Long before Osama bin Laden got to be No. 1 on the FBI's most wanted list, Saddam Hussein was employing top scientists and developing not only his much-talked-about nuclear program but biological and chemical weapons as well.
I know because I spent two decades as a senior official in Iraq's Atomic Energy Commission.
Iraq tried every way possible to obtain nuclear weapons technology. That it did not succeed at the onset of the Gulf War in possessing a single weapon or device speaks volumes about the availability of equipment and materials.
Despite the scare stories about Soviet nuclear bombs for sale on the black market, the fact remains that the Soviet Union had sophisticated security that is still intact and monitored. All the reported incidents of theft or smuggling were of small or insignificant amounts of nuclear materials, mostly not weapons grade.
Materials and literature about nuclear weapons found in Al Qaeda's Afghan hide-outs confirms our understanding of the problems faced by terrorists. Regardless of his wealth and determination, Bin Laden's nuclear quest seems to be a rudimentary program carried out mostly by amateurs.
But this does not mean that terrorists can't develop radiation or germ warfare weapons. With a small core of scientists and engineers, the South Africans have made weapons relatively inexpensively that can produce explosions equivalent to the bomb used on Hiroshima.
Death and Damage
A terrorist would have more modest objectives. The radiation and contamination associated with the explosion of a weapon of less than one kiloton could cause tremendous death and damage and would be a nightmare to decontaminate and clean up.
This brings many possibilities into play, including simpler but less-efficient designs and the possibility of assembling a weapon by smuggling in parts.
Many stories are carried in the media about suitcase bombs, which actually are the more sophisticated version of this. A terrorist might find it easier to bring in components and assemble a nuclear weapon inside the U.S. than to bring in a whole bomb in a suitcase.
As we found through our purchasing networks in Iraq, almost any component for a nuclear weapon can be bought on the black market. The most difficult item to obtain was the actual nuclear fissile material needed for the bomb core. Bomb-grade uranium is easily transportable because it has little radioactivity. If a terrorist could get just 100 pounds of the stuff, then putting together a simple gun-type bomb or device would be possible with minimal expertise and no need for the advanced explosives and triggering mechanisms. I don't think bomb-grade uranium is available for purchase outside Russia, which means it is essential that the U.S. continue to support Russia's program for controlling nuclear materials.
The radioactive materials available in spent reactor fuel rods are good candidates for radiation weapons. But a large number would be required. They leak, and they create a radiation hazard to those nearby. Leakage also makes them easily detectable. The U.S. has stopped processing spent fuel rods, but several U.S. storage areas are used as repositories. If a terrorist could get some rods, then all he would need would be any available explosive, such as TNT, and he would have a radiation weapon.
Then there is the scariest possibility of all: Iraq has the capability to produce biological agents, including anthrax, in large quantities--not just raw anthrax in liquid form, which almost anybody can prepare, but in a powder that is effective as a terrorist tool. Whether Hussein was involved in providing the spores and powder that hit Congress, the Postal Service and other people and institutions is irrelevant; it's his capability to do it that should concern us.
Iraq's germ warfare program was perfected during its war with Iran in the 1980s. Little known outside scientific circles is the fact that Hussein even experimented on humans, starting around 1985 with anthrax. Cholera was developed as a weapon as well and employed in experiments on villagers in the Kurdish north. Iraq's germ warfare equipment and stocks were supposedly destroyed under the direction of U.N. inspectors after Desert Storm. But Hussein managed to hide quite a bit of it, as well as the biologists who worked on the weapons.
German intelligence estimates that Iraq will produce three atomic weapons by 2005. Reports of terrorists trying to get their hands on crop-dusters also point to Iraq. Even before Desert Storm, Hussein's scientists had modified crop-dusters for spraying biowarfare agents. They also had fitted a fighter plane with a spray tank.