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The Nuclear Expert Who Never Was
Posted on Jun 26, 2008
By Scott Ritter
Editor’s note: Frank von Hippel has written a response to this column in the comments below. Click here to read his rebuttal.
I am a former U.N. weapons inspector. I started my work with the United Nations in September 1991, and between that date and my resignation in August 1998, I participated in over 30 inspections, 14 as chief inspector. The United Nations Special Commission, or UNSCOM, was the organization mandated by the Security Council with the implementation of its resolutions requiring Iraq to be disarmed of its weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities. While UNSCOM oversaw the areas of chemical and biological weapons, and ballistic missiles, it shared the nuclear file with the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA. As such, UNSCOM, through a small cell of nuclear experts on loan from the various national weapons laboratories, would coordinate with the nuclear safeguards inspectors from the IAEA, organized into an “Action Team” dedicated to the Iraq nuclear disarmament problem. UNSCOM maintained political control of the process, insofar as its executive chairman was the only one authorized to approve a given inspection mission. At first, the IAEA and UNSCOM shared the technical oversight of the inspection process, but soon this was transferred completely to the IAEA’s Action Team, and UNSCOM’s nuclear staff assumed more of an advisory and liaison function.
In August 1992 I began cooperating closely with IAEA’s Action Team, traveling to Vienna, where the IAEA maintained its headquarters. The IAEA had in its possession a huge cache of documents seized from Iraq during a series of inspections in the summer of 1991 and, together with other U.N. inspectors, I was able to gain access to these documents for the purpose of extracting any information which might relate to UNSCOM’s non-nuclear mission. These documents proved to be very valuable in that regard, and a strong working relationship was developed. Over the coming years I frequently traveled to Vienna, where I came to know the members of the IAEA Action Team as friends and dedicated professionals. Whether poring over documents, examining bits and pieces of equipment (the IAEA kept a sample of an Iraqi nuclear centrifuge in its office) or ruminating about the difficult political situation that was Iraq over wine and cheese on a Friday afternoon, I became familiar with the core team of experts who composed the IAEA Action Team.
I bring up this history because during the entire time of my intense, somewhat intimate cooperation with the IAEA Action Team, one name that never entered into the mix was David Albright. Albright is the president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS, an institute which he himself founded), and has for some time now dominated the news as the “go-to” guy for the U.S. mainstream media when they need “expert opinion” on news pertaining to nuclear issues. Most recently, Albright could be seen commenting on a report he authored, released by ISIS on June 16, in which he discusses the alleged existence of a computer owned by Swiss-based businessmen who were involved in the A.Q. Khan nuclear black market ring. According to Albright, this computer contained sensitive design drawings of a small, sophisticated nuclear warhead which, he speculates, could fit on a missile delivery system such as that possessed by Iran.
I have no objection to an academically based think tank capable of producing sound analysis about the myriad nuclear-based threats the world faces today. But David Albright has a track record of making half-baked analyses derived from questionable sources seem mainstream. He breathes false legitimacy into these factually challenged stories by cloaking himself in a résumé which is disingenuous in the extreme. Eventually, one must begin to question the motives of Albright and ISIS. No self-respecting think tank would allow itself to be used in such an egregious manner. The fact that ISIS is a creation of Albright himself, and as such operates as a mirror image of its founder and president, only underscores the concerns raised when an individual lacking in any demonstrable foundation of expertise has installed himself into the mainstream media in a manner that corrupts the public discourse and debate by propagating factually incorrect, illogical and misleading information.
In his résumé Albright prominently advertises himself as a “former U.N. weapons inspector.” Indeed, this is the first thing that is mentioned when he describes himself to the public. Witness an Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post which he jointly authored with Jacqueline Shire in January 2008, wherein he is described as such: “David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, is president of the Institute for Science and International Security.” His erstwhile U.N. credentials appear before his actual job title. Now, this is not uncommon. I do the same thing when describing myself, noting that I was a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. I feel comfortable doing this, because it’s true and because my résumé is relevant to my writing. In his official ISIS biography, Albright details his “U.N. inspector” experience as such: “Albright cooperated actively with the IAEA Action Team from 1992 until 1997, focusing on analyses of Iraqi documents and past procurement activities. In June 1996, he was the first non-governmental inspector of the Iraqi nuclear program. On this inspection mission, Albright questioned members of Iraq’s former uranium enrichment programs about their statements in Iraq’s draft Full, Final, and Complete Declaration.”
Now, as I have explained previously, I cooperated actively between 1992 and 1998 with the IAEA Action team, covering the same ground that David Albright claims to have. I do not doubt his assertion that he was in contact with the IAEA during the period claimed; I just doubt the use of the word actively to describe this cooperation. Maybe Albright was part of a top-secret “shadow” inspection activity that I was unaware of. I strongly doubt this. In 1992, when Albright states he began his “active cooperation” with the IAEA, he was serving as a “Senior Staff Scientist” with the Federation of American Scientists. That same year Albright, in collaboration with Frans Berkhout of Sussex University and William Walker of the University of St. Andrews, published “World Inventory of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium,” 1992 (SIPRI and Oxford University Press). From March 1991 until July 1992, Albright, together with Mark Hibbs, wrote a series of seven articles on the Iraqi nuclear weapons programs for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The final three articles of this series, entitled “Iraq’s Bomb: Blueprints and Artifacts,” “Iraq: It’s all over at Al Atheer” and “Iraq’s shop-till-you-drop nuclear program,” were in part based upon information provided to Albright and Hibbs by the IAEA in response to questions posed by the two authors. So far as I can tell, this is the true nature of David Albright’s “active cooperation.” Far from being a subject-matter expert brought in by the IAEA to review Iraqi documents, Albright was simply an outsider with questions.
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