Iraq were lifted.
"We could start again any time," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he fears for his life. "It's very easy. Especially biological."
In the know
"The point was, the Iraqis kept the knowledge," he explained during a lengthy interview Friday in which he offered tantalizing details of secret programs. But U.S. weapons hunters "will never find anything here. Only oil." The failure to find any weapons of mass destruction since the war has sparked mounting criticism in Washington, D.C., and London, where senior government officials have been put on the defensive to explain why both public and classified intelligence estimates appear to have been so inaccurate.
The intelligence officer's account, parts of which could not be independently verified, gives ammunition to both sides of the controversy. He said U.N. sanctions and inspections in the 1990s crippled Iraq's ability to build illegal weapons and that Saddam's chemical, biological and nuclear programs effectively were eliminated in the mid-1990s.
But his description of an ongoing effort to prepare for illicit weapons production programs in the future suggests that Saddam would have remained a serious threat if U.S.-led forces had not ousted the dictator.
His disclosure comes as newly reinforced U.S. weapons teams have intensified efforts to round up Iraqi scientists and officials. Three senior bio-warfare experts were driven away in a van in Baghdad and have not returned home since a meeting June 1 with an American in civilian clothes who gave his name only as "John," according to witnesses. They said "John" identified the three from a list titled "Taha-7," which named top lieutenants to Dr. Rahib Rashid Taha. A British-trained microbiologist known as "Dr. Germ," Taha directed production of vast quantities of anthrax, botulinum toxin, aflatoxin and other lethal germ agents in the 1980s. She was taken into U.S. custody after the war.
The Iraqi intelligence officer said the secret weapons groups were created in late 1996 and 1997 because the regime's unconventional arms programs had been dismantled or destroyed by then and that U.N. inspectors knew most of those who had worked in them. They changed all the weapons people after that, he said.
"They not only changed the people. They changed the houses and buildings They kept the program alive."
He said he had hidden some of the groups' papers to protect himself if arrested, including what he called "red orders" from Saddam and his aides authorizing the operation.
He said he chiefly had served "on the money side" since the 1980s to help fund and direct a global maze of local trading companies that secretly were run by Iraqi intelligence operatives to supply the weapons programs.
U.S. intelligence and U.N. inspectors have confirmed the use of such front companies, backed by shady arms dealers, crooked shipping agents and captains, and corrupt customs and other officials, to support Iraq's sanctions-busting procurement schemes.
The officer said he made seven overseas trips between the mid-1990s and 2001 to help oversee the illegal purchase and transport of spare parts, raw materials and other supplies for Iraq's conventional and unconventional weapons programs. He drew money from secret regime bank accounts in Egypt, Japan, Lebanon, Switzerland and other countries.
In his last trip, in April 2001, he said he used phony passports from neighboring Arab nations to travel to Jordan, Cyprus, Morocco, South Africa and Argentina. He said he spent more than $57 million to illegally purchase and ship towed cannons, artillery fuses, calibrating instruments and so-called "dual use" medical laboratory equipment that could be used for chemical or biological weapons.
It's possible that the officer's story contains falsehoods meant to deceive or confuse U.S. investigators. He refused to show the documents he said he had saved or to take a Los Angeles Times reporter to any of the safe houses where he said the weapons teams had operated. But unlike many of those who have provided false weapons tips to U.S. investigators in hopes of claiming a large reward, the officer appeared highly knowledgeable about the development, production and deployment of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons and missiles in the past. The officer offered specific details about Iraq's complex weapons smuggling networks that dovetail with U.N. investigations. The U.N. teams also were aware of what one official called "dirty tricks" laboratories run by the Mukhabarat, the chief Iraqi intelligence and secret police service.
In addition, the intelligence officer described his role getting phony end-user certificates and making payoffs to help NEC Engineering Private Ltd., an Indian trading company, smuggle banned material to Iraq between 1998 and 2001. U.S. and British intelligence later traced the chemicals and equipment to a former Iraqi poison gas factory and a missile fuel production plant. A Times report detailed the NEC scheme in January, and the officer's new details appeared to match missing pieces of the puzzle.
The Iraqi officer said he has not been contacted by U.S. and British military and intelligence teams that are supposed to scour Iraq for any evidence of poison gases, germ agents for biological weapons, or nuclear programs. He indicated that he's hiding from the Americans, but it was unclear if they are looking for him.
But the U.S. special weapons teams have heard similar accounts of plans to rebuild illicit arms from other Iraqis, and weapons officials they have interviewed or taken into custody since the war. At least one intelligence report about the claims has been forwarded to the White House, U.S. officials said.
The interview with the officer was arranged by a family member of Hussein Kamil, who was married to one of Saddam's daughters and who headed Iraq's secret weapons programs until he defected to Jordan in 1994. He was executed after he returned to Baghdad in 1995 under promises of safety.
The Iraqi officer agreed to speak to two reporters because he said he wanted them to provide a satellite telephone that would not be tapped by U.S. intelligence so he could call Iraqi spies hiding overseas.
He said he also wanted to see if he could gain access to $600,000 he said is in a Chase Manhattan Bank account. The reporters refused.
Asked why Iraqi officials had repeatedly lied and sought to hinder U.N. inspectors if the regime had no weapons to hide, he cited the climate of terror under the dictator.
The numbers previously given to the U.N. cannot be corrected, he said, "because then we will look like liars. And that will make Iraq look bad. And people will lose their heads."
He said he met Saddam three times, is convinced he is still alive and remains loyal to him. But he acknowledged that the dictator had a weakness.
"Saddam has a thick mind," he said. "He does not know science. So he believes anything the scientists tell him."