The White House has told the CIA and the Defense and State departments to develop a comprehensive plan to quickly move large numbers of Iraqi scientists outside the country -- lured by the possibility of asylum or compelled by what would amount to United Nations-issued subpoenas -- for United Nations interviews about Baghdad's weapons programs, administration officials said.
The orders, emanating from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice over the last two weeks, are strongly backed by top civilians in the Defense Department who are anxious to speed up an inspections process they see extending inconclusively for months and possibly years. The defense officials believe that it is only through such an aggressive approach that they will be able to quickly and definitively confront President Saddam Hussein of Iraq over his banned weapons programs.
A senior Bush administration official who favors the approach said yesterday that a preliminary U.S. assessment of Iraq's latest weapons declaration, handed over to the United Nations on Saturday, has proven that the interviews are "essential." The 12,000-page document, the official said, is "almost the opposite of full disclosure. It's full nondisclosure."
Iraq has denied possessing any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, or long-range missiles.
The U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq adopted unanimously last month requires the Baghdad government to provide the names of all former and current personnel associated with its weapons programs, and to give inspectors immediate, unimpeded access to them, including the right to interview them outside the country. Iraqi failure to ensure that they and their families, if they choose, comply with U.N. demands could constitute a material breach of the resolution that many U.S. officials believe is inevitable.
Although Iraq has so far not impeded inspections on the ground, including allowing entrance into one of Hussein's previously restricted palaces, the inspectors' newly enhanced interview power is "the most significant authority contained in the resolution" and "the one thing that is most likely to produce overt Iraqi opposition," the senior official said. For that reason, "it can't be a voluntary program," the official said, comparing the interview summonses to grand jury subpoenas.
Under this formulation, refusal by the interviewees to provide information under questioning would also constitute an Iraqi breach, as would previously unrevealed weapons discoveries made on the basis of their disclosures.
But the haste with which the plan to compel interrogations of large numbers of Iraqis outside the country is being put together, and the pressure on U.S. intelligence officials and U.N. inspectors to make it their top priority, has raised concerns in both the CIA and the State Department, administration officials said. While they agree on the importance of the interviews, those agencies, along with some allied foreign governments and U.N. officials, have suggested that attempts to short-circuit the inspection process with a quickly conceived operation that could involve hundreds of Iraqis and their families could endanger lives while undermining both the inspections themselves and ongoing U.S. intelligence operations in Iraq.
National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said no decision has been made on how, or whether, to push for U.N. implementation of a U.S.-written program for accelerated interviews. "We have said we want the inspectors to use all the tools at their disposal. . . . Each step along the way will prove [Iraqi] willingness to comply" with the disarmament resolution, McCormack said.
Internal administration disagreements over how to deal with the Iraqi threat have arisen at virtually every decision point since President Bush's acceded to a new round of U.N. inspections to achieve Iraqi disarmament, even as the United States has simultaneously continued to prepare for war in the event Iraq does not cooperate. The disagreements have become more urgent as preparations for an attack -- that, from a military point of view, would optimally be fought by spring -- threaten to outpace inspections that are only beginning to get underway.
Part of those war preparations included the transmission Tuesday of an official U.S. request to Hungary for use of an air base in the southern part of that country to train Iraqi opposition members for participation in a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq. The administration has asked opposition organizations to produce the names of as many as 10,000 Iraqis to serve with U.S. military forces as interpreters, guides, spotters and guards for prisoners of war. Most of these Iraqis identified so far are from the Iraqi diaspora or are living in the northern part of Iraq that is not controlled by Hussein. But the administration has been reluctant to admit them into the United States, even after extensive vetting, for fear some might be Iraqi agents or army deserters guilty of earlier human rights abuses.
Hungary's ambassador to Washington, Andras Simonyi, said that the request was for use of Taszar air base in southwestern Hungary. A former Soviet facility, it was used as a logistical and training base for U.S. forces in Bosnia in the mid-1990s. Simonyi said the administration had asked Hungary for use of Taszar as its "contribution" to a possible war against Iraq. Hungary's government could approve the request on its own, he said, but has chosen to seek a consensus with Hungarian opposition parties and would soon begin internal discussion of the request.
Rice traveled to New York early this month to impress on Hans Blix, the director of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), the need to move quickly on the interviews with Iraqi scientists. Blix, sources said, told her they were moving expeditiously to begin that process, but the Americans were free to propose any idea they thought was better.
The possibility of mass interrogations has "lifted the spirits" of those inside the administration by possibly providing "a way out" for those who have always regarded the U.N. resolution as "a trap" to put off a U.S. invasion, said one informed source. "It's the same internal battle being fought on new terrain."
The importance many inside the administration attribute to the interviews, and a proposal to interrogate large numbers of Iraqi scientists outside the country within a short period of time was first reported yesterday by the Los Angeles Times.
"I know they want to move quickly," the source said of those favoring the new proposal. "But there is a tradeoff here between moving quickly . . . and not putting so much pressure on Blix that you have an open rift between him and one or more members of the Security Council. . . . You don't want an open rebellion from UNMOVIC on this."
Blix has yet to ask the Iraqis officially for a list of scientists although, as he told reporters Tuesday, "I have put them on notice that we will ask them for names of people who were active in the different programs."
CIA officials, who want to work hand in glove with U.N. inspectors conducting the interviews, and arrange for entry into the United States for those Iraqis who feared returning to Iraq, have cautioned that those inside the administration favoring quick movement may not have considered all the complications.
"It's more difficult than people believe," said another official with knowledge of the plan. "Getting the list of names is easy, but getting folks together" in families inside Iraq, "and deciding who knows what is the real problem. The mechanics of pulling this off is still being looked at."
The senior administration official countered that these problems, and others, have been taken into consideration. "There will be lies," he said. "One reason to get started is you may find you want to do this with quite a few people. You may find you may want to go back and ask for something based on something somebody else told you." Any Iraqi taken outside the country would be free to return, he said, while acknowledging that "it puts a burden" on them of possible retaliation from Hussein. "We didn't create the situation where it's a death sentence to give information to inspectors," he said.
"I don't think it's complicated," the official said. "It's a little brutal. It's a little rough." But "it has always been a dangerous thing [for Iraqis] to be inside that [weapons of mass destruction] program."