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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Significant Discovery in Hunt For Weapons Of Mass Destruction

Aired June 25, 2003 - 17:14   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We have breaking news we're following right now about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and a significant discovery. Let's go straight to our national security correspondent David Ensor. He's here with details.
DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, CNN has learned that the Central Intelligence Agency has on -- has in its hands the critical parts of a key piece of Iraqi nuclear technology, parts that are needed to develop a bomb program that were dug up in a backyard in Baghdad.

The parts were dug up by this man, Iraqi scientist Mhaddi alBadi (ph) who had hidden them in his back yard under a rose bush 12 years ago under orders from Qusay Hussein and Saddam Hussein's then son-in- law, Hussein Kamel (ph). These are the parts and documents that alBadi gave the CIA, shown exclusively to CNN at CIA headquarters in Virginia.

AlBadi told CNN's Mike Boettcher that the parts of a gas centrifuge system for enriching uranium were part of a highly- sophisticated system that he was ordered to hide so as to be able to rebuild the bomb program at some time in the future.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have very important things at my disposal that I have been ordered to have, to keep. And I have kept them and I don't want this to proliferate because of its potential consequences, if it falls in the hands of tyrants and the hands of dictators, of terrorists.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ENSOR: Former U.N. arms inspector David Kay, who is now in charge of the CIA effort to look for the weapons, started work two days ago in Baghdad. We spoke to him about the case over a secure teleconferencing line from CIA headquarters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID KAY, FRM. U.N. ARMS INSPECTOR: It begins to tell us how huge our job is. Remember, his material was buried in a barrel behind his house in a rose garden. There's no way that that would have been discovered by normal international inspections. I couldn't have done it. My successors couldn't have done it. (END VIDEO CLIP)

ENSOR: CNN had this story last week but made a decision to withhold it from broadcast after a request from the U.S. government citing safety and national security concerns. U.S. government has now told us the security and safety issues have been dealt with and there is no risk in telling the story fully.

The gas centrifuge equipment dates back to Iraq's pre-1991 efforts to build nuclear weapons. Experts say the documents that alBadi gave the U.S. were the critical information and the parts to restart a nuclear weapons program and would have saved Saddam's regime several years and as much as hundreds of millions of dollars worth of research.

Now U.S. officials emphasize this is not a smoking gun. This is not evidence Iraq had a nuclear weapon. But it is evidence the Iraqis concealed plans to reconstitute their nuclear program as soon as the world was no longer watching.

Now my colleague Mike Boettcher and I will have much more tomorrow night on "LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES" with Paula Zahn. But that's what we have so far.

BLITZER: All right, David, stand by because Mike Boettcher is now joining us via video phone.

Mike, tell our viewers what else you've learned about this important development.

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well we are at an undisclosed location in the Arab world where today I spoke to Dr. alBadi. He is now out of Iraq in the safe hands of the United States, he says. He told us about the long process that started weeks ago of trying to cooperate with the U.S. government, digging up those documents that he laughed about that were buried beneath a rose bush that were never found for 12 years and how there were glitches in the system.

At one point he was raided by the U.S. Army. It turned out that there was a miscommunication or no communication between U.S. intelligence agencies and the Pentagon and an apology was given to him.

But he felt unsafe at the time. He was getting pressure from other quarters in Iraq, he said. And he said other scientists were watching what he was doing, if he was going to be safe, if he cooperated with the United States.

Now that he is safe, he believes other scientists will come forward with other components and other formulas and other parts of this weapons of mass destruction program that is alleged by the U.S. government to be out there.

He also said that he believes that in 2002 there may have been a conceptual project to perhaps reinvigorate the gas centrifuge program. But we'll be talking about that tomorrow. I asked him at the end of our interview, I said, Now that you are out of Iraq, whenever you walk by the front yard of a house and see a rose bush, are you going to smile? And he laughed and he said, I certainly will -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Mike Boettcher, terrific reporting.

I want to bring back David Ensor just to button this up for our viewers. So when Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, the chief International Atomic Energy scientist, said that they didn't have any evidence, hard evidence that Iraq had an on-going nuclear program, this would to belie that. this would be hard evidence that potentially they could get that program off the ground immediately.

ENSOR: Well, Wolf, it certainly is hard evidence they were concealing documents and pieces of equipment and lying to the United Nations about that with a plan of possibly reconstituting their nuclear program. So far it's not evidence that they had uranium enrichment going on or something like that. But it's evidence of an intention, no question about it. And these are key, very refined parts that are extremely difficult to make.

So the hope was, by the Iraqis, that if they had some templates, which is what these really are, they could make hundreds of copies and eventually produce bombs again.

BLITZER: Let me bring back Mike Boettcher via video phone from that undisclosed location in the Arab world. Is there any estimate how long it would have taken the Iraqi to build a nuclear weapon with this equipment ready to go, if you will?

BOETTCHER: Well Dr. alBadi told me it could be done quickly, but that's quickly in terms of nuclear science. If you talk to him and talk to experts like David Albright, they believe 3, 3 1/2 years it could have been done. Although they develop this entire program in less than three years, with some amazing advancements that the U.N. inspectors and the United States didn't know that they had.

So if you look at that, they perhaps could have done it sooner, but David Albright and alBadi give the indication it would have been about three years.

BLITZER: And, David, we knew that the Iraqis had this centrifuge program before the first Gulf War a decade ago. What we didn't know until right now is that they had secretly kept some of this old equipment that could have been used to make a bomb. That's what we're learning right now.

ENSOR: That's right. And David Kay, the official who is now the head of the CIA search for these pieces of equipment, says they are still looking for other things. They are looking for other scientists, they are trying to get other scientists to cooperate, they are hoping that by showing that Mhaddi alBadi is treated well after having done what he should do and turn over the material, that other scientists will now feel that they should come forward, too. And that the secrecy around Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program may unravel much more quickly as a result. BLITZER: All right, precisely what top administration officials were saying they were hoping for and indeed what they expected. But we'll continue to follow this story.

David Ensor joining us here in Washington. Mike Boettcher joining us from an undisclosed location in the Arab world, doing some terrific reporting.

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