Iraqi Work Toward A-Bomb Reported
U.S. Was Told of 'Implosion Devices'
By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 1998; Page A01
United Nations arms inspectors reported twice to the United States, in 1996 and 1997, that they had credible intelligence indicating that Iraq built and has maintained three or four "implosion devices" that lack only cores of enriched uranium to make 20-kiloton nuclear weapons, according to U.S. government and U.N. sources.
American intelligence assessments, U.S. officials said yesterday, concur on the credibility of the reports but have not fully corroborated them. If Iraq has in fact managed to manufacture such devices -- in essence, the shells of nuclear weapons without the atomic cores -- it is substantially closer than previously known to joining the world's nuclear powers.
There is no known evidence that the Baghdad government has acquired plutonium or highly enriched uranium, without which its weapons design cannot be completed. Many experts, including those in the U.S. government, regard the nuclear supply problem as a higher hurdle for aspiring weapons builders than fabrication of the shell of precision-shaped conventional charges that would be used to detonate the fissile material.
But the existence of weapons shells would be a milestone for Iraq and raise new questions about the policies and public assessments of the Clinton administration and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is responsible for investigating any evidence that Iraq is violating a ban on its nuclear weapons program. Since 1996, the Vienna-based panel has reported regularly to the U.N. Security Council that it has found "no indication of prohibited equipment, materials or activities."
A cache of undiscovered implosion devices would also illuminate the stakes involved in Iraq's refusal since Aug. 3 to permit U.N. inspectors to mount new searches for banned materials. U.S. officials acknowledged that there is little prospect of discovering and destroying such devices without the active program of surprise inspections that has now been terminated.
Reports of the implosion devices were first aired publicly by Scott Ritter, a former Marine who has been critical of U.S. government policy since he resigned from the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, in August. After Ritter testified about the devices to Senate and House committees on Sept. 4 and Sept. 15, senior U.S. policy-makers said the government had never received such a report from UNSCOM and did not regard the claims as credible.
Both those assertions are contradicted by evidence emerging this week. In interviews and in documents made available to The Washington Post, U.S. government and United Nations sources confirmed that Ritter passed the intelligence orally to the Central Intelligence Agency's Nonproliferation Center in 1996 and in writing in May 1997 to an interagency group supporting the weapons inspectors.
Some senior administration officials disputed yesterday that there is any reason to regard the UNSCOM intelligence as credible. But those U.S. officials most responsible for assessing the reports said in interviews that they believed the findings are plausible.
"It is credible that they [Iraqi designers] have all the parts to put together," one of the officials said yesterday. "Do I think there might be parts out there that could provide the basis to put together several weapons? Yeah."
Ritter's original information, according to accounts he gave the U.S. government, was compiled from three Iraqi defectors. Ritter later told the IAEA, according to other sourc es, that the defector information came to UNSCOM by way of a "northern European" country.
It was not clear from the defectors, sources said, whether the devices would meet Iraq's design goal of fitting inside the 88-centimeter (roughly 34-inch) warhead of a Scud missile. At 20 kilotons, the expected yield of the devices would be greater than that of the first atomic bomb, a 13-kiloton device dropped by the United States on Hiroshima in 1945.
The defectors' credibility was enhanced by their detailed descriptions of the methods used by Iraq's Special Security Organization to hide the weapons components, and because their story matched intelligence known only to a handful of Westerners at the time, sources said. Details included the use of a fleet of Mercedes trucks to shuttle the weapons among hiding places. The trucks had distinctive markings: White cabins with red stripes, a red diesel tank and wheel rims, and Ministry of Trade license plates numbered between 30,000 and 87,000.
Ritter said one defector sketched a map by hand depicting seven depots for those trucks. A subsequent review of surveillance imagery obtained by U-2 spy planes found five of them.
Further bolstering UNSCOM's confidence in one of the defectors, Ritter said, was his identification of a concealment operations center in the Al Fao Building on Palestine Street in Baghdad. Inspectors later confirmed in a no-notice inspection in March 1996 that Iraq used the center to control several locations for concealing materials, Ritter said, but "the Iraqis had evacuated it in early January."
About a year after the first report, UNSCOM summarized it in a briefing paper for a conference on Iraq held in Washington on May 19 and 20, 1997, with the U.S. and British governments, sources said.
"It is assessed that Iraq has retained critical components relating to the most recent weapons design, which has not to date been turned over to the IAEA," UNSCOM wrote in the briefing paper, which was classified upon receipt by the U.S. government. "These components may comprise several complete weapons minus the HEU [highly enriched uranium] core."
The briefing paper also noted UNSCOM's assessment that Iraq is hiding "undeclared feedstocks of UF6," or uranium hexafluoride, a precursor to enriched uranium. The commission suspects, according to the memo, that Iraq maintains a secret enrichment capacity and secret machine tools to shape components of a bomb.
An American official familiar with that written account said the May 1997 report did not raise fresh alarms about Iraq's nuclear program because its central emphasis was on Iraq's deception program, not the substance of what was being hidden.
"The thrust of this report was on concealment, so when he put [nuclear weapons assessments] in it wasn't, 'Attention: They have this,' " the official said. "It was one sentence."
Senior administration officials also argued this week that the report is not significant even if true.
"The hardest part of getting a nuclear weapon is the fissile material," said one official. "Not that the science is easy, not that the problems of arming and fusing are easy, but they are easier than the problem of getting the fissile material and putting it together in the right way."
Independent analysts, while agreeing on the central importance of a plutonium or enriched uranium supply, said the existence of working implosion devices would mean that it could take only days or weeks for Iraq to build working weapons if it managed to buy enriched uranium from a rogue supplier.
"It's a question of how much reaction time you have," said Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, a policy lobby. He added that the essential questions now are, "Could Iraq obtain [enriched uranium] on the black market, and could they already have obtained it?"
The existence of implosion devices in Iraq would revise the conclusions of recent reports by the IAEA, which is an uneasy collaborator with UNSCOM. Last October, the IAEA reported that active inspections were nearing the point of "diminishing returns," a finding that led Russia, France and China to suggest closing the Security Council's "nuclear file" on Iraq, in effect certifying that Baghdad had no capacity to build an atomic bomb.
In a confidential response to Ritter's report this month, sources said Gary Dillon, chief of the IAEA Action Team on Iraq, described it as "unsubstantiated" and said it has "no credibility." Dillon did not respond to several telephone messages requesting an interview.
Ritter rebutted that description in an interview. "I was never authorized by the executive chairman to tell [Dillon] the full extent of the information we had," he said.
UNSCOM spokesman Ewen Buchanan said he would not discuss the substance of the case.
Previously, the IAEA has acknowledged gaps in its information about Iraq. In a confidential report on Aug. 19, 1997, the Action Team wrote that it could not verify how much the Baghdad government had accomplished in its efforts to devise a working nuclear weapons design. After the 1995 defection of Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel, for example, Iraq had turned over technical drawings on the use of precision-shaped charges known as "explosive lenses," interlocking hexagonal blocks of explosives, designed to detonate inward and crush enriched uranium to a critically dense mass.
The IAEA could not assess the final progress on the weapons design, the Action Team wrote, because "the chart clearly illustrates several drawings are missing."
Iraq, the IAEA wrote, at first denied it had built molds for manufacture of explosive lenses, then admitted it had but said it "can't find" the molds. Similarly, it first denied ever casting an explosive lens, then admitted it "had cast one 120mm cylindrical charge and it was tested for 'velocity and pressure,' " the report said.
The United States has underestimated Iraq's nuclear weapons program in the past. In 1991, at the start of the Persian Gulf War, the consensus intelligence estimate was that Iraq was 10 years from a working weapon. A senior official who took part in that estimate said the U.S. government was unaware of Iraq's effort to enrich uranium using electromagnetic devices called calutrons, and did not know of the existence of the principal Iraqi weapons design center at Al Atheer.
"There were a lot of holes," the former official said. "We were not aware of that facility, and it survived the bombing."
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