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The brains behind Iraq's arsenal

US-educated Iraqi scientists may be as crucial to Iraq's threat as its war hardware.

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A recent study of PhDs earned in the US corroborates some of that personal observation. Researchers at Georgia State University in Atlanta found that from 1990 to 1999, 1,215 science and engineering PhDs were granted to students from five of the seven countries listed by the US State Department as sponsors of terrorism.

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Still, that's only about 2 percent of degrees granted to foreign-born students, with Iraqis earning 112 science and engineering PhDs. Of those, 14 were in sensitive fields like nuclear or chemical engineering or microbiology. There's no clear indication how many returned to Iraq.

But small numbers may be misleading. It takes only one or two gifted students to run an entire weapons program, experts say. "It isn't a large number, and we know a number of people don't plan to go back [to Iraq]," says Paula Stephan, coauthor of the Georgia State study. "Having said all of that, it's still a positive number, right?"

Even so, few suggest simply closing all university doors to foreign students, who make up a key component of US graduate programs. Instead, the Bush administration has taken steps to scrutinize student visa applications. Students applying from a few dozen nations to study "sensitive" fields like nuclear physics will get extra scrutiny. A new visa tracking system is also in the works to ensure students who do come to the US actually enroll.

Yet even these new systems may not catch students who apply to attend US universities as a history major, say, and then a year later switch to nuclear engineering, Kay says.

What they need to be alert to is a new generation of young experts to succeed the likes of Abdul Nassir Hindawi, who received his PhD in microbiology from Mississippi State University in Starkville in 1969. In the 1980s, he became the architect of Hussein's bioweapons program. He tried to defect and was arrested in 1998.

In fact, one of the reasons more Iraqi scientists don't defect is that Hussein may slaughter a defector's entire family, Hamza says. Many scientists are especially fearful during an interview with weapons inspectors – particularly if an Iraqi government watcher is present.

Fear factor

Charles Duelfer, former deputy chairman of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), who helped lead the search for weapons, says it was not unusual to come across American-trained Iraqi experts.

"Even when we found these people, it was often clear that they were frightened of saying the wrong thing," Duelfer says. The problem is that if questioning is done under past rules, "these people will remain terrified."

With this perhaps in mind, the Bush administration has proposed to the UN that scientists and their families be plucked from Iraq for interviews abroad where they won't have to fear retaliation.

In the end, say experts, human intelligence will be crucial. "If you can take out the key people, you've taken their program away from them," says Richard Spertzel, who oversaw the dismantling of Iraq's bioweapons program in the 1990s. "But first they have to find them."