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Why Did Iraqi Scientist Go Public With Evidence of Nuclear Program?

Aired June 26, 2003 - 20:19   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Last night, in a CNN exclusive, we told you how the CIA had its hands on a key piece of Iraqi nuclear technology parts to develop a bomb program, nuclear bombs. The parts were dug out in a backyard under a rose bush in Baghdad. Now, the man who put them there is the same man who ended up handing them over to the United States. Why is he going public now? National correspondent Mike Boettcher has this exclusive report.

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is why Dr. Mahdi Obeidi, one of Saddam Hussein's top nuclear scientists went public.

DR. MAHDI OBEIDI, IRAQI NUCLEAR SCIENTIST: I was eating breakfast with my wife and I heard some very loud noise outside and the noise started to grow, to grow even more and then we were really scared. We thought somebody was coming to kill us.

BOETTCHER: It was the third of June and it was the U.S. Army, not there to kill but searching for Obeidi.

ZAID OBEIDI, IRAQI SCIENTIST'S SON: They used something, I don't know, something big, huge. They broke in this door. Many of the soldiers came here.

BOETTCHER: The family was terrified.

Z. OBEIDI: With a loud voice, go, go, go, go.

BOETTCHER: The scene the family describes was similar to other raids witnessed by CNN as the army searched for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. But the problem, Obeidi was already cooperating with the U.S. government, the CIA.

M. OBEIDI: Because only two days earlier I had given a whole complete program to the Americans of the centrifuge program and I've shown my full cooperation with them.

BOETTCHER: He had dug up his rosebushes in his yard and turned over what he had hidden there, plans and parts for making a gas centrifuge, a key component in making the fuel for a nuclear bomb.

Obeidi says he was promised protection by the CIA but now he felt in danger. His handlers, he said, seemed to be reneging and with the raid on his house he feared he was not only a target for Saddam loyalists for giving up Iraq's secrets but inexplicably also now a target of the U.S. military.

But fortunately for Obeidi he was able to reach the one American he really knew, David Albright, a former weapons inspector whom he had met and lied to many times during U.N. inspections in the 1990s. Albright had originally facilitated Obeidi's contact with the U.S. government but it had not been easy.

DAVID ALBRIGHT, FMR. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: I think what happened unfortunately is that there is no policy in the U.S. government to allow these scientists to come to the United States. There is no plea bargain policy and I think there were people in the bureaucracy here who just didn't want to make a deal.

So, he was trapped and that's really what I think led he and I to think that this situation had reached a dead end and that his best choice was to go public.

BOETTCHER: And, Obeidi contacted CNN. Just two days after U.S. officials learned he had contacted us, Obeidi and his family were whisked out of Iraq by the CIA. That U.S. Army raid the CIA now admits was a mistake.

DAVID KAY, CIA CHIEF WEAPONS INSPECTOR: Like I say there are many units operating in Baghdad right now and it was a genuine case of lack of full coordination.

BOETTCHER: And, the CIA says the breakdown in communications was a misunderstanding. Wednesday, we met Obeidi in a location we promised not to identify where he told us he hoped lessons could be learned from his attempt to cooperate. Other Iraq scientists, he said, were closely watching his fate.

M. OBEIDI: Well, I think the soft touch approach is the best approach.

BOETTCHER: On Thursday, that message resonated at the White House.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, we're hopeful that this example will lead to other Iraqi scientists stepping forward to provide information.

BOETTCHER: So far, few have come forward. Until now they told CNN they are unsure of the U.S. policy wondering if they would be welcomed or treated as criminals or left vulnerable to reprisals by remnants of the Saddam regime.

For example, one scientist we interviewed denied having anything to do with weapons programs and said he wasn't afraid. But as CNN Producer Maria Fleet (ph) left his home, this note was secretly passed to her by his daughter.

"He is afraid of telling the truth because of the dangerous situation Saddam put us in. Please help us and make sure of our safety and if you could make it possible to leave Iraq forever."

Obeidi says he told the truth and he is now safely out of Iraq after he finally felt he could dig up those top secret papers and parts he'd stashed a dozen years ago under that rosebush.

(on camera): So, in the future, doctor, if you walk by a house that has a rosebush in front you're going to have smile on your face.

M. OBEIDI: Yes, I would.

BOETTCHER (voice-over): Mike Boettcher, CNN, the Middle East.




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