His story seemed, in the beginning, a godsend for the Bush administration. In early June, Iraqi nuclear scientist Mahdi Obeidi revealed to CIA investigators that in 1991, just after the Persian Gulf War, he had gone into his backyard to bury gas-centrifuge equipment used to enrich uranium.
IT APPEARED TO be hard evidence backing up what the Bush team had maintained all along: that Saddam Hussein had a secret nuclear-weapons program and had hidden it so well that United Nations inspectors never would have found it on their own. This, after all, was one of the justifications for the war that began in March, and evidence for Vice President Dick Cheneys charge that the Iraqis were reconstituting a nuclear program. Obeidi also turned over to the CIA 180 documents on Iraqs enrichment program, as well as about 200 blueprints for centrifuges.
Suddenly the Bush administration seemed about to reap one of the windfalls it had long anticipated from the ouster of Saddam. Newly enfranchised Iraqi scientists now felt free to speak the truth. Obeidi himself, when he was interviewed by U.N. inspectors back in the mid-90s, had lied outright, denying that he had anything to do with the gas-centrifuge program, though in fact he was in charge of it as director-general in Iraqs Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization. In late June, when Obeidis tale of the furtive burial beneath his backyard rosebush broke on CNN, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said were hopeful that this example will lead to other Iraqi scientists stepping forward to provide information. Among those who led the way in playing up the new revelation was David Kay, the former U.N. inspector who is today heading the Bush administrations probe into Iraqs WMD program. Theres no way that that would have been discovered by normal international inspections, said Kay, then on his second day on the job as special adviser to the CIA after spending much of the Iraq war as a hawkish TV pundit.
But for the Bush administration, things quickly began to go wrong with the Obeidi story. True, Obeidi said hed buried the centrifuge equipment, as hed been ordered to do in 1991 by Saddams son Qusay Hussein and son-in-law Hussein Kamel. But he also insisted to the CIA that, in effect, that was that: Saddam had never reconstituted his centrifuge program afterward, in large part because of the Iraqi tyrants fear of being discovered under the U.N. sanctions-and-inspections regime. If true, this was a terribly inconvenient fact for the Bush administration, after months in which Secretary of State Colin Powell and other senior officials had alleged that aluminum tubes imported from 11 countries were intended for just such a centrifuge program. Obeidi denied that and added that he would have known about any attempts to restart the program. He also told the CIA that, as the International Atomic Energy Agency and many technical experts have said, the aluminum tubes were intended for rockets, not uranium enrichment or a nuclear-weapons program. And he stuck by his story, despite persistent questioning by CIA investigators who still believed he was not telling the full truth.
Soon, not only was Obeidi no longer a marquee name for the Bush team, he was incommunicado. Whisked off to a safe house in Kuwait, with no access to phones or the Internet, he waited in vain for what he thought had been offered to him: asylum in the United States and green cards granting permanent residency to him and his eight-member family. Former U.N. inspector David Albright, who got to know Obeidi in the mid-90s in Iraq and acted as middleman in putting him in touch with the CIA in mid-May after Operation Iraqi Freedom, spoke with him on June 29. Albright says Obeidi told him then that he thought his asylum would be granted by early July and was in the final stages. But another month passed. As recently as Aug. 5, the last time Albright spoke to him, Obeidi did not know when he would be allowed to leave for the United States, Albright said.
Asked about the Obeidi case, CIA spokesman William Harlow said Friday, We dont issue green cards
We never said he was coming here. We never made a promise. (In fact, the agency does on occasion arrange asylum for useful informants). Later, Harlow called back to say that Obeidi was not cooling his heels in Kuwait any longer and that were not unhappy with him. But Harlow would not say where Obeidi had been sent or whether he had been granted asylum in the United States. We just dont discuss asylum cases, Harlow said.
Albright and others suggest that, with the Obeidi case, the message being sent by the Bush administration to Iraqi scientists being interrogated in Iraq is a troublesome one: if you dont tell us what we want to hear, you wont be rewarded. In fact, things might even get a little unpleasant for you. As Albright points out, provisional green cards can be arranged very quickly; among those so favored, for example, was the Iraqi man who tipped off the U.S. military to the whereabouts of Pfc. Jessica Lynch. I think theyre just keeping him under wraps, said Albright.
The treatment of Obeidi has in turn raised questions about whether even fresh intelligence from Iraq is being manipulated in advance of the report being prepared by David Kay, which is intended as the definitive account of Iraqs WMD program. One Capitol Hill legislator told NEWSWEEK that the administrations plan is to put out a vast compilation of data about Saddams decades-long effort to build weapons of mass destruction and hope the issue will go away. And several Democrats say they are disturbed by what Sen. Dianne Feinstein told NEWSWEEK was the very vague and nonprecise nature of Kays testimony when he appeared at closed sessions of two congressional committees last week. Signs of a weapons program are very different than the stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons that were a certainty before the war, said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. We did not go to war to disrupt Saddams weapons program, we went to disarm him. President Bush himself in late July said Kay would require a long time to analyze literally the miles of documents that we have uncovered.
While suggesting that more surprises are to come, especially on biological weapons, Kay also indicated last week that the most amazing evidence he was uncovering involved not caches of weapons, but new details of efforts by the Iraqis at deceiving U.N. inspectors. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker, asked Friday about the allegations that the forthcoming Kay report might amount to less than the full story, said that Kay has been very clear that hes doing a very thorough and methodical look at all of this.
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.