REVIEW: Article

Interview with the Former Executive Chairman of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), Ambassador Rolf Ekeus, on September 22, 2003

JIM LEHRER: And to that search for weapons of mass destruction in post-war Iraq. We get some guidance on how to follow the search from Rolf Ekeus. He is the Swedish diplomat who was the United Nations’ (UN’s) top weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1997. Mr. Ambassador, welcome. Why do you believe no weapons of mass destruction have been found since the end of the war?

ROLF EKEUS: I think that one has been first of all looking not in the right direction or for the right stuff. My feeling is very clearly that the Iraqi policy long before the war was to build capability to develop its capabilities to produce weapons for the situation, for the conflict situation, not to produce for storage and create a problem of storage management.

No Hidden Stockpiles?

JIM LEHRER: So it was a mistake to think that there were stockpiles buried underground or in warehouses or hidden in various places in Iraq in the first place?

ROLF EKEUS: Definitely…I tried to tell that for years, that the Iraqi policy was to have a capability to develop qualities—to develop engineering, design, new types of weapons, especially in the chemical weapons and the bioweapons field in order to at a given moment, when the situation appears, to activate the production, because they learned during the 1980s that when they produced say especially nerve agents like sarin, VX and all these things, when they put it in drums, in a storage places, after at least [some] months the quality deteriorated. And the reason was that Iraq never at least in the early years did not manage to get pure enough warfare agent, it was a matter of science.

JIM LEHRER: You’ve also written recently, because I read it, you said you believe that the whole concept, in other words their whole reason for wanting the capability had nothing to do with the United States or the West or the world, it had to do with the possibility of going to war with Iran again, is that correct?

ROLF EKEUS: If you think about the situation in 1991 when United States (US) liberated Kuwait together with [the United Kingdom], Iraq was flooded with chemical weapons, for instance, and also had the bio program quite advanced. They didn’t use any of that stuff, it was weaponized, it was stored in the South, the troops were trained for it. But why didn’t they use it? Because the enemy, the American troops were well protected with advanced gas masks and protection suits, tanks…were fitted so the gas wouldn’t enter the vehicles, and so on.

First of all, the US troops were highly mobile, we were not talking about the First World War when chemical weapons were successful in the trench warfare—very stable warfare—but a highly mobile situation. The Iraqi troops, which were less well protected, had less advanced technology for protection, would in themselves have been at great risk. So it was clear against an advanced enemy like the US, it was not useful to make, to employ such weapons.

However, against Iran, Iraq had an eight-year war from 1980 to 1988 and it was clear that in that conflict where the country with 64 million people and Iraq’s 25 something, war on a conventional level with standard weapons, Iraq would not [stand] a chance to win that conflict, but indeed against Iran they applied chemical weapons for bombing….

JIM LEHRER: Hans Blix, your Swedish diplomatic colleague who was the last chief weapons inspector from the UN, he said in an interview last week in London that he’s come to the conclusion that, and what you’re saying seems to be saying the same thing, that the Iraqis in fact destroyed whatever they had stockpiled after 1991. Do you agree with that?

ROLF EKEUS: No, not at all, because when we came in and UNSCOM in 1991, in April 1991 after the war—

JIM LEHRER: Even since 1991.

ROLF EKEUS: Yeah, we came in, there we found huge quantities of chemical weapons, certainly they were not destroyed.

JIM LEHRER: In all fairness to Hans Blix, I misspoke—what he said was since 1991 they had been destroyed through your offices.

ROLF EKEUS: We destroyed them, definitely. It had to be special destruction and it took several years to clean up, in 1996, we could end biological weapons destruction programs. We took many years, first to find it. However, I agree, my sense is that they did not produce anything since 1991, for several reasons. First of all, it was the presence of weapons experts.

JIM LEHRER: Because you all were there, the inspectors were there, and they were under surveillance all the time.

ROLF EKEUS: Yeah, and they took a political decision, the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein who defected at some stage and returned and was killed by Saddam, he told me during the debriefings in Amman in 1995 that they had taken the decision not to produce during the prevailing circumstances, any new biological, chemical weapons—but instead develop the quality to…

JIM LEHRER: The capability to do it?

ROLF EKEUS: Precisely, the engineers, process specialists and so on.

JIM LEHRER: So back...

ROLF EKEUS: And quality. Small batches of production to develop quality.

JIM LEHRER: So then if they needed to do it on a quick basis, they first had the capability and they had the ability to produce better stuff.

ROLF EKEUS: And they had very much when we debriefed the scientists and lab people, they had very much the Iranian situation in mind.

JIM LEHRER: Not something involving the United States and the rest of the world.

ROLF EKEUS: No, and of course some opposing elements inside Iraq.

What Should Inspectors Be Looking For?

JIM LEHRER: Okay, so let’s go back to what’s happening on the ground there now or isn’t happening on the ground there. What should the US, essentially now US weapons inspectors, what should they be looking for then? If they’re looking for capability, testing of quality, what should they look for in order to prove that?

ROLF EKEUS: They should certainly, first of all they should bring in the right type of people. And I understand they have started to do that, namely process engineers, specialists, researchers, and go into the civilian production facilities and investigate the whole production line, what’s going on in such a facility, what is the input, what kind of chemicals are being put in, what is the output. Can the site manager make [a] clear explanation [as to] what they have been [doing]…is there something missing…if you compare input with output? And to cross-examine the large number of people who have been involved in production.

But it’s easier said than done, because my conviction is, as I’ve been in touch with some of the Iraqi weapons specialists, is that there’s still fear for Saddam, they still don’t trust that the US will stay there and the guy who comes up and spends everything to, for instance, he may be in deep trouble. If they think if Saddam is watching that and, a treacherous, he’s a traitor and will be trouble.

JIM LEHRER: You still believe there’s a lot to spill, not about stockpiles but only about this limited experimentation.

ROLF EKEUS: Yes, there’s a lot to spill, but we have to recall that several of them are high quality scientists and experts. And we have a situation where these guys have no job and one must identify them, so al-Qaeda are not buying in on these tremendous pool of knowledge, of nuclear, chemical and biological science. We have been focusing on the Russian loose nukes, and Russian scientists, but Russian scientists speaking Russian and drinking vodka, he wouldn’t be terribly happy with the al-Qaeda but a Muslim-Arab would probably…

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go back to the pre-war stuff that was said. British intelligence, it was in a British report that the Iraqis could employ biological and chemical weapons at 45-minute notice. Based on what you’re saying that was impossible.

ROLF EKEUS: It doesn’t sound rational. If one is fiddling a little, one can say, well, they could have had a couple of bombs hanging around with some low-quality sarin and put it on a plane, and threw it before the plane was shot down, or something. But serious employment of chemical weapons—I don’t think they were prepared to and had no intention. So I don’t agree with the statement, even if one answers they can make a case for some very limited.

JIM LEHRER: Back to your friend, Hans Blix, he said, meaning the United States and Britain, they overinterpreted what they saw, meaning the intelligence information that was available. Do you agree with that?

ROLF EKEUS: First of all, what we know was basically what was known from UNSCOM.

JIM LEHRER: From your organization.

ROLF EKEUS: Yeah, and in 1998 as we know. And the final reports there were de facto made up, 90 or 95 percent of the British so-called intelligence report, because that was public, as you know, so we could compare. Then there was some additional information, maybe from defectors. So I think it was not really correct. I think it was a very solid base of knowledge which was had. Then it was the additional interpretation of intelligence which could not, had not been verified. That was a layer above the fundamental basic knowledge.

JIM LEHRER: And out of that came this expectation which, based on what you’re saying, of a huge stockpile where troops went in and were finding all these weapons, it was implausible and impossible to begin with?

ROLF EKEUS: It was implausible, it was contrary to Iraq policy, the weapons policy, and that was in the public demand because it had been reported.

JIM LEHRER: Did you tell people that, did you tell anybody who asked?

ROLF EKEUS: Well, I reported to the Security Council in 1995. And I must say that I tried to get it through, through all the noise.…

JIM LEHRER: And there was a lot. Yes. Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for the update.*

* Copyright © 2003, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Reprinted with permission.