Remember Mahdi Obeidi? He's the Iraqi nuclear scientist who made headlines back in June when he turned over parts of a gas centrifuge for uranium enrichment and blueprints related to Iraq's pre-1991 nuclear weapons program. The parts of course were buried under a rosebush in his backyard.
More recently, Obeidi made more embarrassing headlines when the Associated Press revealed that he has consistently told CIA investigators that those much-discussed aluminum tubes had nothing to do with nuclear weapons development.
The AP reported that Obeidi was in Kuwait. But it turns out there's a bit more to the story. Given that Obeidi was so quick to come clean about the history of Iraq's nuclear weapons program and Saddam's plans to reconstitute the program once sanctions were lifted, you might think that we were helping him restart his life in the US, Iraq or perhaps some other Arab country.
Well, not exactly.
It turns out he's being held against his will in Kuwait apparently because he won't 'come clean' about the aluminum tubes, an on-going Iraqi nuclear weapons program and significant chemical and biological weapons stocks.
Obeidi is not in prison. He's in a residential setting with his family, under US government supervision, well-fed and so forth.
But he can't leave. He can't go back to Iraq -- for obvious reasons. He's only in Kuwait through a US agreement with the Kuwaiti government. He can't go anywhere else since he doesn't have a passport. American friends provided him with a satellite phone. But his CIA handlers have frowned on his using it.
The deal he made, or thought he'd made with the US, was that he would be given asylum and allowed along with his family to come to the United States. He has a job lined up in the US and even, believe it or not, a book contract (that's globalization for ya). But though he had a good-faith understanding with the CIA that he'd be allowed to come to the United States, he failed to secure a formal agreement.
That turned out to be a mistake. For two months they've been holding out on him, apparently because the answers he's giving them aren't the ones they want to hear.
Now, the CIA's nominal rationale is that they don't think Obeidi is being honest with them, that he hasn't come clean. They apparently point to examples of Obeidi's lying to inspectors about various issues during the 1990s --- an allegation I've independently confirmed with a knowledgeable source. But that, of course, was back when Saddam's regime was still in power. The fact that he would have lied to inspectors back then doesn't show he's some sort of congenital liar. It just shows that he didn't want himself or his family to end up with bullets in the backs of their heads.
In any case, the claim that Obeidi is deceiving his handlers seems pretty implausible on its face. As they say in hard-boiled detective novels, the guy's made his choice. He provided the US with various materials and equipment the Iraqi regime was prohibited from keeping. He's incurred the displeasure of fellow scientists, not to mention the fact that he's probably made himself a marked man to whichever Baathist loyalists continue to roam the country. Why would he make a deal with the US, expose himself to all the dangers and opprobrium that entails, and then hold out on all the significant evidence?
I don't deny that such a scenario is possible. It is. But logic and other confirmatory evidence points strongly to the conclusion that Obeidi has come clean already.
Now, as CNN reported back in June, former weapons inspector David Albright has acted as an intermediary between Obeidi and the CIA. "I find that there's a conflict of interest for the CIA," Albright told me on Wednesday. "The answer they're getting is that there were no significant stocks of chemical weapons or biological weapons, no significant on-going work on nuclear weapons. But they're not in a position to go to Bush and say, 'Hey, we were wrong.' So they're stalling."
It's difficult to ascertain people's motives in a situation like this. Albright figures the CIA is caught between their own integrity and their unwillingness or inability to deliver the White House news it really doesn't want to hear, i.e., that the WMD search is more or less a bust. "They're getting answers they can't cope with," says Albright.
The one thing that no one wants is for Obeidi to make it to the United States where he's liable to end up on Larry King Live telling a story that would, to put it mildly, be very unhelpful to the White House. That means it's in everyone's interest --- or at least in the White House's and CIA's interest --- to keep Obeidi on ice in Kuwait. Maybe he'll become more helpful. Maybe the search in Iraq will come up with other evidence that will make Obeidi's revelations less embarrassing. Whatever happens, it'll keep him out of reach of journalists and from telling the very off-message story he apparently has to tell. It kicks the can down the road, as they say. No one in the government has any interest in getting Obeidi out of his odd de-nationalized limbo. So it's best just to leave him in Kuwait.
This all sounds rather similar to the story David Ingatius told in the Washington Post on July 18th about Saddam Hussein's science adviser, Amir Saadi. And even if Obeidi were holding out on some information, considering that he's the only Iraqi scientist who's really come up with some real goods, wouldn't it still be in our interests not to so obviously jerk him around? If nothing else, aren't we dissuading other scientists from coming forward? He said he'd give us the centrifuge parts and the blueprints. And he did. But we won't come through for him.
According to Albright, "Obeidi remains hopeful" of getting asylum and being allowed to come to the United States. But his leverage is rather limited. And, according to TPM's sources, earlier attempts to get word out to the press have made his situation in Kuwait all the more difficult.
Coming up later, how Obeidi has told the US about some on-going WMD work by the Iraqis, but why that hasn't come out either.