When Saad Tawfiq watched Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations on February 5 2003 he shed bitter tears as he realised he had risked his life and those of his loved ones for nothing.
As one of Saddam Hussein’s most gifted engineers, Tawfiq knew that the Iraqi dictator had shut down his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes in 1995 — and he had told his handlers in US intelligence just that.
And yet here was the then US secretary of state — Tawfiq’s television was able to received international news through a link pirated from Saddam’s spies next door — waving a vial of white powder and telling the UN Security Council a story about Iraqi germ labs.
“When I saw Colin Powell I started crying. Immediately. I knew I had tried and lost,” Tawfiq told AFP five years later in the Jordanian capital Amman.
Now in his fifties, a round-faced man with a small moustache and lively eyes behind delicate spectacles, Tawfiq described how the CIA set up an elaborate operation to recruit Iraqi weapons scientists and then ignored the results.
From the end of 2002 the US spy agency had sources inside Iraq’s weapons plants telling them clearly what the whole world now knows — that Saddam had ended efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction.
Nevertheless in March 2003 the United States and Britain invaded Iraq to disarm Saddam of this non-existent arsenal and in the process triggered the effective collapse of the Iraqi state, plunging it into chaos and bringing thousands of deaths.
Saad Tawfiq’s role in this drama began in June 2002 with calls from his sister Sawsan, a doctor who lives with her husband Ali in Moreland Hills, a pleasant suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, in the mid-western United States.
“Our Abu Mahmuds are putting pressure on me,” she told him, using the nickname they shared for Saad’s secret police minder as a makeshift code for the US intelligent agent who had contacted her, “Chris.”
“Chris was very nice, very polite,” Sawsan, a small energetic woman, told AFP. Chris wanted Sawsan’s help to discover the status of Saddam’s weapons programme, and in particular his efforts to build a nuclear bomb.
She joined one of the most successful attempts by the CIA to penetrate Saddam’s Iraq, a programme dreamt up by agency veteran Charlie Allen to target Iraqi weapons technicians through their relatives.
The scientists were well known to the UN weapons inspectors who had been keeping tabs on Iraq’s arms plants since 1991, and the Americans were able to draw up a list of 30 who had relatives in the United States.
The American relatives were to be sent to Iraq and ask about weapons.
“I was nervous, and we even discussed with Ali what to do if something happened to me,” Sawsan said. “It was a very emotional visit back home, because I had not been there for years and I had not seen my brother for years.”
Sawsan was right to be nervous. Saddam’s notorious secret police dealt with spies mercilessly. She was taking a risk with her life and that of her brother, but was determined to help rid her original homeland of a tyrant.
The CIA provided her with a detailed questionnaire about Iraq’s weapons programmes. Fearing she would forget it, Sawsan disguised it in sketches and crosswords in a kind of homemade code.
Tawfiq picked his sister up from Baghdad airport on September 9, 2002. Her homecoming was emotional, but the pair had work to do. They met secretly at night in the family garden and took walks together in the city.
The weapons engineer was astonished by the CIA’s questions, which he thought showed the depths of the agency’s ignorance about events in his country.
“I went crazy. The questions were dumb. She was telling me: ‘They know you have a programme,’ and I was saying: ‘There is nothing. Tell them there is nothing, absolutely nothing. They have left us with nothing’,” Tawfiq said.
“She was taking notes. There were 20 major questions, and to all of them the answer was: ‘No, no, no…’ I kept swearing on the grave of my mother.”
According to Tawfiq, Saddam Hussein gave the order to dismantle Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programmes in 1995, after his brother-in-law and arms chief Hussein Kamel defected and briefed the UN inspectors.
“I was Saddam’s scientist,” Tawfiq declared, with an ironic smile. “In 1991 if you exposed something you were killed. In 1995 if you hid something you were killed!”
Sawsan dutifully gathered this information and returned to the United States to pass it on to her handlers. But the CIA was unimpressed.
“Saad told me there was nothing left,” she told AFP. “That everything had been either destroyed or dismantled by the UN and the regime has abandoned its nuclear programme. And he begged me to explain all that back in the States.
“I went back and I reported what he had told me in full detail. I even went personally to Washington. In the beginning they listened to me but then they told me that my brother was lying,” she said.
Of course Tawfiq and other colleagues approached by the CIA were telling the truth, as the United States would discover after it had launched a bloody war that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
Paul R. Pillar, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia at the time of the operation to question Tawfiq, said weapons scientists had not been ignored, but had been contradicted by other sources.
“To the extent that the debriefings did not have more of an effect in Washington, it probably was not because the effort came too late but instead because there were other indications that seemed to contradict what the individuals were saying, and that suggested Iraqi unconventional weapons programmes were continuing,” he told AFP.
But as Saddam’s scientist lamented five years later: “You don’t have to destroy a country for that.”