The Looting of Iraq’s Nuclear Facilities: What Do We Do Now?

Susan E. Rice
Susan E. Rice Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow - School of International Service, American University

May 21, 2003

President George W. Bush’s chief justification for war against Iraq was to disarm Saddam Hussein and prevent his use or transfer of weapons of mass destruction. Virtually all Americans, whether they supported or opposed the war, agreed on the importance of disarming Iraq and preventing the proliferation of its WMD. This objective was so compelling that many who doubted the necessity or the timing of the war went along with it, despite misgivings. Their expectation was that America would be more secure after war with Iraq.

So are we more secure? Are Saddam Hussein’s weapons now safely out of the hands of potential “evildoers”? Frighteningly, and possibly tragically, the answer may well be no.

The primary problem is not that the weapons we were so certain existed have not yet been found, however unsettling or embarrassing that may be. The most pressing problem is that Iraqi nuclear facilities containing valuable documents, partially enriched uranium and other radiological materials ideal for “dirty bombs” have been looted and ransacked under the noses of U.S. forces.

As a consequence, the U.S. government has no idea how much radioactive material may have been stolen and could now be available to the highest bidder. The richest treasure trove of dangerous WMD material since the collapse of the Soviet Union is on the loose and perhaps far easier for al-Qaeda and other terrorists to acquire than it was under the control of their ideological adversary, Saddam Hussein.

What went wrong?

First, the Pentagon seems to have lost any serious interest in or urgency about Iraq’s WMD since it became clear the weapons were not going to be used against U.S. forces. The number of WMD mobile exploitation teams (METs) assigned to investigate and secure suspect sites was reduced from four to two. The 75th Exploitation Task Force and METs were never given enough vehicles, helicopters, translators, radios or other basic equipment to do their jobs efficiently. Frustrated, they will soon leave to be replaced next month by a 2,000-member Iraq Survey Group that will have residual responsibility for this and many other tasks. Unfortunately, as one U.S. official noted, the barn door is already open.

Second, the decision to start and end the war quickly with a minimal commitment of U.S. forces may have been a brilliant war plan but is proving, predictably, to be a bankrupt postwar plan. We simply did not have sufficient forces on the ground to secure WMD facilities—much less Iraqi national museums and ministries—from looters and organized criminals. Moreover, those few U.S. soldiers who were belatedly assigned to guard Iraq’s nuclear facilities reportedly continued to allow unidentified Iraqis to enter these sites well after they were nominally under U.S. control. The Pentagon’s failure to take seriously these postwar security imperatives may well have obviated the primary stated objective of the war itself.

Finally, the White House has allowed bureaucratic battles between the Defence and State departments to impede swift decisions on issues essential to success in postwar Iraq. Among them is what role, if any, to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency, which, under international law, has sole authority over the seals and safeguards at Iraq’s nuclear sites. While these bureaucratic battles raged, neither the U.S. nor the IAEA has been able to break the seals to investigate how much and what sorts of radiological materials may be missing from Iraqi facilities. This is unconscionable, given the dangerous consequences.

It may be too late to recoup any lost radiological materials, but it is not too late to assess the damage and minimize its impact. The Bush administration should immediately recall the IAEA to help evaluate the extent of the losses and seek to track errant materials and documents; it should deploy sufficient troops with robust rules of engagement to secure sensitive facilities; and it should replicate in Iraq an element of the program that was aimed at limiting the proliferation of WMD from the former Soviet Union. By offering attractive employment and immunity to the estimated 1,000 Iraqi WMD scientists, we can counter the incentive for them to sell their knowledge to rogue states and terrorists.