An Interview With Hans Blix
Although the United States has stepped up its search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD), no such weapons have yet been found.
Hans Blix, outgoing executive chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), shared his perspective on a number of Iraq disarmament issues during a June 16 interview with Arms Control Today editor, Miles Pomper, and ACA research analyst, Paul Kerr.
[Note: What follows is an edited, excerpt of the full transcript. To access the complete version please click here.]
ACT: So let me just start with maybe the most general question, I’m sure one that you’ve heard before: Are you surprised that U.S. forces haven’t found any weapons of mass destruction [WMD] yet?
Blix: No, I would not say I am surprised, but nor would I have been surprised if they had found something. Our position was always that there was a great deal that was unaccounted for, which means that it could have been there and the Iraqis had not explained what had happened to it, except to say in a general way that it was all destroyed in the summer of 1991.
We warned, and I warned specifically and explicitly, against equating “not accounted for” with “existing.” And you’ll find that we consistently said that Iraq must present any proscribed items or provide evidence of what has happened to them. And if they do not succeed in providing evidence, then the conclusion for us is that one cannot have confidence that these are gone and that therefore, at least in the past, in terms of the past resolutions, there was not a ground for lifting sanctions.
I am surprised, on the other hand, that it seems that so many of the U.S. military seemed to have been convinced that there would be lots of weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical weapons, for them to take care of as soon as they went in and that they would practically stumble on these things. If anyone had cared, in the military circles, to study what UNSCOM [the United Nations Special Commission] was saying for quite a number of years, and what we were saying, they should not have assumed that they would stumble on weapons.
ACT: What do you think accounts for the discrepancy between this assumption on the U.S. military side and what was in the UNSCOM reports and what you found in your investigations?
Blix: I think primarily little attention to the United Nations and what it does up in New York and more attention to the huge organization that is the U.S. military force.
ACT: It’s not a question of different intelligence methods of gathering things or political pressures or other factors?
Blix: No—well, of course there was a lot of political feeling that [then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] was bad, which was true, and which I shared. [Laughter.] But going from there to saying that “well, it was a foregone conclusion that there was a lot” [of WMD] was not really tenable logic. It is true that he had the intention and he had these programs; we all know that. And, in popular thinking, maybe, if you have someone committing a crime once, you are inclined to think there will be a second time. But if you are a lawyer, if you are in a court, you are not supposed to say that it is automatic that someone who is accused a second time is guilty because he was guilty the first time. I think the matters have to be looked at on the merits, and this is what we tried to do here, and…we were being cautious.
ACT: What do you think the lack of prohibited weapons finds says about the effectiveness of the investigations that you carried out and that the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] carried out? You got a lot of criticism at the time from the administration and other people about how effective they were, and do you think that this shows you were more effective than they claim?
Blix: Let’s distinguish between what is said at the official level with what is said at other levels. I mean, my relations with the U.S. mission here, with their representatives to the Security Council, with their representatives in the State Department, and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, were—there was no criticism of what we were doing. On the contrary, there was support for it. And even at the time, when the media were suggesting that we were withholding some evidence, there was no such suggestion made on the Security Council. These were spins that came at a lower level.
ACT: On the substance of the question, do you think that your investigations were more effective than perceived at the time, whatever the origin of the criticism?
Blix: I think our investigations were quite effective, but we never claimed that we could get into the last cave or corner in Iraq, and, when I was at the IAEA, [current IAEA Director-General Mohamed] ElBaradei and I both said that there will always be a residue of uncertainty, however far you can get. Now I think that given the many things unaccounted for we were relatively far from hitting that residue; so we were never conclusive about it. There is only one case when we really got very close to asserting that there was something left, and that was with the anthrax, where I think we certainly had strong indications that everything hadn’t been destroyed in 1991. But having gone through the evidence of that case with the particular scientists here, I came to the conclusion that the evidence was not compelling, so we stopped short of saying that it does exist.
Now, we too, of course, were aware that the Iraqis must have learned a lot about concealment in the years and knew a lot about the techniques of the inspectors. So, we could not be sure that there were not underground stores that exist. We, in fact, were looking for ways in which one could explore that particular area, but you can’t look into every cave in a big country. We were also looking into the question of mobile transport of WMD because it was alleged that they moved things around all the time, which is hardly plausible for a whole stock of chemical weapons for a country, but there could have been some. And this was an area in which we were really looking for things. So we didn’t exclude that we could stumble upon something. And the question came then when, you remember, we found the chemical weapons warheads, which were empty of any chemicals. But we found 12 of them and then another four, I think. And we asked ourselves, and I said to the Security Council: “Is this the tip of the iceberg? Or is it simply broken up pieces of an ice that has broken in the past?” And I wouldn’t answer it at the time, kept both possibilities open. As I look at it today, perhaps I’m a little more inclined to think that it was debris from the past.
We looked at the stash of documents which we found on the basis of a tip from an intelligence agency. And, again, this had been said from intelligence in the past that the Iraqis were farming out documents to farmhouses and individuals and did not have them in archives. So the find was fitted into that picture. Could it have been part of a more general behavior? We still don’t know. But it could also have been an individual scientist who brought documents home, even though some were confidential. Both possibilities are open, and we never found another one, but I don’t exclude that it could have happened.
ACT: Can you speculate on why—
Blix: Ah, one point more. That is that, if you study our latest report, in the appendix we have information about when did UNSCOM, in particular, find things and when did they destroy things. And you’ll find that, in the first place, UNSCOM hardly ever stumbled upon something or found something that really was concealed. It was declared—either the sites were declared or the weapons were declared. And they destroyed practically all—the vast majority was destroyed before the end of 1994. After 1994, through their investigations and through the Kamel papers,1 they managed to identify that a number of things had been tainted, had been used, in installations. Equipment had been used for the production of weapons. Then they decided, this must be destroyed. So the little things were destroyed of that but not weapons. And I think that it is a detail now that the U.S. hasn’t found anything and we didn’t find anything. I think it’s interesting to go back and see that, in fact, after 1994, not much was found and destroyed. That has escaped attention. I don’t think we have called much attention to it either, but it struck me, and so we brought that forward.
ACT: Let’s talk a little about the Kamel papers. One of the criticisms that was made before was that the investigators didn’t find things on their own, that they were basically relying on defector testimony. How would you rate [defector testimony] versus on-the-spot investigations in terms of their effectiveness of getting at weapons programs and what is there?
Blix: Well, of course, if you count Kamel as a defector, which he was, this was a very valuable source of documents. But it did not lead anybody to a new weapon that was hidden. It demonstrated that they had weaponized biological weapons and, according to what the Iraqis said, then destroyed them. So it was a very interesting piece of history. It showed that they’d been lying, but [defectors] didn’t lead directly to any weapons. In the nuclear field, it revealed that the Iraqis had a crash program under Kamel from the end of 1990 and to some part of 1991 in order to make a nuclear weapon out of fissionable material, which were under safeguards, and that they just didn’t have time to do it. However, it did not lead the IAEA to any more fissionable material. It had already been taken out of Iraq by the time they found the Kamel papers. So it was very interesting historically, revealed something that the Iraqis had kept quiet about, but it did not lead the IAEA to any weapons.
And when it comes to comparison between the value of defectors and the value of other intelligence or what the inspectors found, I would say that the IAEA, for which I was responsible at the time, did a pretty good job, with the exception of these crash programs about which we knew nothing. However, it was in discussions with Professor Jaffar [Dhai Jaffar, deputy chairman of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission] that the big revelations came about the program, and through very painstaking research by our team, led by Professor [Maurizio] Zifferero [former deputy director of the IAEA and head of the IAEA’s Iraq Action Team], not by David Kay [chief inspector of a nuclear weapons inspection team in Iraq and now special adviser for strategy to the Bush administration in the WMD search in Iraq]—he had no notion of their nuclear program. He was not a nuclear physicist. But Professor Zifferero, vilified by Mr. [Gary] Milhollin [director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control], he was the one who really traced the program and understood it.
ACT: You mentioned the mobile laboratories when we were talking a little bit earlier. If they were, as the Iraqis claim, not used for biological weapons but were actually producing hydrogen [for civilian purposes], why didn’t they declare them? Doesn’t it strike you as strange?
Blix: Yes, a little. I mean, we were the ones who said to the Security Council that we asked the Iraqis for the images or declarations of whatever could have been seen as mobile, and they gave us a number of photographs, and none of these really fit with the ones that have now been discovered. Maybe there is some explanation for it, but we are not aware of it. And I agree, it is puzzling—and not the only puzzling detail.
ACT: More broadly, let’s say that the Iraqis have been telling the truth all along and that they don’t have these weapons. Why would they not show the evidence of that and avoid a war?
Blix: Why didn’t they declare everything?
ACT: Yeah, why not come clean?
Blix: When it came to biological, clearly they were lying, and they knew that. Now, why did they do that if they had no weapons left? I’m not sure that the logic and the emotions and psychology works exactly the same way as they might do here. Maybe they felt ashamed to admit weaponization? I mean one theory why they—if they had no weapons after ’91, then of course there’s a much bigger enigma than that, and that is why did they behave all along as they did during the whole 1990s? Because they suffered through sanctions all the way through. And I’ve been speculating about it, and I think more people than I will speculate about it.
One speculation that’s been made in The Washington Post, which may have been plausible, is that, while on the one hand they would say to the Security Council, “We’ve done everything, now you lift sanctions.” On the other hand, maybe they did not mind that people say, “Well maybe they have something”—a deliberate ambiguity. It’s possible—the mystique of maybe having some biological weapons. Maybe they’re playing around. That is one possibility. Now, why should such a mystique—why should they pursue that until they are occupied? That seems a little peculiar. Maybe by the force of its own logic or by miscalculation, brinksmanship.
And I have one other speculation, and that’s regarding pride. I saw that the chief minder of the chemical sector—when he was asked this question—he talked about pride. And I think that goes fairly deeply into my view of how inspections should operate here, that the Iraqis are very proud, as are the Pashtuns in Pakistan. The Afghans are extremely proud people. And that [the Iraqis] felt that, okay, these resolutions are accepted by us. We will live by them but not one inch longer, not more intrusion than is absolutely [necessary]. And they were legalistic about this.
I find it very hard to understand some of their denials of access that they had otherwise, where they were quibbling about five inspectors or 10 inspectors going in and eventually going into a house that was totally empty. There must have been a strong element of pride, and that was why, when I came here from the very outset, I said we are in Iraq for effective and correct inspections. We are not there for the purpose of humiliating them, harassing them, or provoking them. There were many other elements too that we differed from UNSCOM, but this was one, and I still think that pride might have been an element. And while we had lots of frictions and difficulties with them, in any case, we had, I think, a less difficult relation than UNSCOM had. We had, in particular, never any denial of access, and we had a good deal of cooperation when it came to setting up the infrastructure. So did UNSCOM have cooperation, but they, of course, had many denials of access.
ACT: As you said, [the Iraqis] seemed to be getting a little more cooperative, at least giving you the semblance of cooperation toward the end. If the inspections had continued, do you think you would have been able to get more substantive cooperation out of them, or was it bogged down in this difficult process?
Blix: Well, it seems to me that the interview process would have been the most promising of them. Maybe they would have found some further documents, occasionally found some, but not very many. We thought that after we had found this stash of documents, that when they appointed [former Minister of Oil General Amer] Rashid, and it was the [Rashid] Commission that could get the documents all over the country. I thought that if they had them—now this is a moment for them to [turn over the documents] without loss of face—they would find themselves in the right. I applauded their department officials. The same way with the commission they appointed after we had found the 12 warheads. It is far better—this now could be done without loss of face. But nothing came of it.
Now what would have happened then, if we had not been able to clear up and give really solid evidence, was that there would have been more indications of cooperation in substance, yes, but still a lot of things would have—might have—remained unaccounted for, which wouldn’t have been very satisfactory. And we don’t know where we would have gone, maybe the U.S. would have said, “Well we are waiting for two months, this is it, that’s the end of it.” And others would have said, “They are really cooperating now, there are no problems.” What we really [would have been] in now is continued containment. Now, that was not a welcomed word in Washington. They didn’t like the idea of containment; they wanted something decisive. And, well, their patience was not even enough for us going until March, so at what time point would they have lost patience? I don’t know.
I’m not opposed to containment, and I said so at the time. I agree that containment has its drawbacks. In particular, and I think I mentioned it publicly, that there could be a fatigue in the Security Council, that the guard will be let down. I understand that also. So it has some shortcomings. At the same time, I think one must be—then see what shortcomings has the other solution. All of the lives lost, all of the destruction. And we haven’t seen all the other drawbacks that may come from it; nor have we seen all the benefits that could have come from it. They’ll be on there—the balance of that particular account is not finished. But I was not personally against aerial containment actually that we had for a long time.
And, in particular, when you look at the most important—I mean we, you and me, talk about WMD as if it were one homogenous area, which, of course, it is not. I mean, the nuclear is vastly more important, and there’s a question of whether we really want to call chemical weapons “weapons of mass destruction.” Biological [weapons are] more like terror weapons than weapons of mass destruction. However, in the nuclear field, I think that it was clear that it would have taken quite some time before they were up and running again because the whole infrastructure was destroyed. They could have, I agree they could have, succeeded in importing 18 kilograms of plutonium. They might have had the expertise to make a bomb, yes, but even that would have required some infrastructure; so the matter of intervention to prevent further development in the nuclear field was probably the weakest. It was the most important area, I agree, but it was the weakest.
ACT: When you had to leave Iraq, what were the disarmament tasks that were the most pressing, the issues you really wanted to get resolved?
Blix: I think that mobile business was. That and the underground [facilities for concealing prohibited weapons and related equipment]. And we had taken it up with the Iraqis, both of these items, and we were discussing concepts for how to approach the mobile business with the Iraqis and with others. We talked about having checks at the roads with Iraqi staff and us having helicopters, dashing in here and there, taking samples of these random checks and so forth. We never got to that; it wouldn’t have been easy. None of the police forces we talked with gave us a really good model for it, but we were working on that.
And this goes back—the mobile thing went back to my experience in the IAEA in 1991. After all, the calutrons were on trucks, and they were—it was an IAEA team headed by Mr. Kay, who helped to take pictures of it. So we had experience that the Iraqis did move things around on trucks, but whether they were live things or debris, that was another matter. In any case, they had the habit of moving things by trucks in the big country, so that was not implausible. This was one experience from the past. But as [General Amir] al-Saadi [a senior adviser to Saddam Hussein] said to me when we talked about moving biological stuff around, he shook his [head] and said merely the collision risk of all this stuff on the highways would have deterred him. I didn’t write it off because of his remark, but I understood him.
ACT: How would you describe…the U.S. participation and commitment to the inspection process before the war? Was the United States doing all it could do to enable your inspections to succeed? Were other countries, such as France and Russia, doing all they could do to support the inspections?
Blix: Well, in the early stages, there was not so much intelligence, and we asked for it from [Secretary of State] Colin Powell and others—Condoleezza Rice—and we were sure that we would get it. I would say that after 1441, the resolution, was adopted and after the president had met Mr. ElBaradei and myself, there was more intelligence given, and at no time did we really complain about lack of support—lack of intelligence, yes; but lack of support, no. No, they helped us to run courses here, offered us equipment, et cetera. We were not complaining about that.
And, as of January—some time around January, I guess—I did not also complain about the number of sites intelligence that we were getting. The problem was rather that the U.S. or elsewhere—I don’t want to distinguish between the various intelligence agencies—that they did not lead us to interesting sites. As I have said publicly several times, we went to a lot of sites given to us by intelligence from around the world, and in only three cases did we find anything; and in none of these cases did it relate to weapons of mass destruction. Now, at this stage, in the middle of June, when the U.S. inspectors have been there for quite some time and, I think, have probably gone to all of the rest of the sites, and they haven’t found them very helpful either. So should anyone be surprised then, in retrospect, that we did not?
Now where did [the information about] these sites come from? Some came from satellites, and it’s not so easy to see everything and conclude the right things from satellites, and many came from defectors. So while I by no means want to belittle the value of defectors’ information, I think I like the more experienced—the professionals in the intelligence [community] are very cautious about the information they get from defectors, and I think the whole case of the Iraqi affair bears out that you have to treat such affairs with prudence.
ACT: There is speculation that Iraq destroyed prohibited weapons pretty recently, before the U.S. invasion. Do you think this is possible, given UNMOVIC and IAEA’s presence, that they could have destroyed the weapons without your knowledge?
Blix: This is not the only explanation we heard. One explanation is that they took things to Syria. Another one was that they dug it down so deep that they didn’t have time to dig it up. The third one would be that they have already given it to terrorists. And the fourth one is they destroyed it just before the U.S. came or just before the inspectors came. Well, I see these explanations with increasing, accelerating interest and curiosity, but I’d like to see evidence of any one of them.
But to your precise question, I think it would have been difficult for them to hide the destruction of rather large stashes of chemical weapons under the noses of the inspectors. I don’t exclude anything in this world.
ACT: If you had to assess your own tenure there, how successful were you? How would you sum it up?
Blix: I would say that we have—we showed something that was not a foregone conclusion. Namely, that it was possible to create an international inspection mechanism that was effective, that worked under the Security Council, and that was independent of intelligence agencies but cooperated with them and had assistance from them. And I think that this is a valuable experience for the future because I think that there may yet be a need for international inspections. …
ACT: Now that you’re moving on, in terms of UNMOVIC, at this point, what role can and should UNMOVIC play?
Blix: Well, it’s entirely up to the Security Council. We are its humble servants.
ACT: Presumably, they might take your advice.
Blix: I’m not so sure. Well, maybe some of them. [Laughter.] No, I think there are two things that could be in the future. One is the verification of disarmament. A report by the inspectors who are there now would have greater international credibility if they were examined and if the reality were examined by international inspectors. Whether they are interested in that, I don’t know.
The second is long-term monitoring. Will they want to have long-term monitoring in Iraq? That’s still not rescinded from the resolutions. It was in all the resolutions, and the resolutions also talk about this future zone free of weapons of mass destruction. I think there’s something a little paradoxical about reducing the institutionalized transparency by doing away with something that was there, especially if we are looking for an enhanced verification for the region at some stage, including the Additional Protocol, [an agreement designed to provide for more rigorous IAEA inspections]. And you would do away then with any verification [that Iraq does not possess biological weapons]. So you would have inspectors presumably on safeguards and the NPT [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] and chemicals, maybe. But they would be a step backwards on inspections. So for the long term, it’s a possibility, and I think that would be better in the hands of international inspectors than national ones.
But for the rest, the UN Security Council had in UNSCOM’s and UNMOVIC’s archives and personnel a unique, elite, trained force. Especially the roster of inspectors is a practical and inexpensive way of holding an inspectorate ready—valuable particularly regarding missiles, a priority for which you have no international organization. I do not think that the council wants to send ad hoc inspections every week, but it could be from time to time, and it would not need to have a very big stable force here. We would organize the training forces and organize the roster and the readiness.
For the rest, I think that they should write up the experiences here in some sort of digest because if they do not retain UNMOVIC, then maybe they will set up something in the future, and the document has experiences from both [UNSCOM and UNMOVIC] which are valuable. …
1. Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law who directed Iraq’s illicit weapons programs, defected in 1995. Shortly after, Baghdad provided inspectors with papers from Kamel’s farm detailing Iraq’s offensive biological weapons program.