Q&A with the Top Sleuth

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Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei

Q.The Bush Administration has repeatedly said Iraq is very close to owning a nuclear bomb.
A. I hope the U.S. does not know anything we do not know. If they do, they should tell us. If they are talking about indigenous capability, Iraq is far away from that. If Iraq has imported material hidden, then you're talking about six months or a year. But that's a big if.

Q.Is Iraq still hiding parts of a nuclear program?
A. I don't want to come to a definitive conclusion yet. I think it's difficult for Iraq to hide a complete nuclear-weapons program. They might be hiding some computer studies or R. and D. on one single centrifuge. These are not enough to make weapons. There were reports from different member states that Iraq was importing aluminum tubes for enrichment, that they were importing uranium from Africa. Our provisional conclusion is that these tubes were for rockets and not for centrifuges. They deny they have imported any uranium since 1991. (From) the U.S., the U.K. and others— we need to get specifics of when and where. We need actionable information.

Q.Powell has said the U.S. is now giving "significant" information to the inspection teams.
A. Not yet. We hope soon to get actionable information.

Q.What about chemical and biological weapons?
A. The chemical and biological files are very much open. There is almost a consensus among intelligence agencies that there are still chemical- and biological-weapons programs going on in Iraq. UNMOVIC (U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission) expected to get records of production, destruction, physical evidence of where remnants of some of the stuff has been destroyed. The declaration (and inspections so far) shed no new light on any of these issues. So that's why (unmovic chief Hans) Blix keeps saying, "I don't have any evidence, but I cannot exclude the possibility." In light of the Iraqi past record of concealment and deceit, that's obviously not good enough for the Security Council. The uncertainty is too wide for the council to accept.

Q.How crucial are private interviews with scientists?
A. There is almost an obsession with interviews. That is just one aspect of doing inspections— at least in the nuclear area It shouldn't be the center or the key.

Q.Is Iraq capable of hiding these programs forever?
A. Unless we stumble on something— either through information from defections or through random inspection. If we continue on and on without making progress on some of these issues, I don't think the Security Council— the U.S. in particular— is ready to wait forever.

Q.If you arrive at this same "no evidence they have weapons, no proof they don't" conclusion on Jan. 27, will that satisfy anybody?
A. I think it's very clear that Saddam Hussein will not get off the hook. It is not that Iraq is clean just by saying, Here, look everywhere.

Q.Could this point be made on Jan. 27?
A. No, there is still a lot of work to be done on both sides. Jan. 27 is just an update, not a cutoff date. The inspection process should continue. It's good the Americans are putting the heat on the Iraqis, and that has yielded results. And I think that pressure should continue. But anybody who understands inspections understands that it takes time. The Security Council understands that this should take something like a year.

Q.Surely the Bush Administration is not going to wait a year.
A. I hope the U.S. mobilization is only about adding to the pressure.

Q.Has the U.S. given you an idea of how long it would wait?
A. No. It depends on how much progress. We are making progress in nuclear. In chemical and biological, the inspectors are not yet making progress.

Q.Are there specific questions you are taking to Baghdad at the end of this week?
A. Yes. What we want to impress on the Iraqis is that cooperation on process but not on substance is not enough. Given Iraq's past record of 12 years of patchy cooperation, given the fact that everyone is getting sick and tired of this Iraq file, nothing less will be sufficient. We will say we don't think they are going to be attacked if they come clean and produce what they have. But Iraq has to understand: if they cooperate in process and not substance, then the end is near.

Q.The Americans have set it up this way. Go ahead, say no.
A. (Laughter.)