Weapons Scientists as Whistle Blowers

On January 23, 2003, as United Nations inspectors combed Iraq for weapons of mass destruction (WMD), a bipartisan group of six U.S. senators introduced the Iraqi Scientists Immigration Act of 2003. Weapons inspectors had long argued that testimony from Iraqi scientists was key to penetrating the regime’s WMD programs. But with the potential for retribution from Saddam Hussein looming over their heads, the scientists were unwilling to talk. The bill sought to remedy that situation by establishing a fast-track immigration procedure for Iraqi weapons scientists willing to aid the inspectors.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously on March 24—a day too late. The night before, frustrated by the failure of the U.N. inspectors to penetrate Iraq’s weapons programs, President Bush had ordered the U.S. military to commence operations to disarm Saddam Hussein and remove him from power. The plodding pace of American lawmaking had been outmatched by the speed with which military operations could be launched.

Yet rather than discrediting the principles underlying the bill, the Iraq experience suggests the need for their more robust—and timely—implementation in the future. Washington clearly views the proliferation of WMD as among the most serious threats to U.S. security and the maintenance of international order, and experts broadly agree that defector accounts are essential for early detection of hidden WMD programs. The United States should therefore establish a permanent program to encourage and provide protection for scientist-whistle blowers, not just from Iraq, but from any suspect regime. To prevent such an initiative from being seen as merely an instrument of U.S. intelligence agencies and to secure the cooperation of international organizations, Washington should also pursue agreements aimed at affording whistle blowers protections under international law.