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Our man in Iraq: Jim Lee spends 67 intense days combing 47 sites as a UN weapons inspector

Jim Lee may be a good ol’ boy from East Texas, but he never thought he’d step into anything like this.

Jim, Manager of Accident and Consequence Analysis Dept. 6413, spent 67 days earlier this year as an arms inspector in Iraq, ranging the countryside not in a Chevy pickup but a UN-flagged Nissan Pathfinder, looking for ominous signs of life in Iraq’s aborted nuclear weapons program.

Jim, a nuclear engineer, was tapped by DOE headquarters to serve as a "national expert" on an International Atomic Energy Agency team conducting weapons inspections in Iraq. A man of abundant self-deprecating good humor, Jim says he doesn’t know why he was perceived as a "national expert." His expertise, he says, is "a mile wide and an inch deep," while his main qualification is that he has "a twisted sense of what would make a fun vacation."

He’s too modest: Jim has decades of experience in things nuclear, both with Sandia and the military, and he travels five times a year to Krasnoyarsk in the former Soviet Union as part of an on-going nonproliferation program. He is an expert.

Under terms imposed on Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War, United Nations inspectors were authorized to monitor several aspects of the country’s military R&D infrastructure. As part of the inspection process, IAEA is charged with keeping tabs on the Iraqi nuclear program. Another organization, UNSCOM — the United Nations Special Commission on Iraqi Disarmament — headed by Richard Butler, handles the chem/bio and missile inspection program.

After talking it over with his wife, Jim accepted the IAEA assignment and jetted off for Baghdad by way of Vienna, Amsterdam, and Bahrain. What he found in-country astonished and impressed him on technical terms and not infrequently moved and delighted him on human terms.

Evidence proves program was extensive

IAEA, Jim notes, has been active in Iraq since 1991 looking for the evidence and extent of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

"It turned out," Jim says, "it was a very large nuclear weapons program, very active and successful." At the time of Desert Storm, he says, Iraq had 39 major concurrent projects in the pipeline. The projects were being carried out at hundreds of sites around the California-sized nation. "They had hundreds, thousands of brilliant people of their own nationality, educated all over the world, working on the program," Jim says. The wartime bombing effort and follow-up efforts by early IAEA inspection teams took down the program’s infrastructure, Jim says, adding ominously that "the people are all still there. They’re still in place, training another generation to follow in their footsteps. Given the will and the capabilities and being left alone, they could restart the program any day they wanted to."

The Iraqi program, he makes clear, wasn’t a quick-and-dirty effort to cob together a nuke or two. It was an integrated, ambitious, strategic effort. In fact, he likens Iraq’s pre-Gulf War program to a full-blown equivalent of the Manhattan Project. In equivalent US dollars, he said, the Iraqis had billions of dollars invested in their quest to join the nuclear club.

"They were doing a number of things in parallel that they needed to do to develop the nuclear weapons design, produce the requisite materials to have nuclear weapons, and to integrate them into a Scud missile," he says.

"What we don’t usually get from the news media is how serious the Iraqis were about a nuclear weapons program and how successful and serious these very brilliant scientists — trained all over the world — were in their efforts to produce nuclear weapons."

The Iraqi scientists, Jim says, were smart enough not to reinvent the wheel. Much of their research was based on information published in the open literature. Even so, it was a homegrown effort. "In my two months and one week in Iraq, I never found any evidence they were employing scientists from other countries," he says.

A typical inspector’s day

Here’s a typical inspector’s day, as described by Jim: After convening early to plan the day’s activities, the IAEA inspectors would load their equipment in their Pathfinders. They’d head out the front of the UN compound to meet up with their Iraqi "minders," the Iraqi weapons experts assigned to accompany the inspectors and keep tabs on how much they were finding.

"Then we’d take off on an unannounced inspection. We had very detailed maps and driving instructions to the sites we were monitoring so that we never had to tip our hands about where we were going. The philosophy there is that you keep stressing, you keep pushing the Iraqi nuclear infrastructure by repeated visits, so that if anything starts up you can see changes. And this stress keeps them off balance, keeps them from really having much of a chance to restart their nuclear program."

One of the key tools inspectors use — in addition to the full suite of radiation-detection gear and other monitoring equipment — is the IAEA database. It offers incredible detail. For example, on a return visit, an inspector can note that a laser device has been moved from one side of a room to another. And can ask why. The level of detail obliges the Iraqis to have a good, benign reason for everything they do.

"We’d check every room, every door, in every building, every desk we could find. Every computer was turned on to see if they were doing design work. Every storeroom was completely inspected from back to front to see if there were things in there that we didn’t know about. You know, ‘What is this piece? Is this a water hose or what? Why wasn’t it here before? And where’s that file cabinet that was over in that corner last year?’ "

The typical inspection, Jim says, could take anywhere from two to four hours or even longer. And the schedule was relentless: During his 67 days as part of the IAEA team, Jim participated in 60 inspections at 47 different major sites.

The IAEA inspection teams follow a two-part strategy: to monitor the known sites and to seek out unknown sites. Information about the latter can come from a variety of sources: in-country and remote monitoring and other kinds of intelligence.

Jim says he’s confident that the IAEA is doing a good job of keeping tabs on Iraq’s nuclear program, but checking out unknown sites could lead to some humorous situations. Jim recounts an incident that happened not long before he joined the team. It seems the IAEA inspectors received word from headquarters, which was getting intelligence from who knows where, to check out a possible nuclear site at location x-y-z. Well, it turns out the site was a convent. Being good troopers, the inspectors checked it out and found nothing out of the ordinary. The Iraqis, though, got a big kick out of the team’s wild goose chase.

George Healy, an employee of IAEA, was chief inspector of the team. Jim says that for a couple of weeks after the convent episode, George was the second most famous person in Iraq. "Every night," Jim says, "the newscasts on their Channel 1 would ask, ‘Where are you going tomorrow, George Healy?’ So, they have some sense of humor over there, though they are a very oppressed people."

An interesting discovery

Jim’s key contribution as an inspector probably came when he discovered a new class of weapons-related apparatus that had been systematically overlooked by inspectors for several years. "This is probably the thing I was happiest about," Jim says of his discovery. "In one facility, we saw this thing that looked like a sea mine. Inspectors had been walking by it for years and the Iraqis had been telling them it was a laser device. I saw it and I said, ‘Bull, that’s no laser, that’s a neutron detector, probably for your neutron generator program.’ Well, they [the Iraqi researchers] almost had a heart attack because they’d been found out.

"This is equipment that should have been picked up and destroyed or pulled out of the country seven years ago. And we found a whole series of this kind of equipment. Once we identified the first device, we started interviewing people and following up from site to site. We drove all over Iraq tracing the neutron generator program and we found a whole new class of equipment that should have been pulled out."

Unbelievably friendly people

What surprised Jim as much as the scope of the erstwhile Iraqi nuclear program was the friendliness of the people. "I really couldn’t be more complimentary about the way we were treated," he says. "I can’t imagine how Sandians would be if we had the Iraqi inspectors looking at every room and every drawer every time you turned around. Taking up hours of your time having to show them what’s on your computer. All the intrusive inspections. They were extremely friendly people. I was blown away by that. I think it’s their nature."

In Iraq, he says, he never sensed any undertone of resentment toward the inspectors among the general population, no anti-American protests, no hostility.

"Iraq has the most incredible potential of any Middle East country," Jim says. Far from being the barren desert of most Americans’ perceptions, the country is lush and fertile. It’s the seat of civilization, location of Babylon and Samarra, with a recorded history of more than 4,000 years.

With the huge Tigris and Euphrates river systems flowing through the heart of the country, Iraq could grow enough food and provide ample water for the entire Middle East. And it has all that oil. "It could be a wealthy, rich country. But now it’s, well, the only way I can describe it is ‘medieval.’ You’re driving along a road. There are herds of sheep along the side of the road. If you want to buy a sheep, you pull up, stop, you pick the sheep you want and the guy slaughters it, skins it and throws it in the back of your car right there on the side of the highway.

"Life’s very tough for the people there. Food was expensive. It wasn’t expensive for us — you’d go out and have a supper for $4 — but that’s a half a month’s wages, a third of a month’s wages, for some of these folks. I don’t know how they lived. You really felt great empathy for the people.

Unlike people here in the US, they really have no choice about their plight and, with Saddam so entrenched, very little they can do to correct their plight. It was horrible the way some of them had to

"We tried to approach our work and all our interactions with the people with an attitude of respect. We would apologize if we had to ask them to go get keys to open a door. We would say, ‘We’re sorry but we have to check this, it’s our job.’ We didn’t come in and just bust things down. They were responsive to that. They’re just people. They’re very much 4,000-years-of-oppression people. They have infinitely more patience than we’d ever have in the US. They’re just trying to survive. Have a family. Find something to eat that night."