Inspection Science

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Science  28 Feb 2003:
Vol. 299, Issue 5611, pp. 1281
DOI: 10.1126/science.299.5611.1281

As we approach the Ides of March, the prospect of a military invasion of Iraq by a coalition led by the United States and the United Kingdom assumes a kind of inevitability. In the meantime, with a fading chance that their work might help in avoiding war, the inspectors of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) search for evidence that Saddam Hussein either (i) possesses hidden weapons of mass destruction or (ii) has rid himself of the ones we know he once had.

For many in the world, the justification for a military action depends on the work of the inspectors. We wonder whether they have had enough time to uncover evidence favoring either (i) or (ii), and we would like to know as much as possible about the methods and technologies used and for how long they have been deployed. Do the inspectors need more time, and if given it, would they make findings that might support military action by a broader coalition or possibly even convince us that it is unnecessary? The doubts about military action being expressed with increasing force in the United States and the rest of the world only increase our need to know more about the inspectors and their tools.

The present inspection regime, forced on Iraq by an impressive military mobilization and intense United Nations pressure, is far more intrusive and coercive than was possible under the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM). That may have raised public assumptions about the process—an expectation that a variety of high-technology scientific methods are now being used in the course of the UNMOVIC inspections. In fact, the arsenal of those methods is smaller than is generally supposed, and some of the most valuable techniques have been deployed relatively late in the process.

UN weapons inspection at a dairy products factory on the edge of Baghdad, Iraq.CREDIT: DAVID GUTTENFELDER/AP

A careful analysis produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in late January (www.ceip.org/files/Iraq/index.htm) gathers in one place most of what can be known publicly about the use of inspection technologies. Much of the effort naturally involves simply looking: ground-based reconnaissance at facilities previously known or suspected of being involved in producing weapons of mass destruction. But by 8 January, less than one-fifth of the 700 identified sites had been visited, and such ground inspections face the difficulty that most are expected by the Iraqis, who then prepare for them. Helicopters have been made available, but the first one (of eight) was not deployed until 5 January.

On-the-ground inspection is materially assisted by overhead surveillance. The inspectors have apparently been helped by satellite images, but it was a major disappointment that the use of U-2 flights could not even be negotiated, let alone begun, until the inspections were well underway. Unmanned aerial surveillance was handicapped by the failure of the consortium to approve the use of Predators, reputedly the most effective vehicle for this purpose. The rest of the tool chest exists more in the realm of possibility than in reality. Ground-penetrating radar would be nice, but there is no indication that it is available. As far as is known, there are no assays for chemical weapons or their precursor compounds that can be employed at a distance. A key technique required private interviews with Iraqi scientists, but that did not begin until the second week in February.

The record, to the extent that we can know it, thus leaves the domain of “inspection science” rather lightly populated. The best methods of aerial surveillance have come into use only very recently, and if there is a technological magic bullet it is still not in evidence. Hoping that there might be one, I asked former UNSCOM chair Rolf Ekeus in early February what single scientific or technological tool he thought would be most helpful to the current inspectors. Ambassador Ekeus smiled, tapped his temple, and said “analysis.” He explained that what made the largest difference for inspectors was the capacity to gather and interpret large amounts of intelligence and other data from various sources, and then separate the useful signals from the noise.

That is a different kind of science, surely, but one with which we are all familiar. It requires the capacity to gather data in various ways, not all of which have been available to UNMOVIC until quite recently. It requires well-trained, thoughtful analysts, who are critical components of the inspection regime. Above all, it requires time. Are we prepared to wage war when the experiment has barely started?

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