Excerpt from 'State of War'
from Chapter 4: The Hunt for WMD
Doctor Sawsan Alhaddad was very busy when she received the strange phone call. She was so busy, and the call was so strange, that she wasn't quite certain whether to follow up. It was May 2002, and the caller said he was from the CIA and that he wanted to meet with her. He didn't sound crazy, but she wasn't sure.
A quiet, petite, olive-skinned woman in her fifties, Sawsan wondered why a CIA officer who said he was calling from Pittsburgh would want to talk to an anesthesiologist in Cleveland.
Curiosity finally got the better of her. Fear got to her, too; old fears of police and security men that had receded gradually over the last two decades, as she and her husband had built a wonderful new American life, with a beautiful daughter, in a plush and sprawling home, in one of Cleveland's most luxurious outer suburbs. Sawsan thought she had left her fears behind when she and her husband escaped from Iraq in 1979, lying to their bosses at the hospital in Baghdad about their plans for a brief vacation in London. It was before anybody in America had given much thought to Saddam Hussein, back before the United States thought much about granting Iraqi exiles political asylum from a mad dictator. Eventually, they managed to rebuild their lives and become American citizens.
Sawsan decided to check out the mysterious caller before agreeing to meet him. She found someone at the FBI's Cleveland field office who would listen to her story. Was there such a person in Pittsburgh working for the CIA? Sawsan was surprised when the FBI agent called her back. He had checked with FBI headquarters in Washington, and it turned out that the man in Pittsburgh was real, and the call was genuine. The CIA really did want to talk to Dr. Sawsan Alhaddad of the Cleveland Clinic. So she finally agreed to meet with "Chris" from Pittsburgh.
As Chris was trying to contact Sawsan Alhaddad, it was becoming clear that President Bush was determined to invade Iraq. In his 2002 State of the Union Address the previous January, Bush had warned of an "axis of evil," of which Iraq was one of only three members. Bush and his aides charged that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States because he possessed weapons of mass destruction and because his regime harbored terrorists. Saddam might use his weapons against America, or give them to terrorists to do the job instead. In either case, an attack with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons would make September 11 look like child's play. It was a risk, George W. Bush said, that a post-9/11 United States was not willing to take.
Throughout that spring, the Bush administration had been steadily ratcheting up the rhetoric about the threat posed by terrorists, weapons of mass destruction -- and Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney went on television to say he was "almost certain" of more terrorist attacks on the United States, while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that it was only a matter of time before terrorists would get weapons of mass destruction from rogue states like Iraq. In late May, Bush spoke in Berlin, where he warned that once terrorists obtained chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons from countries like Iraq, "no inner voice of reason, no hint of conscience would prevent their use." With the war in Afghanistan winding down, George Bush's Washington was inexorably turning its attention toward Baghdad.
Sawsan told Chris that it was not possible for her to meet with him right away. Her mother had come to Cleveland from Iraq for advanced treatment for colon cancer, and Sawsan had to care for her. Maybe they could talk later, she told the CIA man. In June, Sawsan's mother died, and the Iraqi woman was buried in the American heartland. Soon, Sawsan was ready for the CIA.
The White House drumbeat on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction kept building that summer. It was filling the front pages and the airwaves by the time Chris finally sat down with Sawsan at a Cleveland Starbucks in early August. The president and his lieutenants insisted that no decision about whether to invade Iraq had been made, but in a major foreign policy speech at West Point in June, Bush had forcefully made the case for taking preemptive action against dictatorships such as Iraq that harbored weapons of mass destruction. "Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies," Bush told the graduating class at West Point. "We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign nonproliferation treaties and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long." By July, the Pentagon's plans for an invasion of Iraq had leaked to the press, and it was becoming more difficult by the day for Bush to hide his intentions. Inside the government, meanwhile, more secret documents were written to bolster the case against Iraq. On August 1, the CIA issued a classified paper that was distributed to senior Bush administration officials. It concluded that a shipment of high-strength aluminum tubes from China to Iraq was a sign that Iraq was reviving its uranium enrichment program in order to build an atomic bomb.
Chris stunned Sawsan when he explained why he had come to talk to her. He told her that she could help in President Bush's new war on terror. She could help by going to Baghdad on a secret mission for the CIA. Chris explained that the CIA wanted Sawsan, a middle-aged mother from Cleveland, to travel to Iraq and become a spy.
The CIA had identified Saad Tawfiq, Sawsan's brother, a British-trained electrical engineer living in Bagdhad with his wife and three children, as a key figure in Saddam Hussein's clandestine nuclear weapons program. The CIA knew who he was, Chris told Sawsan, but it didn't have any way to try to talk to him. So the CIA wanted Sawsan to go to Baghdad to talk to her brother and see if he would be willing to defect, through the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq. The CIA couldn't help him cross into the Kurdish zone, but if he got there on his own, the CIA could get him out to the West. If he wasn't ready to defect, the CIA wanted Sawsan to ask him a series of questions about Saddam Hussein's efforts to build nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The CIA was convinced that Saad Tawfiq knew the most sensitive secrets about Iraq's weapons programs and that he might be willing to tell his sister the truth about Saddam Hussein's ambitions.
Sawsan found it hard to believe that the CIA didn't have some other way to get information out of Baghdad. But after thinking hard about it, she decided she was willing to do her part. She had not seen her brother since 1989, on a brief and nervous visit to pre-Gulf War Iraq, but she thought he might want to help. She told Chris she was willing to try.
Sawsan was volunteering for a late, desperate Hail Mary pass by the CIA. As President Bush and other administration officials were turning up the rhetorical heat on Iraq, key leaders within the CIA faced an uncomfortable fact: the United States did not have the proof to back up what the president was saying publicly about Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction. Worse, the CIA had been operating virtually in the blind about Iraq for years. Its evidence was either old and obsolete, or from secondhand, third-hand, or fourth-hand sources, defectors and exiles who had their own political agendas. Almost every analyst at the CIA assumed that Iraq had WMD -- but they didn't have hard evidence to back it up. What was worse, many of them knew it.
In 1998 the United Nations had withdrawn its weapons inspectors from Iraq after a showdown with Saddam Hussein over access to key sites in the country. President Bill Clinton launched a four-day bombing campaign to punish Iraq for its refusal to cooperate with the U.N. inspectors, but the bombs had no real effect. The withdrawal of the inspectors severely hampered the CIA's ability to keep track of Iraqi weapons efforts in the years before the 2003 war. Throughout the 1990s, the CIA had relied almost entirely on the U.N. inspectors for intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs. After their withdrawal, the CIA failed to develop reliable sources of its own inside Iraq to report on Baghdad's weapons programs.
In the year before the 2003 war, the CIA had only one case officer spying from inside Baghdad. He was posing undercover as a diplomat working in the embassy of another country. But that case officer did not develop or recruit any sources who knew the status of Iraq's weapons programs. The agency had also developed sources within the Iraqi military, largely through the Iraqi National Accord, an exile group led by Ayad Allawi (a CIA asset who later became the interim prime minister of Iraq), but none of those military officers had any firsthand knowledge about Iraqi WMD. By mid-2002, most of the agency's information was at least four years out of date.
Charlie Allen, the CIA's assistant director for collection and a legendary figure within the agency, was the highest-ranking CIA official willing to try to do something about the problem. Allen had carved a unique niche for himself within the U.S. intelligence community. He looked for collection "gaps," intelligence targets that were not being adequately covered by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. He realized that Iraqi WMD represented an enormous intelligence gap.
While other top CIA officials, including CIA Director George Tenet and Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt, dithered and failed to mount any serious operations to get more spies into Iraq to find out what was going on, Allen, an old hand who had little time for Tenet and the circle of yes-men and yes-women on Tenet's senior staff, began a renegade effort to search for new sources of information.
He pushed for several new collection programs, including one that called for approaching members of the families of Iraqi scientists who were believed to be involved in secret weapons programs. At the time, the CIA had no direct access to key Iraqi scientists, and so using family members as intermediaries to find out what the scientists were doing seemed like the next best thing. Most of the key scientists who had been involved in the weapons programs in the past had been interviewed repeatedly by U.N. inspectors during the 1990s. During those earlier interviews, they had all insisted that the weapons programs had been abandoned. But the United States was convinced that the scientists had been lying, since they were always closely watched by Iraqi security during the interviews. At least, thanks to the U.N. inspections, the CIA had a fairly comprehensive list of Iraq's senior weapons scientists. Charlie Allen realized that list gave him something to go on.
Allen's collection team began contacting family members living outside of Iraq, asking them whether they would be willing to help the agency by going back to Iraq to talk to their relatives about their scientific work. At least thirty relatives of Iraqi scientists agreed to cooperate, including Sawsan Alhaddad. The CIA was eager to get her on board. Saad Tawfiq had long since been identified as one of the senior figures in the Iraqi nuclear program. He was a Shia Muslim, never completely trusted by the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein, yet Saad was one of the true technical experts that Iraq couldn't do without. The CIA had initially contacted his younger brother, who was living in Houston. After he rebuffed them, Charlie Allen's team approached Sawsan in Cleveland.
Throughout August 2002, Chris became a regular in Cleveland, meeting Sawsan at restaurants and at her home in suburban Moreland Hills, finally bringing a CIA technician along to train Sawsan in the rudiments of espionage. The agency had put together a long list of questions she was to ask her brother, but Sawsan couldn't just walk into Bagdhad carrying a memo from the CIA. So the technician tried to teach her the art of secret writing, showing her how to read and write using invisible ink on fast-burning paper. Sawsan was a practical woman, and she realized that the CIA's techniques were too cumbersome and dangerous if done incorrectly in the heart of Iraq. She finally told Chris she would skip the secret communications and would memorize the questions instead. Privately, she decided to use her favorite crossword puzzles to guide her. She wrote mnemonic aids into crossword puzzles that she could take with her on the plane to Iraq, key words to remind her of the questions she was supposed to ask.
Before sending Sawsan, the CIA wanted to make certain that her brother would be willing to talk with her once she got there. Sawsan offered the perfect intermediary to get word to him. Her mother-in-law was visiting Cleveland from Baghdad and was due to return home in early September. She could tell Saad that the CIA wanted to talk to him through Sawsan, and could ask him if he would do it.
Frightened but willing, the mother-in-law agreed, returned home to Baghdad, and found a moment to talk to Saad on the street outside his home, away from the listening devices that were almost certainly planted inside.
They want to talk to you, and they will send Sawsan, the old woman told Saad Tawfiq. Sawsan will call you tonight, and ask how you are feeling. If you are willing, tell her that you are okay.
Sawsan called her brother, asked him how he was feeling, and he said that he was okay. She repeated the question three times to make certain that she heard him right.
Sawsan left for Baghdad a few days later, explaining to Iraqi authorities that her mother had just died and that she needed to settle her estate. Since she was now carrying an American passport with her married name (which was different from the family name on her old Iraqi passport) it didn't register with the Iraqis that this was the same woman who had escaped so many years before.
It was early September. The Bush administration was now raising the stakes on Iraq, warning that Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program posed an immediate threat to the United States and the White House was strongly suggesting that war could not be delayed. On September 8, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice coined a memorably ominous phrase on a Sunday talk show when she said, "while there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly" Saddam Hussein can acquire nuclear weapons, "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." Just as Rice was making the public case against Iraq, the Defense Intelligence Agency issued a classified report entitled "Iraq's Reemerging Nuclear Weapons Program," which concluded that Baghdad was on its way to building the bomb. Vice President Cheney, sounding impatient with any further debate, went on a Sunday talk show to add that "this problem [Iraq] has to be dealt with one way or another."
To ratchet up the pressure, the Bush administration leaked information to the American press. The New York Times published a story on September 8 -- the same day Rice issued her mushroom cloud warning -- making public the evidence that Iraq had acquired aluminum tubes to rebuild its nuclear weapons program. The story stated that, "More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.