Incomplete or inaccurate information can lead to tragically incorrect decisions to preempt

The example of OSIRAK

Richard Wilson
Department of Physics
Harvard University
presented at the seminar on Plentary Emergencies
Erice, Sicily

May 18th 2007 updated in February 9th 2008

        In the aftermath of the US entry into Iraq in 2003, there has been a lot of soul searching. One of the reasons for the entry was preemption. To forestall activities by Iraq that threatened US security. It is widely believed that this backfired. Whereas it was claimed by some, and thought by many, that Al Qaeda had a base in Iraq, it seems clear now that far from forestalling attacks based from Iraq, the US activities created a terrorist  presence, called colloquially Al-Qaeda although as shown by Scott Atran shows none of the organization that enabled the World Trade Center attack.  There there was no major terrorist organization in Iraq before. This was a case where a hint of a problem led to preemption which created the very problem it was desired to avoid. My conclusion is that preemption, if ever practiced, demands much more thought and discussion than any ordinary military action not less.   Alas, in scientific and technical matters there is often less competence and thought in the highest levels of government than on more ordinary situations. The consequence can be tragic, and since they are now involving control of nuclear weapons potentially catastrophic for mankind. It has been said(1) that whoever does not learn from history is condemned to repeat it. I modify this thought by telling my graduate students that "Experience is learning from mistakes but bitter experience is learning from your own mistakes(2)". We must endeavor to learn from mistakes of others.

        This brief paper will describe the situation created by the bombing of the OSIRAK reactor in Tuwaitha, Iraq, by Israeli warplanes in June 1981, The Iraqi nuclear physics program can be said to have begun with the provision of a small research reactor (originally 2 MW upgraded to 4 MW) by the USSR in the 1960s. When oil money flowed after the oil price rise in the early 1970s, Iraqi ambitions increased and, with encouragement of much of the world, Iraq proposed to buy a larger, 50 MW research reactor. At that time it was realized that the 50 MW heavy water research reactors sold by Canada to India and by France to Israel were being used to produce plutonium for weapons. Although unlike these two countries Iraq had signed the Non Proliferation Treaty and had agreed to inspections of its declared facilities, there was considerable doubt about the intention of Saddam Hussein. Now that many Iraqis in the nuclear program have told us their stories, it is well to reexamine the program and see the extent to which NPT was adequate.

         A book by an investigative journalist, Rodger Claire,(3) tells the story of the Israeli bombing from an Israeli point of view. While a fascinating account of steps Israel had taken even before the bombing to stop Iraq's research programme, it should not be taken as evidence that the OSIRAK reactor was a part of a bomb making program.    Claire clearly had no technical background. Nor should one consider seriously the claims in an earlier book by Hamsa (4) .   Hamsa gave an account that emphasizes Saddam's obvious desire in 1971 to build a nuclear infrastructure for ultimate bomb making. For this book he was suitable rewarded in 2005 by Ahmad Chalabi and the US government by a position in the interim Iraqi government. But Hamsa clearly did not understand reactors. On page 82 he talked about buying a copy of the OSIRIS reactor and on page 120 he talked about the OSIRAK reactor not realizing that they were very different. This is strange for a man who claims to have been in charge of plutonium production. Another book by Khaddouri(5) , who was a part of the nuclear bomb program after 1981,  also suggests that there was more myth than reality to Hamsa's ideas. A  more authoritative book on the subject by Dr. Jafar Dhia Jafar, originally a high energy and nuclear physicist, entitled "The Assignment" was published by Spartacus in January 2005(6). Unfortunately for most of us it is in Norwegian! The Arabic version of the book, which contains much more detail, has been published in 2006 by the Centre for Arab Unity Studies (CAUS) in Beirut. No doubt conspiracy theorists will write many Ph D theses and volumes on why the English language version is so much delayed although Jafar informs me it is likely to come out in Spring 2007.

        In 1979, Jafar's friend and colleague, the nuclear chemist Husain Shahristani, was arrested on the charge of being a member of the outlawed al-Da'awa party and had brought from Paris secret instructions for them. Dr. Jafar Dhia Jafar (not to be confused with a cousin of the same name who I believe is a surgeon in New York City) objected to the incarceration of his colleague and was promptly put under house arrest. In July  1991 (Originally I thought September 1981 but Jafar corrected me), after OSIRAK was bombed, he was summoned by Saddam Huseein and agreed to work on the bomb and released. Jafaar became the scientific leader of the Iraqi nuclear program. Also, In the 1970s Jafaar had negotiated the technical aspects of the OSIRAK project with the French and initialed the formal contract. After the first Gulf war in 1991, Dr. Jafar was the chief technical liaison between the Iraqi regime and the IAEA, which, as we all now know, succeeded in shutting down Iraq's nuclear program well before 1998

        In 1980 I shared the worries of the Israelis described by Claire and mentioned them, in person, to Dr Yuuval Neeman of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission(7). But as I studied the matter I realized that I was wrong(8). The nuclear research reactor OSIRAK was NOT like the DIMONA reactor, which was a heavy water cooled reactor and a near copy of the French OSIRIS reactor but was a light water cooled reactor explicitly designed to be unsuited for making plutonium(9). Of course some plutonium could be made, but the amount would be considerably less and would need modifications to install the uranium blanket. This view was held by many authorities.(10) (11) (12)  Jafar had written a report on the subject which confirms this view(13). I was convinced when I visited the bombed reactor in 1982 (14). This point should not be a matter of dispute for any nuclear physicist or engineer who can easily do the calculations for him(her)self. Indeed, I know of no calculation, accurate or otherwise, that claims differently. Moreover, the IAEA was planning to place full time inspectors in Iraq once the reactor was operational, which would have made any plutonium production impossible. I note that on my return from Iraq I visited the State Deaprtment , at my own expense, and described to them what I saw, what I knew and what I suspected. I heard no contrary view.

        There is general agreement, for example in the book by Obeidi(15) also reviewed in the same review in Nuclear News, that the atomic bomb program really got moving in the late 1980s. Indeed it seems that Iraq was not in explicit violation of NPT (by separation of uranium isotopes) till about 1988. The OSIRAK reactor was destroyed by an unprovoked air raid in June 1981. It was not until early in July 1981 that Saddam Hussein personally released Jafar from house arrest and asked him to start and head the clandestine nuclear bomb program. This fact supports the suspicion of many of us(16) that the destruction of OSIRAK did not stop an Iraqi nuclear bomb program but actually started it. Worse still, the Israelis were so pleased with themselves that it appears that neither they nor the CIA looked for and understood the real direction of the Iraqi nuclear bomb program. Therefore Claire's book is best read as a description of how easy it is for non-technical people to misuse technical information and come to erroneous conclusions with the unfortunate result that honorable Iraqis could easily be persuaded to work on an atomic bomb that would be under the control of a tyrant.   The main bomb program, separating uranium isotopes with Calutrons (EMIS), was unknown in the west and a surprise. The Iraqis did what I speculated about in 1983 (reference (14), page 376 bottom of middle column) "I would build a separate secret facility in another place".

        I remained suspicious after my visit in 1982-3. . The Iraqis had not taken my advice which was simple. "You have given up some of your sovereignty by signing the non-proliferation treaty. But you fail to take advantage of this. Much of the world thinks you are making nuclear weapons. You should not merely wait to be inspected, you should ask to be inspected by the best nuclear scientists the west has." In 1988 there was an opportunity. I was invited to a nuclear physics conference in Baghdad with all expenses paid. If I had gione, I would have asked to visit Tuwaitha, of course, and any other site of which the CIA were suspicious. I would have sent my shoes to a laboratory so that they could have tested for uranium isotope ratios in the dust. But the time was thanksgiving weekend, and I was unwilling to be away from my family. This secret facility was discovered by an IAEA team led by David Kaye in June 1991 (somewhat sooner than described by Hamsa) and it was destroyed. By 1988 there was also a smaller centrifuge program under the direction of Obeidi , which was also destroyed in June 1991 by order of Saddam. This was declared to the UN, together with the EMIS program, in July 1991 as part of the third Iraqi declaration. In this third declaration the centrifuge program was said to have been carried out in one of the already destroyed Tuwaitha buildings in order to save the original building in Rashdiyah, where the centrifuge tests were actually made, from destruction by the IAEA.

        Following Hussein Kamel's defection to Jordan in August 1995, orders were given by Saddam Hussein to disclose all hitherto undisclosed information about the entire WMD program. Then the building, where the centrifuge work was done, was properly declared. When Kamel was interviewed in Jordan (by Dr Ekeus and Dr Ziffero)(17) he was asked: "why the Rashdiyah building was not declared?" He replied "there was absolutely nothing that remained there". The building originally "belonged to the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation."   That Iraq was interested in centrifuges was no surprise to us in the west. It was clear already in 1988 that Iraq had bought engineering drawings and parts to assemble a small centrifuge with help from German experts. I remember discussing and puzzling about the reasons for this purchase with Richard Kennedy, US ambassador to the IAEA , soon afterwards (1988). Iraq's commercial attache in Bonn (whose name has not yet been publicly disclosed) bought these centrifuge drawings for Obeidi (a chemical engineer) for the sum of 1 million US dollars. In Obeidi's book he claimed that Kamel acquiesced in his hiding the drawings. In contrast Jafar writes that Obeidi claimed to have turned then over to the Special Republican Guards in May 1991, as ordered by Kamel, and insists that they should have been handed over to IAEA in 1995. They were one of the few unresolved points between Iraq and the IAEA from 1997 until 2003. But the documents, cleverly buried in his garden, eventually became Obeidi's visa to the US. But the issue was obviously procedural with no substance. Jafar or Obeidi could have xeroxed the drawings, kept the copy and formally returned the originals. Moreover IAEA knew what the drawings were so that "returning" the drawings would not have increased their information. Also drawings were not enough, by themselves, to make a bomb. More general considerations should also have told us that Iraq could not have had nuclear weapons in 2002. After 1991 we knew who were the foreign suppliers and they were being watched. We knew who the leaders of the program were and what they were doing.  I was told at the time that Jafar and his team were helping to rebuild Iraq's electricity grid after the massive bombing of January 1991.   In this they seem to have been more successful than Halliburton in 2003.   Only theft of a whole device from some weapons possessing country would have been possible.   Procedural issues, not substantive ones, were what was left in 2003. It was these procedural issues that allowed Dr El-Baradei, Director General of IAEA, to waffle over whether Iraq had a nuclear program or not. The IAEA is not an "independent" organization of experts in the usual sense. It is a creation of governments and responsible to them. Each Director General is naturally looking to satisfy those who consider his reappointment. In the past, the USA has made clear that its' support depends on not being out of line. The IAEA was partly responsible for there being any doubt in this matter of Iraq's nuclear program. There is no question that Saddam would have liked to have a nuclear bomb with which to balance Israel's arsenal and perhaps to threaten his neighbors. Khaddouri mentioned "balancing" Israel".(18)(19) and, as noted above, Saddam Hussein probably started an active, secret, bomb program, which according to Jafar, was three years short of success in 1991. If Saddam had not invaded Kuwait in 1990 we might well have by now a second nuclear power in the Middle East.

        Another indication that the Iraqi program had been completely dismantled in 1995 has recently surfaced.    According to Agence France Fresse on February 5th 2008,   Sawsan Tawfik, a physician in Ohio who is the sister of an Iraq electrical engineer Dr Saad Tawfik,  went to Iraq at CIA request in September 2002 to find out from her brother about the bomb program.  Saad confirmed that the program was all gone, and all had been disclosed by 1995.    Interestingly,  Saad while stressing this in a seminar at Harvard University in May 2004,  where he was my guest, did not mention the CIA connection.   According to Agence France Presse, Saad "was astonished by the CIA's questions, which he thought showed the depths of the agency's ignorance about (his) country."    But this intelligence was not enough to alter the official position tin the USA that Iraq had a nuclear bomb program in 2002.   I was spending February and March 2003 in Los Alamos, surely a nest of hawks.   I knew of no one there who thought that Iraq had a nuclear program, although many, like myself, were uncertain about a biological weapons program.   This contrasts with the view stated by Professor Michael Ignatieff,  at that time Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University,  who stated on National Public Television in February 2002 his belief that Iraq was close to getting a nuclear weapon.   I immediately wrote and suggested that he reconsider.   Whether because of my letter, or not, he never repeated this mistake.

        Did the Israeli leaders know the technical details about OSIRAK? Monachem Begin's radio broadcast immediately after the air raid on OSIRAK suggests that he did not(20). But maybe he only realized belatedly and the plans for OSIRAK's destruction were too far advanced to stop. On the other hand, the NPT procedures we clearly inadequate in the 1980s. I saw more in one week in 1981/2 than the IAEA inspectors because I am curious. The inspectors were only allowed to inspect what was declared. I discussed this point firstly with Dr Ecklund at the IAEA and then with his successor Dr Hans Blix. I was arguing for what has now been accepted - inspection of suspicious but undeclared facilities. Dr Blix explained to me that the IAEA was reluctant to start intrusive inspections for fear of losing some of the signatories to NPT. Smaller countries were jealous of their alleged privacy in these matters even when they had no desire to make a bomb or even understand what it was. At that time it was said of IAEA and of course Dr Hans Blix in particular, that he could not find a grain of sand in the Sahara. This very impolite statement emphasizes my point. Unless the Sahara had been declared as a place where IAEA might find sand, the IAEA would not look! Now inspections are much more intrusive.     

      In the build up to the US  entry into Iraq in 2003, many newspapers and others incorrectly reported the Iraqi program. For example, the otherwise respected journalist Nicholas Kristof(21) wrote in the NY Times; " if Israel had not bombed the OSIRAK reactor in 1981, Iraq would have gained nuclear weapons in the 1980s." He offered no evidence for this statement and there is much evidence against it. It was, and is, nonsense. The reverse was the case. Alas, the New York Times would not print my letter of correction. That the newspapers might have had doubts in 1990 was perhaps understandable, but a competent and thorough investigative journalist in 2002 should have realized the truth very soon. Another journalist,  Anthony Lappé,  Executive Editor of posted on his website on December 19, 2002 a discussion of the issues including an interview with Khaddouri.  Alas, it seems that Nicholas Kristof  did not talk to any one of the scientists who knew. Maybe he has changed his mind since then.

     4 years later in 2006,  there is even less excuse for making such an error.   Yet Professor Alan Dershowitz,  at the law school of Harvard University wrote in a book on Preemption (22) that the Israeli bombing of the OSIRAK reactor was a successful example of preemption, when all the evidence that I have adduced above suggests that the opposite is the case.  This he repeated in a lecture at Harvard University reported in Harvard University Gazette.   I sent him an earlier version of this article,  following which he stated  in an e mail to me in October 2007: ".....Iraq would have had deliverable nukes by '85 or '86 and the US could not have gotten them out of Kuwait and if we tried the scuds over Tel Aviv might have contained nuclear warheads. No one can be sure of course, as explained in Preemption." It should be clear from my discussion above that it would have been almost impossible for Iraq to have had a nuclear weapon by 1985 or 1986, whether or not the OSIRAK reactor had been bombed. A close examination of the chapter in Dershowitz' book gives references to several important people who, according to Dershowitz, shared his opinion. I do not give their names here, because I have not verified whether the quotation was accurate, but none of the persons named was knowledgeable about the technology of nuclear matters, and these are clearly secondary sources. This is a clear example that even in a great university like Harvard there are still people who want to, and do, influence public policy who not only know little about technical matters, but do not wish to consult those who do understand tehnical matters.

    The behaviour of Dr Hussein Sharistani was already clear and added additional support to my claim. Hussein could have been released from his solitary confinement if he had been willing to work on an atomic bomb. He refused. Is it credible that a man of that integrity would have returned from Canada in the 1970s if the atomic bomb program was then being pursued?  Interestingly, although the two friends, Husain Sharistani and Jafar Dhia Jafar made very different decisions in 1981,  there seems to be no reproach.   At my suggestion, both were invited to a meeting in Sicily in August 2005.   They had not met for over 25 years.   But they seemed to be still friends.

        Worse still peripheral information, that contained no substance and was in fact spurious, was widely reported and may have influenced the US decision to go to war in 2003. Iraq has a considerable mount of uranium in mines near the Syrian border. Some hundred tons or so had been converted into the black uranium oxide(23). It was duly declared to IAEA. Why would Iraq need more for a bomb program? They obviously did not. But when fake letters surfaced about Iraq buying raw uranium oxide (yellowcake) from Niger, this was added to the excuse for war even though it was quickly shown to be spurious(24). That the US administration was sufficiently angry with a US diplomat, Joseph Wilson(25), who wrote about the fake in the New York Times, to blow the cover of his wife Valerie Flame who was a CIA agent make it even more ludicrous. Interestingly, just as the gangster Al Capone was finally brought to justice by US income tax evasion in the 1930s, the administrative and journalistic inaccuracies were finally brought out by the trial of Mr Libby in 2007 as discussed in an article in NY Times magazine by Mr Frankel, a former Executive Editor(26) . However neither Mr Frankel nor most of the public seem to be aware of the technical irrelevance of the issue.  As of March 20th 2007 Robert Joseph, Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security in the US State Department resigned because he felt that the US was not cautious enough (presumably not preempting enough). While admitting intelligence errors he is reported to have said: "If we press too hard we are accused of politicizing the intelligence; if we don't press hard we are not doing our job"(27).   Yes. But his job should have included talking with at least one of the many scientists who knew what the situation was. If he had done so in 2002 - 2003 his boss, General Colin Powell, would have been saved the embarrassment of presenting nonsense to the UN in February 2003. These statements are an excellent reason why intelligence gathering and initial analysis should be in an independent civilian agency. This was the case in the USA just after WWII when the CIA was started. Now all intelligence analysis has been taken over by the Defense Department.

        Since August 1945 the world has known how to destroy itself. During the cold war we were very close to doing so. Cool heads and clear understanding of technical details stopped us. The meetings on Prevention of Nuclear War in Erice in the 1980s were very important in this. I remember also a comment by General Yasov, Defense Minister of the Soviet Union in his office in May 1991: "Chernobyl taught those of us who did not already know that a nuclear war could not be won. For if that device designed not to explode made so much mess a nuclear war would destroy the planet"(28)    As we contemplate the disarray of the 2005 NPT conference, and the implications of this and other matters, for example in Erice in the summer 2006 conference on planetary emergencies(29)   we must urge similar cool heads and clear understanding. Some leaders have urged action on the basis of technically incorrect or incomplete and misleading information. It is less important whether the hasty action is based on incompetence or deliberate attempt to mislead and to urge a military action. Long term necessities must not be sacrificed for short term goals. The consequences on non nuclear matters can be bad. The consequences when nuclear weapons are concerned could, as General Yasov so forcefully said, literally destroy mankind. It behooves politicians to be especially careful and to consult with the best scientific and technical minds that they can.


1. I believe by Voltaire

2. A simple statement made to me 60 years ago by the late Dr David Clayson

3. Rodger W. Claire "Raid on the Sun: Inside Israel's Secret Campaign that Denied Iraq the Bomb" Broadway Books, (2004) pp288

4. Khidirir Hamza with Jeff Stein "Saddam's Bomb Maker" Scribner, (2000)

5. Imad Khadduri, "Iraq's nuclear mirage : memoirs and delusions" Toronto : Springhead, (2003).

6. Jafar Dhia Jafar with Numan Saadaldin al-Naimy and Lars Sigurd Sunnana, "The Assignment" (2005) Spartacus, Oslo, Norway
Dr Jafar Dhia Jafar and Dr Numan Al-Niami "The Last Confession: The Truth about the Iraqi Nuclear Program”
in Arabic, Published by the Centre for Arab Unity Studies, Beirut, Lebanon, April, 2005

7. I deliberately sat next to Neeman at a small dinner party at Harvard's faculty club. At that time I thought OSIRAK was similar to DIMONA. The information that I told Neeman was incorrect

8. Richard Wilson "Thoughts on a Muslim Bomb," Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 18, 1981.

9. Yves Girard, "Un neutron entre les Dents" (1997) Editions Rives Droite, Paris, France. Girard explained this point in more detail to Paul Lochak and myself at a private dinner on 1995

10. Report to UN Security Council by Dr Ecklund, Director-General of IAEA. 19th June 1981

11. Paper by Dr Gruemm, IAEA Bulletin, December 1981

12. Testimony in US Congress by Dr Herbert Koutz and Dr Eugene Weinstock, nuclear proliferation experts from Brookhaven National Laboratory July 1981

13. Jafar D Jafar and Imad Khaddouri "The possible production of Pu239 from the IRT 2000 (OSIRAK) reactor" Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission report October 1978 made public in 1983

14. Richard Wilson "A visit to the bombed nuclear reactor at Tuwaitha, Iraq," Nature, 302, March 31, 1983

15. Mahdi Obeidi (with Kurt Pitzer) "The Bomb in my Garden: Secrets of Saddam's Nuclear Mastermind" John Wiley, (2004)

16. E.g. Richard Wilson "Iraq's Uranium Separation: The Huge Surprise", R. Wilson, New Outlook, Sept./Oct., 1991 p. 36

17. The documents of the US debriefing of Hussein Kamel have been widely circulated but I believe that they are still officially secret

18. Public statements by Dr Bertrand Goldschmidt, Chairman, Board of Governors of IAEA, 9th June 1981 in most European newspapers

19. UN Security Council resolution 487 10th June 1981

20. The day after the bombing  Prime Minister Begin described (non existent) rooms under the reactor for producing and refining plutonium. It seems that he was describing the Dimona reactor buildings.   Details of these, with pictures, were made public by Mordechai Vununu in the Sunday Times (UK) on October 5, 1986,: "Revealed -- the secrets of Israel's nuclear arsenal.". See also the punishment for this transgression of Israeli law:

21. Nicholas Kristof, New York Times November 15th 2002

22. Alan T Dershowitz, "Preemption: A Knife That Cuts Both Ways" (Issues of Our Time) W.W. Norton, (2006)

23 In March /April 2003, the IAEA technicians had left Tuwaitha, and the Iraqi employees did not turn up for work. The US army seemed uninterested in Iraq's presumed nuclear weapons program. Local villagers looted the facility. They found some interesting new containers, ideal for water carrying, emptied the black powder on the ground and stole the containers. This was probably not a serious health hazard but worse than depleted uranium.

24. This seems to have been known to Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick, US Ambassador in Niger and it was also quickly recognized a a forgery by IAEA

26. Joseph C. Wilson, "What I Didn't Find in Africa" New York Times, Sunday, July 6, 2003

26. Max Frankel, New York Times Magazine, March 25th 2007

26. Article in New York Times March 21st 2007

27. This group, send by the First Sakharov Conference in Moscow to the Azeri-Armenian border in May 1991 to understand the fighting that was breaking out, described their reactions to General Yazov on the Monday morning immediately after returning from the border. A description may be found on:

28. See for example my introduction to the 2006 session on Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons available on my website at: