By VERNON LOEB
The Washington Post
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — After escaping from Baghdad in 1994, Iraq’s chief nuclear weapons scientist thought his quest for freedom was over when he offered to tell the Central Intelligence Agency everything he knew about Saddam Hussein’s weapons program in exchange for asylum.
But in the satellite telephone call the CIA said it wasn’t interested, forcing Khidhir Hamza on a desperate flight from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq that took him to Turkey, Libya, Tunisia and Hungary. Finally, after Hamza turned up at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest in 1995, the CIA realized its mistake, began debriefing Hamza and smuggled his family out of Baghdad.
"I held secrets no one outside Iraq, and only a handful of people inside the country, could know," Hamza writes in a new book co-authored with journalist Jeff Stein, "Saddam’s Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda." "Not even the aggressive U.N. inspectors … knew what we still had and how dangerous the situation was. None of them knew that Saddam had been within a few months of completing the bomb when he invaded Kuwait."
Speaking last week to nonproliferation experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Hamza said Saddam probably possesses a crude, two- to three-kiloton atomic bomb and could conceivably begin limited bomb production within two to three years if international sanctions are lifted.
Later, in an interview, Hamza said that he had long ago forgiven CIA officials for the way in which "they rebuffed and even ridiculed my pleas for help in 1994," as he puts it in his book.
"They did redeem themselves," Hamza said. "They went through a large operation to save my family, with a five-man planning team here and a nine-man team in the north of Iraq. They saved my family’s lives literally — they all would have been killed. For me, that’s a lot. That’s everything."
The CIA does not agree that Iraq possesses a crude nuclear weapon. "We don’t believe they have the fissile material required for a nuclear weapon," said one senior U.S. official, noting that Hamza has been away from the Iraqi program for six years. "Nor do we believe they currently have the infrastructure to build a nuclear weapon."
But the agency does not minimize what Hamza has contributed to its understanding of Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. "He is viewed as valuable," the official said, "and his insights have been valuable."
Now living in Virginia with his wife and three sons, Hamza, 61, received a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his doctorate in nuclear physics from Florida State University. He was teaching at a small college in Georgia in 1970 when he was ordered home to work in Iraq’s fledgling atomic energy program.
By 1985, he had become Saddam’s personal nuclear weapons adviser, charged with directing a crash program to make Iraq a nuclear power. The country had 25 kilograms of bomb-grade uranium from a French-built reactor, Hamza writes, and volumes of nuclear weapons technology from the World War II Manhattan Project that produced the first U.S. atomic bomb. Hamza discovered the declassified Manhattan Project reports on a dusty shelf in Baghdad, a gift, he writes, from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1956.
But by 1994, with Iraq close to enriching its own uranium through diffusion technology, Hamza plotted his escape and soon found himself at the headquarters of the opposition Iraqi National Congress in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, talking on a secure, satellite telephone to CIA officers 10,000 miles away in Langley, Va.
"I wasn’t a low-level official," Hamza writes. "I had designed Saddam’s bomb. That should be easy enough for them to confirm. I also knew about the chemical and biological programs."
But after 15 or 20 minutes, Hamza came to believe his long-distance debriefers had never heard of him and knew little about Iraq’s bomb program, headquartered at Al-Atheer. Hamza writes that a CIA officer chuckled at the notion of a weapons plant at Al-Atheer and closed the door on his only demand: asylum.
Warren Marik, a former CIA case officer who was present at CIA headquarters at the time of the call, said Friday that he was "appalled" at the way his colleagues dismissed Hamza. "They blew him off, and you don’t do that to a walk-in," Marik said.
Marik said part of Hamza’s problem lay in the fact that his call had come through Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress leader who had by then fallen out of favor with the agency. But Marik also faults Hamza for being testy and demanding with the CIA officers and refusing to give them enough information to establish his bona fides.
In any event, the CIA knew Hamza’s name a year later, when he showed up at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. Part of the difference then, Marik said, was that Hamza’s approach had been coordinated through a different Iraqi opposition group, the Iraqi National Accord, which had much closer ties to Langley.
"In fact, with every passing hour of my arrival in Germany, where I was first debriefed, the attitude of the CIA grew more trusting, friendly and respectful," Hamza writes.
Once they had flown him back to Washington, Hamza called his oldest son, Firas, in Baghdad and set the CIA’s plan in motion.
Soon enough, a deranged-looking beggar — actually a Kurdish smuggler working for the CIA — approached Firas Hamza in a Baghdad coffee shop, whispered his name and signaled him to walk outside onto the street.
The Kurd handed Firas Hamza a letter from his father and told him to bring his mother and younger brothers the following day to Mosul, north of Baghdad. From there, the Kurd drove Hamza’s family over the mountains to the Kurdish-controlled north of Iraq, where they waited in a safe house to be evacuated.