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Iraq's Efforts to Acquire Information about Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear-Related Technologies from the United States*

by Kevin O'Neill

April 6, 2001

The lessons and experiences discussed in this paper are derived from a series of interviews with Dr. Khidhir Hamza, who in the 1980s was a senior Iraqi nuclear scientist. During part of his career in Iraq, Hamza headed the Iraqi nuclear weaponization program. He left Iraq in 1994, and worked closely with ISIS staff in 1997-1999 to understand Iraq's efforts to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program. During Hamza's time at ISIS, he agreed to discuss Iraqi efforts to obtain information and technology about fissile material production and weaponization. Hamza described how a would-be proliferator will look broadly, both in terms of subjects and locations, for information that will help it build nuclear weapons. According to Hamza, "what we needed was to build the system from the ground up; we wanted to reinvent the technology for the bomb." His experiences also show that a proliferator will seek open, classified, and proprietary information in advanced, industrialized countries.

There were many reasons for Iraq's search for sensitive information. Hamza identified several, including:

  • the need to build an indigenous capability to design and manufacture nuclear weapons;
  • a requirement to avoid relying on foreign experts for such a highly sensitive subject;
  • the need to gain a basic, rudimentary knowledge of how to handle and process nuclear materials and high explosives;
  • help in devising credible "cover stories" for the program; and
  • the need to obtain leads on potential suppliers of information, materials, and equipment for its nuclear weapons program.

Iraq compiled document lists from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) International Nuclear Information Service (INIS) database, the Science Citation Index (a leading index of scientific and technical journals published around the world), and other unclassified indices. However, simply ordering copies of such reports from the IAEA or other agencies directly might have exposed Iraq's nuclear weapons efforts, given the size and scope of its civil nuclear program. "If you acquire information through the IAEA," said Hamza, "you might get asked questions."

To help maintain secrecy, Iraq went to extraordinary lengths to disguise its activities, even when it was just seeking books and reports available in libraries or major bookstores. In some cases, documents on these lists were obtained through commercial purchases by Iraqi agents and funneled secretly to Iraq through front companies in Europe. Iraq utilized many methods to acquire information, including Iraqis studying abroad, paid agents, embassy employees, and Iraqi sceientists traveling overseas. Student networks were exploited by Iraqi intelligence and used to gather reports and materials that were photocopied in university libraries. Iraq would target conferences and scientific meetings, where relevant information could be obtained and contacts with potential suppliers could be developed. At one such conference, held in Portland, Oregon in 1989, members of Iraq's Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization (MIMI) "got anything that was current in the field about how to make top-notch [high- explosive] lenses." The operatives were able to obtain documents and reports, learn new techniques, and make contacts with suppliers for fast electronics. According to Hamza "many papers were delivered there that gave us many indications on which direction to go."

The Iraqi efforts show that establishing unclassified discussions or cooperative efforts with suppliers or researchers can in some cases yield information that may be classified, subject to export controls, or otherwise sensitive. The revelation of controlled information may be unintentional. Although Hamza provided no concrete case where he was involved in obtaining classified U.S. documents, he did observe that "rubbing shoulders" with those with access to sensitive information can potentially reap important rewards.

The information-gathering process was closely tied to efforts to acquire equipment. From the German companies of Degussa and Leybold, for example, Iraq sought many types of documents, including "manuals, techniques for casting various metals and types of crucibles, company manuals, training manuals, literature surveys. There was some proprietary documents about the iodine [purification] process [that Iraq planned to use to purify highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons]." A visit by Hamza to a U.S. national laboratory helped Iraq to create a good cover story for acquiring an accelerator as part of its program to develop Electromagnetic Isotope Separation (EMIS) technology.

To be sure, the Iraqi intelligence and information-gathering effort was more sophisticated and diverse than what has been summarized here. Hamza's experiences are not the "final word" on Iraq's efforts to gather information. However, it is evident from Hamza's experiences that Iraq was determined to acquire all available, relevant information that it could find. With the advent of the internet, the volume of information and ease of access has increased since the 1980s, making it more difficult to control the flow of information to a would-be proliferator. In addition, direct contacts with experts in supplier companies can still reap enormous benefits.

An important lesson of the Iraqi experience is that contacts with individuals or companies from suspected proliferant states should be handled with care, and sensitive information should be regulated effectively. Completely legal and valid contracts, communications, and transfers may not always be what they appear. Oftentimes, as the Iraqi experience shows, more sinister motives may lie beneath the surface.


*Presented at the following conferences: (1) "Non-Proliferation, Nuclear Security and Export Control: Lessons and Challenges," sponsored by ISIS and the Center for Export Control, Moscow, April 19-20, 2001, and (2) "International Seminar on Export Controls and Nuclear Proliferation," sponsored by ISIS and the Export Control Laboratory of the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering, Obninsk, April 23-24, 2001. [Back to the top]

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