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The Nuclear Market: An Array of Vendors
Published on Sunday, January 25, 2004 by the New York Times
The Nuclear Market: An Array of Vendors
'America Losing World's Trust'
by David Sanger
 

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 The bluntly worded conclusion by the chief American arms inspector in Iraq, David Kay, that Saddam Hussein "got rid" of his unconventional weapons long before the Iraq invasion last year underscores a point that has become clear to intelligence experts in the past few months: President Bush moved first, and most decisively, against a country that posed a smaller proliferation risk than North Korea, Libya and Iran or even one of America's allies, Pakistan.


Mr. Bush on Thursday... "When you say something, you better believe it. People now trust the word of America."

But America's allies and competitors are likely to interpret Dr. Kay's findings very differently: that America's word or at least its intelligence findings cannot be fully trusted.


While Dr. Kay's team has come up largely empty-handed so far, contributing to his decision to resign on Friday, a team of American experts visiting North Korea were shown what appeared to be at least a rudimentary ability to produce plutonium though they were not able to confirm that North Korea spent 2003 churning out new weapons.

Meanwhile, investigators crawling through Libya's newly opened nuclear weapons program have uncovered a remarkably sophisticated network of nuclear suppliers, spanning the globe from Malaysia to Dubai.

On Friday, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, personally acknowledged what his government has slowly begun to admit over the past month: Pakistani nuclear scientists set up a nuclear bazaar that stretches back 15 years, selling sophisticated technology for enriching uranium for what General Musharraf called "personal financial gain."

In retrospect, as even some of the administration's own intelligence experts now acknowledge, each of those programs was more advanced than was Iraq's, and consequently posed a greater threat of passing weapons and technology to terrorists.

Speaking to reporters on his plane on Saturday on the way to Tbilisi, Georgia, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said that Dr. Kay's comments left open the question of whether weapons stockpiles existed in Iraq, but not the question of Saddam Hussein's abilities and intentions to produce and use such weapons. As a result, he asserted, the comments did not undercut the rationale for going to war.

Most important, Mr. Powell said, it was clear that the Iraqis were trying to exhaust their enemies, stretch out the process and have sanctions lifted so they could return to their intention of making weapons.

But the information also shows that the National Intelligence Estimate, produced in 2002 by the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies, significantly overestimated Iraq's current abilities. The document provided the rationale for going to war quickly, without waiting for the United Nations Security Council to become convinced of the threat.

Intelligence officials now say that comparable assessments understated the progress Iran and Libya were making in enriching uranium and missed many of the signals that Pakistan's scientists had provided their designs to Iran and Libya. To this day, the intelligence agencies are arguing over what exactly the North Koreans are able to accomplish, facing a difficult task of sorting out what is boast and what is real.

Yet of all these threats, Mr. Bush determined, by his own account, that the combination of Saddam Hussein's ambitions and his potential to obtain unconventional weapons some day in the near future posed the greater threat. His critics say he was motivated by settling unfinished business; his defenders say it would have been foolish to wait, only to discover too late that Mr. Hussein could unleash hidden weapons.

Mr. Bush and his aides are still defending their warnings about mobile biological laboratories, active nuclear programs and the like. The president defended his decision all week, with no apologies but using wording that was far more hedged than the claims he made last year.

In a carefully worded assessment in his State of the Union address, he said Dr. Kay's group had found evidence of "W.M.D.-related program activities," words drawn straight from Dr. Kay's interim report to Congress. But he avoided any mention of Dr. Kay's broader conclusions at the time, that Iraq had no active stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons, much less the chief inspector's more recent conclusion that it was highly unlikely that such stockpiles would ever be found.

Traveling the country this week, Mr. Bush made clear that he had no regrets. He told visitors to the White House that he still believed that eventually weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq.

In public, he told audiences in Ohio, Arizona and New Mexico this week that Mr. Hussein was a "brutal dictator" who gassed his own people and set up gulags and rape rooms, and deserved the fate he met a line that drew big applause at every stop. Mr. Bush also argued that Mr. Hussein's fall was making other nations with nuclear ambitions come clean.

"Nine months of intense discussion with Qaddafi worked because the word of this country matters," Mr. Bush said in Roswell, N.M., on Thursday, referring to the Libyan leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi. "When you say something, you better believe it. People now trust the word of America."

But America's allies and competitors are likely to interpret Dr. Kay's findings very differently: that America's word or at least its intelligence findings cannot be fully trusted.

Dr. Kay concluded, for example, that Mr. Hussein once had a very active nuclear program before the 1991 Persian Gulf war. But along with the chemical and biological programs, it was virtually halted, it now appears, by the combination of intrusive inspections by the United Nations, sanctions that made imports of new technology extremely difficult, and Iraq's own decisions to get rid of some of its stockpiles.

"The strategy of containing Iraq appears to have been largely successful," Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, concluded in an interview late last year. "As far as we can tell, the system was working."

But Dr. ElBaradei's other conclusion is perhaps the most alarming: that while Iraq was contained, the rest of the world had turned into a "Wal-Mart of private-sector proliferation," one where many nuclear aspirants with the notable exception of Iraq seemed to go shopping regularly, often without detection.

Libya had not actually produced a weapon by the time Mr. Qaddafi decided to dismantle his weapons program. But what was found there has "astounded many of my colleagues," a senior American intelligence official said earlier this week. "It looks like there were factories dedicated around the world to the production of centrifuge parts," including one in Malaysia that American officials are now working to shut down. A network of middlemen, some operating in Dubai, apparently with close ties to the Pakistani scientists, operated with comparative freedom, supplying both Iran and Libya.

Mr. Bush has not ignored that network. His "Proliferation Security Initiative" has gathered more than a dozen nations in a coalition to fight trafficking in unconventional weapons.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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