In the dramatic speech Secretary of State Colin Powell made to the UN Security Council on Iraq and its alleged weapons of mass destruction on Feburary 5, 2003, a key piece of the evidence presented was images of decontamination trucks at a presumed chemical weapons facility. This was offered as proof that Iraq both possessed chemical weapons and was attempting to deceive inspectors from the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), the body charged by the Security Council with carrying out inspections in Iraq. It turned out that the vehicles were likely water trucks—not that unusual in a desert land—that inspectors had earlier seen up close at that facility.
Other pieces of evidence—a “truck caravan” near a facility thought to be related to biological weapons, drone aircraft, suspicious activity at a ballistic missile factory, and so on—were items about which inspectors already had, or could probably have relatively easily obtained convincing explanations.
Indeed, although Powell’s presentation was front-page news around the country and the world, less attention was paid to information that the UN’s chief weapons inspectors, Hans Blix, head of UNMOVIC, and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei provided a week later to the Security Council.
As the country strives to digest the recent Iraq Survey Group (ISG) report by Charles Duelfer and implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission with respect to the gathering and use of information related to weapons of mass destruction, part of this effort could usefully be given to gaining a better understanding of the possibilities, limitations, and proper use of on-site inspections (OSI). The public, the media, and government officials must avoid the twin perils of becoming disillusioned by expecting too much from OSI, on the one hand, and gaining false confidence from it, on the other.
Inspections are but one imperfect tool in the arms control and nonproliferation toolbox, but as the Iraq example shows, they can play a singularly useful role in assessing the credibility of intelligence gathered by other means, such as satellites. Policymakers need to pay greater heed to the potential benefits of OSI in promoting confidence that legal controls are working and in promoting global security. As Jacques Baute, the head of the IAEA effort in Iraq wrote recently, such inspection “benefits the international community, which receives the level of assurance it seeks, and also the inspected party, which is given the opportunity to demonstrate the reality of its compliance.”
Over the years, these tools have been applied to a growing number of situations, from stabilizing the arms control competition between the United States and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) to multilateral organizations such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to specialized regimes such as the Container Security Initiative. Inspections are now so widespread and routine that teams of Russians and international inspectors visiting U.S. facilities do not merit even cursory notice in local media.
For most of the past half-century, at a time when it was being rejected by the Soviet Union, the United States argued that OSI was the sine qua non for arms control. Now, however, even as OSI is more widely accepted and its tools sharper, U.S. and some foreign officials appear conflicted about the value of such visits. Just before UNMOVIC began its work in Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney called such inspections “at best useless.” One has the impression that in some countries little weight is given to the efforts and conclusions of inspection regimes if they do not support other political objectives. At the same time, any disruption of an inspection regime, as we have seen when the IAEA was forced out of North Korea, can quickly lead to an international crisis.
The Iraq Experience
The greatest attention has of course been focused on inspections in Iraq. This is a unique case in which inspectors had almost unlimited powers, including the right to immediately destroy illegal objects and facilities. Although not a model likely to be repeated often, it is nevertheless instructive. The post-war ISG arrived at essentially the same result as the IAEA Iraq Action Team and UNMOVIC, even though the ISG had greater resources, greater access, and more time. Thus, it seems clear that the criticism directed at UNMOVIC and the IAEA for their work in Iraq was not justified. Nevertheless, the credibility of the inspection regime appears to have taken a blow.
Even after public discussion gradually moved from statements about the failures of the inspection efforts to failures in intelligence, the media have consistently spoken of the failure of inspectors to find weapons of mass destruction. This unfortunate characterization seems to have created in the public mind the impression that the inspectors or the inspection mechanisms themselves were somehow incompetent or corrupt. To be accurate, however, if the inspectors did not find weapons of mass destruction because they were not there or were present only in very small quantities, there was no failure. Indeed, if an inspection can provide reasonable assurance that some suspected objects or activities are absent, it is a success and not a failure—this has long been seen as a major purpose of inspections.
Of course, it would also be incorrect to claim that the inspections proved the absence of these weapons. Here we encounter one of the dilemmas in evaluating OSI. History has shown that inspections can deliver complete confidence that some object has been eliminated or converted according to agreed procedures. Nevertheless, even though inspections can certainly prove that something existed or was disarmed, it can never prove the absence of something. Demanding that it do so will inevitably result in disappointment and confusion. Those who negotiated our numerous OSI regimes understood this quite well. A useful corollary, which Blix noted the United States failed to observe in Iraq, is that “you cannot say that, simply because something is unaccounted for, it exists.”
Another obvious limitation of OSI is that an individual inspection only provides information about a specific location at a particular time. One must be very careful about extrapolations to an entire country. Regardless, an effective inspection can allow for some useful generalizations. For example, it allows one to say with confidence that an identifiable activity did not occur at a particular facility during a certain time period and could not occur for a specified time in the future. Confidence also can be built up using satellites and other national technical means (NTM), interviewing scientists, defectors, and current and former civilian and military officials of the inspected country, as well as conducting a statistically significant number of inspections.
A common problem illustrated by the Iraq situation is the occasional confusion between the effectiveness of inspections themselves and the effectiveness of the response to evidence of noncompliance uncovered by inspections. Undoubtedly, a major problem in arms control today is the reluctance of the UN Security Council, the implementing bodies of various agreements, and individual states-parties themselves, to take effective action when serious violations of legal commitments are discovered.
Of course, the challenge is choosing the action that will effectively solve the problem rather than worsen it. A vivid illustration of this dilemma is found in the differing approaches to dealing with Iran’s nuclear activities. It is certainly possible to point to shortcomings in specific verification systems, although these are generally systemic and not due to careless work by inspectors, but these should not be confused with shortcomings in enforcement mechanisms.
A re-evaluation is needed in cases in which OSI is considered by some to have failed, for example, in Iraq and North Korea. In retrospect, the decade-long work of the United Nations in Iraq (UNMOVIC and its predecessor, the UN Special Commission, or UNSCOM) and the IAEA has been successful. In the cases where inspectors were unable to determine exactly what was going on or there were attempts to deceive them, the inspectors correctly understood that their knowledge was incomplete and deception was being used and reported this to the authorities. If the authorities fail to take appropriate actions in response, it is not a failure of the inspectors or the regimes they are implementing, but of political will.
Apparently, Iraq did not proceed with certain illegal weapons programs because of the fear that they would be caught by inspectors. This is a dramatic illustration of the deterrent effect of inspections. It is widely believed that OSI has a deterrent effect on would-be cheaters, but how strong this is is impossible to quantify. Although the history of OSI is not replete with spectacular discoveries of violations, one reason for this may be that effective regimes can have a powerful deterrent effect.
Lessons Learned, Future Tasks
On-site inspection has become a key component of most arms control agreements and is likely here to stay. Many more examples of the use of inspections could be cited, but those discussed illustrate the variety and effectiveness of the tools available. Although certainly easier to implement in a bilateral context, verification is increasingly becoming a multilateral affair. These mechanisms are put under great stress when states-parties engage in illegal or ambiguous behavior and then allow only grudging cooperation with inspectors (Iraq, Iran, North Korea). Short of war, however, there is little alternative to continuing to use these mechanisms and make them more effective. To accomplish this, individual states need to do a better job of providing timely intelligence information to the inspection systems. It should be possible to assist inspectors in knowing where to look and for what to look while protecting sensitive sources and methods. We will need all of our experience, patience, and creativity to deal successfully with the problem of keeping nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons out of the hands of uncooperative states, as well as stateless terrorist groups.
One important step that will strengthen the role of inspections in the fight against proliferation will be widespread implementation of the 1997 Model Additional Protocol intended to improve the design of safeguards against the use of civilian nuclear technology for nuclear weapons programs.
This protocol, variants of which have been signed by 86 countries and ratified by 61 of them, will give inspectors access to all parts of a state’s nuclear fuel cycle as well as any other location nuclear material may be present. It also allows access to all buildings on a nuclear site, as well as the collection of environmental samples at locations beyond declared locations.
One idea that has recently surfaced and is apparently favored by the New Agenda Coalition and some other states is to establish and train an international team of versatile inspectors under UN auspices. Such a team, which could evolve from the UNMOVIC apparatus, which still exists, could be sent out on short notice to carry out urgent ad hoc inspections anywhere in the world. Under such a scheme, nuclear issues would presumably generally be left to the IAEA and chemical issues left to the OPCW. The United States would likely wish to retain the option of using its own personnel for certain special inspections when appropriate, but such a system might appeal to many smaller countries
A mixed system might be effective in dealing with Iran and North Korea. The IAEA has considerable experience and expertise in both and should certainly play a key role in any future verification regime. At the same time, some special or ad hoc inspections could be useful. In the case of North Korea, it is even possible that countries could draw upon the work that was done during the 1990s in preparation for implementing the unfulfilled 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
It is imperative that inspection organizations, especially multilateral ones, have the highest standards of integrity. Thus, these organizations must be kept free of any improper intelligence activities or any failure to properly protect proprietary information unrelated to compliance issues that they may acquire in the course of their duties. A major reason for the reluctance of biotechnology firms to accept an intrusive verification regime for the Biological Weapons Convention is concern that valuable proprietary information will be leaked to competitors. Likewise, some countries, especially those with little experience with inspections and major threats to their security, have been concerned that, as a result of inspections, critical national security or commercial information unrelated to their treaty compliance may find its way to other states. Blix showed that he understood this issue when he declared that, if he found that any members of his staff were working for “other agencies,” he would “throw them out, and I think they will understand why.”
A final, interesting lesson from the Iraq experience concerns the search for records. Some of the information that inspectors received in Iraq came from examining Iraqi records. In some cases, these were actually seized and physically removed. Although such activities have long been an important part of law enforcement investigations, they had not previously played a role in arms control inspections.
Gaining access to paper files and computer records could be a powerful tool in verification, but it also places inspectors and inspected parties in a very difficult position. A widespread search and seizure of records creates a situation in which there may be a significant possibility of gaining access to sensitive information completely unrelated to the compliance issue under investigation. The situation is made even more awkward if the language of the material is unfamiliar to most of the inspectors. Attempts by the inspected party to deny access to records said to be unrelated to the question at hand would clearly raise suspicions to a high level.
On the other hand, if inspectors stumble upon sensitive but irrelevant information, for example, defense plans, financial information, personal leadership matters, etc., how should they deal with the situation, and how can the inspected party be assured that such information will be protected? Some of the more outrageous behavior of the Iraqis during the UNSCOM era might have resulted from just such situations. Although such situations may be rare in the future, giving some thought to the legal and practical issues involved would be useful.
The body of experience we now have shows the negative consequences of overreliance upon any single source of intelligence, be it OSI, NTM, defectors, or declarations by states or institutions. These are all potentially useful sources of information but are most likely to lead to reliable and accurate conclusions when used together in a symbiotic fashion
Still, effective inspection regimes, of which we now have many, can make a major contribution to international peace and security. Coupled with greater transparency and more effective responses to violations, they can help the world find its way to a proper balance between “trust” and “verify.”
1. Jacques Baute, “Timeline Iraq: Challenges and Lessons Learned From Nuclear Inspections,” IAEA Bulletin, June 2004.
2. For an account of inspections in Iraq from 1991 to 1998, see International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Net Assessment,” 2002. See also “Iraq: A Chronology of UN Inspections and an Assessment of Their Accomplishments,” Arms Control Today, October 2002, pp. 13-23. For an account of inspections in Iraq in 2002-2003, see Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq (New York: Pantheon Books, 2004).
3. A summary of criticisms is given in Joseph Cirincione, Jessica T. Mathews, and George Perkovich, “WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications,” 2004, pp. 45-46. See Charles Duelfer, “The Inevitable Failure of Inspections in Iraq,” Arms Control Today, September 2002.
4. “Getting It Right the Next Time: An Interview With Hans Blix,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2004, pp. 14-17.
5. International Atomic Energy Agency, “Strengthened Safeguards System: Status of Additional Protocols,” October 13, 2004.
6. The New Agenda Coalition was launched in 1998 by the foreign ministers of eight non-nuclear nations—Ireland, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Slovenia, and Sweden—with the purpose of pressuring the nuclear weapons states to fulfill the obligation they undertook in Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to eliminate nuclear arsenals. The coalition officially consists of seven non-nuclear nations: Ireland, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden.
7. “Anticipating Inspections: UNMOVIC Readies Itself for Iraq,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2000, p. 5.
The Universe of On-Site Inspections
As on-site inspection (OSI) has gradually gained acceptance around the world, thousands of inspections have been successfully implemented in a wide variety of circumstances and under many different arms control regimes. Nonetheless, certain practices have emerged.
1. Edward Ifft, “Verifying Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament,” in Verification Yearbook 2001, eds. Trevor Findlay and Oliver Meier (London: Corporate & Commercial Printing, Ltd., 2001), pp. 26-27.
The Long Road to On-Site Inspections
The effort to achieve broad acceptance of on-site inspection (OSI) is a story of high diplomacy, creativity, and determination through several U.S. administrations. The ambitious but somewhat naïve Baruch Plan, put forward by the United States in 1946 as a result of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, was the first great effort to control nuclear weapons.
Edward Ifft is a retired State Department official who served as Deputy Director of the On-Site Inspection Agency and Senior Advisor to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy of the U.S. Government. For more information on on-site inspections see the author's research paper on the subject.