Protected Speech: Strengthening WMD Whistleblowers

In late April, Israel released Mordechai Vanunu, a scientist imprisoned nearly two decades ago for revealing state secrets that exposed Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Vanunu emerged unrepentant, embraced by activists the world over as a beacon of truth and resistance. In their eyes, Israel’s nuclear program was a wrong, so Vanunu had done an unquestionable right.

But whatever one thinks of Vanunu or Israel, his release underscored a truth far more disturbing than anything he had to say about Israel: Had Mr. Vanunu worked in a North Korean, Iranian, or Syrian weapons program, he would never have even had the chance to commit his original crime. Only in the free and open states whose possible pursuit of weapons of mass destruction worries us least—states like Germany or Canada or Israel—can we have confidence that scientists will blow the whistle on any covert weapons programs. In those states that worry us most, those scientists are controlled in ways that make such defections unlikely. The international regime for nonproliferation needs to confront this untenable situation.

That much was effectively accepted before the Iraq war, when the world united in demanding that Saddam Hussein turn over weapons scientists for questioning by international inspectors and also allow their families to be free from intimidation. The request was based on sound technical grounds: WMD programs, especially in their early stages, and particularly those for chemical or biological arms, can be effectively hidden from sophisticated inspection teams. Equally important, the world was not confident that it could reliably assess so-called “dual-use” equipment, applicable to civilian or military tasks. Insiders, it surmised, might be able to clarify that difference.

Whether that scheme was effective is still up for debate. The United States contends that Hussein never gave proper access to scientists. Others insist that he did, and that the scientists simply weren’t saying what the United States wanted to hear. Either way, there remains a consensus assessment that free interviews of weapons scientists are valuable to international inspections.

And yet for so many repressive countries, open speech by potential weapons scientists is impossible. Securing interviews in Iraq required a special U.N. Security Council resolution. The international treaties governing weapons of mass destruction endow scientists with no special rights or responsibilities to expose illegal weapons programs. In some states, scientists wanting to speak out would have no channel for dissent. In others, they could speak out only on pain of their and their families’ death or disappearance. Scientists in Iran or Syria who choose to squeal can only dream of being treated as Vanunu has been.

This can and must be changed. As a first step, a coalition led by the United States should establish a special standing program to absorb weapons scientists who expose illegal weapons programs. Those states should offer permanent immigration for the scientists and their families so that they can speak out without fear of retribution at home. (Before the recent Iraq war, the Senate tried to establish a program like that for Iraq. It was approved the day after the war began.)

But national programs won’t be enough. If the U.S.-led coalition is too small, it could appear illegitimate, and even friendly states may call foul; rogue states that reject the intrusions may find a sympathetic audience. Information extracted through this approach might also be viewed suspiciously by the international bodies that monitor nonproliferation commitments—witness the (appropriate) skepticism given to U.S.-managed defectors by international inspectors before the Iraq war.

And even with broad support, there may be problems. If too many scientists take advantage of the program, the United States and its friends may be unable to absorb them. Conversely, scientists in closed societies will have no way of knowing about the protection programs, and thus will never defect.

The solution is to embed this scheme in the treaties that underlie the nonproliferation regime. All state signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, should be required to allow free interviews with any of their scientists, like those Vanunu managed to give. Any violation of that commitment would be considered a violation of treaty obligations, no different from a refusal to allow inspectors into a suspect facility. To give this more teeth, all states would be required to admit some quota of scientist whistleblowers and their families, relieving some burden from the United States. They would explicitly repudiate the unfortunate implication of the U.N. Convention on Refugees, which holds that since scientists in illicit weapons programs are violating international law, they are not entitled to refugee protection. At the same time, routine weapons inspections visits would be used to publicize the protection program to scientists, providing a means to penetrate closed societies.

To accept this arrangement would be to erode state sovereignty in ways that many Americans—and others—find discomforting. But a small sacrifice of American control could yield far more useful concessions from other states. Next time, instead of hearing from a whistleblower like Vanunu in an open and democratic ally like Israel, we might learn from a scientist in Syria or North Korea or Iran.