Intelligence In Recent Public Literature
By Mahdi Obeidi and Kurt Pitzer. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. 242 pages, index
Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake
Iraq’s nuclear weapons capability has been the subject of attention by the media and well-publicized studies by Western governments and private think tanks since the first Gulf War.  Another important perspective on the issue may be found in firsthand accounts by Iraqi defectors and émigrés who worked in Baghdad’s nuclear program. An early attempt in this direction was Khidir Hamza’s book, Saddam’s Bombmaker.  Hamza defected to the United States in 1998 claiming he had played a leading role in the pre-1991 nuclear weapons design and development program. Then last year, Imad Khadduri, a onetime Hamza colleague on the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission who emigrated to Canada, published a very critical account of Hamza’s book, documenting many instances of embellishment that he claims went undetected by the West until too late. He is equally hard on the West’s faulty assessment of Iraq’s nuclear program prior to 2003.  Another defector, Dr. Mahdi Obeidi, first came to public attention in 2003, when, as reported in the New York Times, he told American authorities that he had been ordered in 1991 by his boss, Saddam’s son-in-law, to retain the plans and key equipment for the uranium enrichment centrifuges—which he had already hidden in the garden of his Baghdad home.  It was an order he never thought to refuse and a secret he kept until Saddam was deposed.
Around the time the New York Times article appeared, Dr. Obeidi, his family, and the material from his clandestine cache were in the United States, where he was giving thought to a book about his experiences under Saddam. The Bomb In My Garden is the result. Written with journalist Kurt Pitzer, whom Obeidi knew in Baghdad, the book avoids the undocumented, self-serving claims made by Hamza and is much less political than Khadduri’s. Obeidi’s account concentrates, first, on his role prior to 1991 in acquiring the means to produce the highly enriched uranium necessary to build an atomic bomb and, second, on whether Iraq had a nuclear capability after 9/11. In the telling, he gives a detailed, balanced view of events.
The book’s title is both metaphorical and factual. Had the secret cache been discovered by Saddam’s security elements, Obeidi and his family might have been eliminated. On the other hand, there was a real bomb in his garden, and he tells that story in the first chapter.
Mahdi Obeidi is no stranger to the United States. As an 18-year-old in 1962, he studied English in Washington, DC—living near Dupont Circle—before completing a five-year program at the Colorado School of Mines. Returning to Iraq, he worked in an oil refinery until he was sent to get his Ph.D. in materials engineering at the University College of Swansea, Wales. It was at Swansea that he met a fellow Iraqi, sponsored by the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC). It was a contact that changed his life. When Obeidi returned to Iraq in 1975, he applied to the IAEC and was assigned to ensure reactor safety in what he was told was an atomic energy program focused on peaceful applications.
When Saddam assumed the presidency of Iraq in 1979, Obeidi was in charge of defining experiments for the research reactor being constructed at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center—a position that required trips to France, where key components were being built. Obeidi claims that by 1981 the French and the
Israelis both suspected the Iraqi program had nuclear weapons in its future. The French probed Obeidi for hints that this was so. The Israelis blew up the nuclear reactor at the site. Saddam reacted by taking his atomic bomb program further underground, with his son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, acting as its chief administrator.
In 1987, dissatisfied with the progress being made developing gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment techniques, Kamel put Obeidi in charge of a separate, secret parallel effort employing centrifuges. Much of Obeidi’s book is devoted to how he met this challenge. The components and knowledge required for building centrifuges exceeded Iraqi capabilities at the time. Obeidi tells, in some detail, how he obtained the prohibited items—closely guarded designs, materials and hardware—from firms in Germany, Switzerland, England, the United States, France, and China. Despite some setbacks, the program progressed steadily.
Then, Saddam invaded Kuwait. Three events occurred that again changed the course of Obeidi’s life. The first was Desert Storm and the suspension of the nuclear program while records and equipment were hidden. It was at this time that Obeidi took his centrifuge reports, drawings, and hardware home for safekeeping. The second event was the order to resume the nuclear weapons program in an attempt to acquire a single atom bomb—an effort that continued until Iraq agreed to the inspections regime in April 1991. This was probably the period of Iraq’s most intense nuclear weapons activity, but it lasted only a few weeks. It was the third event that brought Obeidi’s program to a halt for good: the acceptance and subsequent arrival of the United Nations’ weapons inspection teams and Saddam’s order once again to destroy or hide WMD materials.
In the chapter called “Nuclear Hide and Seek,” Obeidi spells out the extent of lies and deception that Iraq employed to mislead the inspectors. This included, between inspections, gutting buildings and reconstructing their walls and floors with non-radioactive materials to disguise their original purpose. But the time was too short to accomplish the amount of destruction required and the inspection teams found nuclear-related material in the temporary nuclear weapons program headquarters. In one instance, Saddam was so incensed that he kept the entire inspection team in the parking lot for four days while he tried to recover documents seized by the inspectors.
When Obeidi began meeting with inspectors, he lied and obfuscated as instructed, since Saddam was still in power. The secrets remained buried in his garden through the years when he resumed civilian work. The return of inspectors in 2002 raised personal questions for Obeidi about what to do with the secret cache; but he opted to keep it hidden. Only after allied troops occupied Baghdad did he feel secure enough to reveal his secret. Obeidi claims that the occupation bureaucracy at first did not handle well his attempt to reveal what he knew and possessed. But after a brief arrest, he was brought to the United States with his family.
The Bomb In My Garden is not documented with sources, but the names, dates, and events discussed allow checking of key facts. Moreover, the former head of the UN Iraqi Survey Group, David Kay, and a number of American nuclear specialists find the story largely accurate and compelling as indicated by their comments in the book and on the dust jacket. Mahdi Obeidi concludes that Saddam came close to having an atom bomb in 1991 and probably intended to restart the program given an opportunity. As to the future, Obeidi warns the reader that “illicit nuclear programs share a common weak spot: they need international complicity” to succeed, and there are many unemployed nuclear scientists still in Iraq.
Hayden B. Peake is the curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. This review is unclassified in its entirety.