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Bill to Offer Asylum to Iraqi Scientists Dies in Congress

Red tape killed the measure, which was aimed at helping U.N. weapons inspectors.

November 23, 2002|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan effort to strengthen the hand of U.N. inspectors by offering hundreds of Iraqi scientists U.S. residency in exchange for information on weapons programs died Friday when Congress adjourned without passing the bill.

Without the legislation, inspectors will be able to take scientists out of Iraq to question them about chemical, biological and nuclear programs but will be unable to offer them asylum in return for their cooperation.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) sponsored the bill after former U.N. inspectors said they believed they could have uncovered more information about Iraqi nuclear and chemical weapons programs had they been able to offer safe haven to Iraqi scientists.

Though there was no real political opposition to it, the "Safe Haven for Iraqi Scientists" bill bogged down in legislative red tape.

First the Republican House leadership attached it to a complex bill on Zuni Indian water rights. Extricated, the measure expired Friday as House members stampeded for their districts to end the lame-duck session of the 107th Congress. The Senate passed it by unanimous consent Wednesday.

Supporters said they hoped the legislation would be passed when the 108th Congress convenes in January.

"If you've got 500 green cards in the right hands, it would be a tremendous help in terms of disabling the program and gaining insights into the program," said David Kay, who was chief U.N. weapons inspector after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "In the nuclear area, if I could take 25 people out of the country and I could choose which 25, I could create tremendous disruption in the program."

From 1991 until 1998, when the inspectors left the country, the Iraqi regime used a variety of techniques to try to intimidate both Iraqi scientists and the inspectors, U.N. officials have said.

Iraqi officials told Kay that two of the scientists he had interviewed were subsequently executed for "making mistakes."

"The Iraqis told me [about the scientists] because they thought that would make me less vigorous" in pressing other witnesses for details about weapons secrets, Kay said.

Routinely, Iraqi government minders attended U.N. interviews with scientists and sometimes videotaped them. They frequently coached the interview subjects or interrupted the interviews to "remind" the witnesses on sensitive issues, weapons inspectors have said.

U.N. inspectors have the technology to set up "silent rooms" in Baghdad that would be immune to electronic eavesdropping, but convincing frightened Iraqis that their words cannot be overheard by their government is no easy task, Kay said.

Determined to avoid intimidation and protect scientists willing to cooperate, the U.S. government insisted that the U.N. Security Council resolution that sent inspectors back into Baghdad give chief weapons inspector Hans Blix the authority to interview anyone anywhere at any time, and to take witnesses and their families out of Iraq for questioning.

But Biden argues that scientists would have little incentive to tell the truth, even abroad, if they knew they would be sent back to Iraq to face possible reprisals.

Blix has expressed reservations about interviewing witnesses abroad, saying it would be difficult if the Iraqi regime did not cooperate.

U.N. officials ask what would happen if, for example, Iraqi security forces claim the U.N. is kidnapping scientists for interrogation or attempt to prevent inspectors from leaving with the witnesses?

"What happens if the Iraqis lay siege to our compound? What if they intercept the jeep [carrying the scientists] on the way to the airport?" asked Blix spokesman Ewen Buchanan. And what if the information provided by such witnesses once they and their families have left the country turns out to be deliberately false or simply wrong? Buchanan asked. Would they be sent back to Baghdad?

"Clearly, we will be exploring further in what ways we can use the authorities given to us by the [Security Council], but the practicalities of doing it need to be further examined," Buchanan said.

Under existing U.S. law, foreign informants may be brought to the United States, but the program is limited to 100 people per year, including families. Given the large size of many Iraqi families, and the need to offer asylum to spies and whistle-blowers from other parts of the world, Biden deemed that number inadequate.

Dangling up to 500 U.S. green cards in front of Iraqis with the promise of their families' being brought to America, could also prompt a flood of fakers claiming to be nuclear scientists with vital information, Kay and Buchanan said.

Moreover, Kay said, Blix understands that any promise to take an Iraqi's family along must be made with great caution. "He may be taking the village or the town," Kay said. And some Iraqis may later wish to return to their homeland.

Despite these issues, the Biden bill won bipartisan support. It was co-sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and endorsed by President Bush. The White House even made calls of support after the two senators agreed to changes that would give the CIA and the attorney general power to approve the grants of residency and that would require recipients to give the U.S. government -- not just the U.N. -- "critical and reliable information" on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

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