Jeffrey LewisISG Bungles Iraqi Scientist Interviews

Just wait for it

Nature reports that the US bungled post-war interrogations of Iraqi scientists, to the detriment of US nonproliferation goals:

Flawed interrogations of scientists in the aftermath of the Iraqi war hampered investigations of the country’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme and added to the risk that knowledge and technology would spread to neighbouring countries, US government advisers have concluded.

Iraqi researchers willing to cooperate with the United States were detained without cause while key WMD individuals were never targeted or even identified, according to new information released by the Iraq Survey Group (ISG).


Coalition policies also created an atmosphere of fear that deterred potentially helpful researchers from talking and increased the likelihood that WMD scientists might defect to neighbouring states such as Iran or Syria,or find work with insurgent forces in Iraq, the authors said in a report released on 25 April.

This is not really a surprise. In his book The Bomb in My Garden, Iraqi centrifuge engineer Mahdi Obeidi recounts a series of Kafka-esque events that ensued after he tried to contact Coalition forces.

Initially, Obeidi (right) couldn’t even walk-in, even though he claims to have been the sixty-sixth most wanted Iraqi (narrowly missing the deck of cards). A few weeks after contacting David Albright, Obeidi claims he was able to arrange want to Abu Ghraib for an inteview with an American intelligence officer named “Gary.” He returned home to this scene:

When Zaid and I returned home we found Layla in a distressed state. One of the Army men who had come the day before, named John, arrived in the early afternoon with an Iraqi interpreter. Layla recounted his intimidating tone.

“How dare your husband miss our meeting?” he had asked. “Don’t you know that we could throw him in prison? If he doesn’t come tomorrow, there could be trouble.”


I knew the threat was serious, so Zaid and I drove back to the office John had specified.


After ten minutes, the agent John arrived and introduced himself and two of his colleagues. In his early sixties, with a crew cut and receding hairline, John wore the face of a man who has had a hard life. I apologized for being unable to meet him earlier and explained that I had been meeting some of his compatriots at another location. He became suspicious.

“Who were they?” he asked. “Who else are you talking to?”

John exchanged a look with one of his fellow Americans.

“The CIA is trying to intrude,” the colleague said to him. “As if they don’t have enough on their plate.”

“We have to settle this matter of who you are talking to,” he said turning back to me. “You should be talking with us and not them.”

Obeidi claims he continued to meet, however, with Gary and the CIA. “From Gary’s first questions,” Obeidi claims, “it was apparent he did not possess a deep knowledge of Iraqi WMD programs …”

Centrifuge parts from Obeidi’s garden.

During this process, US troops raided Obeidi’s house, dragged him off to detention and interrogated him about Saddam Hussein’s whereabouts.

Eventually, someone figured out he was already cooperating. Obeidi describes recieving an apology and a ride home. Not surprisingly, Obeidi admits to having second thoughts about cooperating with the US in the first place. Albright told Obeidi’s story to the Washington Post in October 2003.

Now, Obeidi wasn’t exactly unknown when US forces entered Iraq. Here is how the Washington Post described him before the war in December 2002:

Although Obeidi’s current role in Iraqi weapons research is unknown, some experts on Iraq’s nuclear program believe his knowledge would be critical to any current efforts to build an Iraqi bomb. “Iraq probably could not start a centrifuge [enrichment] program without him,” said Albright, the former weapons inspector.

So why didn’t we pick Obeidi up immediately and get him out of Iraq?

The Sunday Times speculates that the CIA “butted in” to keep Ahmad Chalabi from having Obeidi wasted, which would have done wonders for encouraging other scientists to come forward:

The strange fate of Obeidi’s hidden cache speaks volumes about Washington’s relationship with Chalabi and the inter-agency struggles that have hamstrung the coalition effort.

When Saddam’s statue fell and US troops marched into Baghdad, Obeidi waited with mounting anxiety for soldiers to knock on his door.

When two weeks passed and nothing happened, Obeidi called David Albright, a former UN nuclear expert he knew from inspection visits. He explained that he wanted to give up his nuclear treasure in return for safe passage to the US. He was frightened that he might be shot by US soldiers or murdered by returning exiles bent on revenge.

Albright finally persuaded a CIA contact to intervene. But the contact insisted on one condition. He knew Chalabi was chasing former officials of Saddam’s regime. He feared for Obeidi’s safety—and for the WMD evidence that might be uncovered—if Chalabi got there first.

“I wanted none of Chalabi’s people around this,” Albright said, “and the US military was using Chalabi’s people as scouts. So that meant no US military either.”

The CIA secretly contacted Obeidi, who led agents to his rose garden and dug up 200 blueprints for gas centrifuge components, 180 documents describing their use and a few critical parts.

Sound weird enough? Johnny Depp has optioned the book rights.


  1. EARL (History)

    We got left hand, right hand syndrome going on like crazy, that good ole oxymoron of military intelligence, all simmering over a cauldron of stupid politics. Restores my faith in the political system, viva la imperium…..