Pointed warnings that Saddam Hussein had embarked on a major effort to build a nuclear bomb were silenced within the federal bureaucracy nearly two years before the West went to war against Iraq and its atomic complex, government specialists and congressional investigators say.
The warnings were given in early 1989 by officials of the Energy Department who discovered that Iraq had begun secretly buying nuclear parts, including fuel-making equipment and weapon triggers, in the West.
Over a weekend in April 1989, these officials undertook an urgent effort to inform the National Security Council of the purchases and to propose that Western export controls be quietly tightened to deny Baghdad the bomb.
But their warnings and plans were dismissed as alarmist by Energy Department superiors, who knew of Washington's long tilt toward Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran in the Persian Gulf region. The superiors also knew of U.S. intelligence estimates that Baghdad's bomb-building efforts were rudimentary and might not bear fruit for a decade or more.
It is generally known that billions of dollars in advanced Western gear flowed to Iraq's nuclear bomb program. But now it is possible to give a full account of how a federal agency monitored such shipments, grew alarmed and then, after internal debate, dropped a bid to stop them, all in great secrecy more than three years ago.
The warning episode was uncovered by Rep. John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who heads the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and its investigative subcommittee. It was fleshed out in dozens of interviews with congressional aides, federal specialists and U.N. inspectors, who are dismantling what remains of Baghdad's nuclear program after extensive allied bombing in the Persian Gulf war.
The unheeded warning, Mr. Dingell said in a closed hearing that evaluated secret intelligence data, was a major governmental failure in which "an opportunity for timely action was missed." A declassified report of the hearing is to be made public shortly.
It is clear now that Baghdad came perilously close to getting the bomb. Robert M. Gates, the director of central intelligence, recently told Congress that Iraq would have possessed a nuclear weapon this year had it not been for the gulf war. Intelligence agencies around the globe, Mr. Gates said, "equally were in error in understanding both the pace and the scale of the Iraqi program."
During the 1980s, American intelligence agencies knew of Iraq's interest in the bomb but usually played down its efforts. Federal experts say the Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee, the top nuclear watchdog, estimated in 1989 that Baghdad would be unable to build its first bomb before the late 1990s.
Unknown to the rest of the government, alarms about Iraq rang loudly in 1989 in the main federal repository of nuclear know-how, the Department of Energy. It makes the nation's nuclear arms and plays a vital role in helping the government track and control the worldwide spread of bomb manufacturing gear.
The key official who raised the alarms was A. Bryan Siebert Jr., a career civil servant in his 40s. In the late 1980s Mr. Siebert was the Energy Department's top authority on the spread of bomb manufacturing gear, particularly so-called dual-use items that have both civilian and military uses, such as advanced machine tools and electronic parts.
A lawyer who attended Harvard University for advanced training in physics, Mr. Siebert headed the Energy Department's Office of Classification and Technology Policy, where he had responsibility for export control. He grew worried about a pattern of clandestine Iraqi purchases that, he later told Congress, "gave me the willies."
Tracking Iraqi imports, Mr. Siebert concluded that Iraq was rapidly assembling the ability to produce nuclear arms. But from early 1989 through early 1990, his evidence failed to move up the chain of command in the government. Just where the initiative died is unclear.
Mr. Siebert was undaunted. In early 1990 he began a push, with mid-level State Department officials, to alert Western allies to the nuclear proliferation danger.
This effort recently led 27 nations to adopt a common list of dual-use items as a guide for scrutinizing exports. The State Department hailed the step as "the most important export-control initiative of recent years," adding that it "will greatly assist in our efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons."
Today it is clear that Mr. Siebert's ideas had substance. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, American intelligence quickly found much to worry about in Baghdad's nuclear ambitions.