Iraqi agents have a reputation for being ruthless bunglers. But U.S. intelligence analysts have plenty of reasons to worry
By Daniel Klaidman and Christopher Dickey
March 17 issue ó In the Baghdad prison known as The Palace of the End, in the first years of Saddam Husseinís reign, his torturers sometimes used a
crude but effective biological weapon. Theyíd take an inmate with tuberculosis, who was coughing blood, and force him to spit into the mouths of
others. Not all prisoners caught the disease, but all were infected with the terror
NOW, AS WASHINGTON threatens to bring Saddamís own reign to an end, U.S. officials are afraid he might use such gruesome tactics against Americans.
Outgunned on the traditional battlefield, Saddam is looking to fight back on his own terms. That, according to American officials, could mean any
number of terror plots, from isolated assassinations of U.S. citizens overseas to biological or chemical attacks in the American heartland.
Does Saddam Hussein have a covert plan to ìflushî his weapons of mass destruction out of Iraq and use them against Americans? And can he pull it off
in a meaningful way? Itís one thing to experiment on prisoners in your own jails. Staging a biological or chemical attack in the United States or
Europe would be a far greater challenge. And when the Iraqis have attempted overseas terror operations in the past, they have often been bunglers.
ìThe Iraqis are the Marx Brothers of intelligence services,î says Richard Clarke, a former White House antiterrorism czar. (In one of Saddamís most
famous ops, the botched attempt to assassinate former president Bush in Kuwait, he hired a bunch of semiliterate smugglers who left a trail right back
to Iraqís intelligence headquarters in Baghdad.)
Still, a steady stream of fresh intelligence suggests there are reasons to be worried. Last summer the CIA learned that Baghdad had ordered its spies
at the Iraqi Embassy in Ottawa, Canada, to begin using female agents to penetrate Canadaís Iraqi emigre community. U.S. officials believe the broader
scheme was to infiltrate agents into the United States. ìBecause of its belief that the U.S. is about to attack Iraq, the Iraqi Intelligence Service
is now exploring possible retaliatory responses, including conducting terrorist-style attacks against U.S. targets,î said an FBI internal report. Last
week, recalling the intelligence, a U.S. counterterrorism source wondered aloud to NEWSWEEK whether an ìIraqi femme fataleî might slip across the
border with a vial of smallpox and contaminate thousands of Americans.
In the past few weeks, another strand of intelligence spooked officials. The Pentagon picked up ìcredible informationî that Iraqi operatives were
planning to use botulinum toxin to poison American food and water supplies. The information, NEWSWEEK has learned, was one of the factors that led the
Bush administration to elevate the national threat level to Code Orange last month. Iraqi intelligence has also ìindicated interestî in food-service
companies supplying U.S. troops in Kuwait. Military authorities weeded out suspicious employees from the companies, and the food and water are being
closely monitored for tampering.
For months, CIA and Iraqi operatives have been engaged in a shadowy cat-and-mouse game. Saddam has deployed hundreds of agents in European and
Southeast Asian capitals, where they are suspected of laying the groundwork for possible attacks. ìTheyíre waiting for the go-ahead signal from
Baghdad,î says a knowledgeable intelligence official. In some recent cases, CIA officers and fellow spies from friendly liaison services have watched
the Iraqis case potential targets. And last week the Bush administration identified some 300 Iraqi agents working under diplomatic cover and called on
60 countries to expel them, a tactic that worked well in 1991, when the Iraqis had been planning several terrorist strikes in Southeast Asia.
But what kinds of attacks would best suit Baghdadís goals? And how would they fit into Saddamís larger strategic calculation? Some intelligence
analysts have predicted a ìproxyî strike. The Iraqis would hand off weapons of mass destruction to a surrogate group, perhaps Al Qaeda, and Saddam
could plausibly deny involvement. The attacks would knock the Americans off stride and distract them from their goal of toppling the Iraqi regime.
Recently a small group of analysts at the CIA whose mission is to forecast Saddamís behavior predicted just such a scenario, calling it the ìIraqi
deflection strategy.î But evidence that Saddam and Al Qaeda have joined in a strategic terror alliance remains murky, at best. And Saddam has always
exhibited a need to exert tight control over his agents. Handing over an important operation to subcontractors might be out of character.
Intelligence officials have increasingly focused on the possibility that Saddam would take a more cautious tack: a strike at military or governmental
targets with conventional weapons. Saddamís calculus might be that he could hurt the United States while maintaining some legitimacy. Sources tell
NEWSWEEK that Iraqi operatives have scouted targets of opportunity, including the barracks at the U.S. naval base in Bahrain and the Radio Free Europe
station in Prague.
The final scenario could be the most dangerous. Saddam, on the brink of humiliating defeat, lashes out with one final, horrific act of terroróa
twisted attempt to place his name in the pantheon of Arab heroes who have fought Western invaders. One grisly possibility, however remote: ìhuman
pathogens.î A small team of Iraqi operatives could be injected with smallpox and sent to America. All theyíd have to do is hang out in crowds and
slowly die. Thatís something even bunglers might be able to handle, if they get the chance.
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.