AFTER MEETING Monday with the Libyan ruler Moammar Khadafy, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, strove mightily to put a good face on the embarrassing failure of his inspectors to discover the nuclear weapons program Khadafy has confessed to having. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Libya was obliged to notify the IAEA of its purchases of materials that could be used for nuclear weapons. By hiding those acquisitions, Khadafy placed Libya in breach of the treaty. IAEA inspectors had been visiting Libya for years but never saw the materials stored at the four sites they visited Sunday or at other sites that US and British intelligence officers inspected recently.
So ElBaradei was indulging in understatement when he said, "There were some imports and some activities they should have reported." This remark comes under the heading of stating the obvious: the definition of a secret nuclear weapons program conducted by a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty is that its operations are hidden from prying eyes.
The question ElBaradei needs to address is one that haunts even proponents of the Non-Proliferation Treaty: Why is it the IAEA never seems to find out on its own about activities that treaty breakers such as Libya, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea wish to hide?
Nonproliferation specialists speak about the IAEA's culture of trust -- a predeliction of the UN to give the benefit of the doubt to all sovereign states without distinction. This is true when despotic regimes slaughter, torture, or enslave populations caught within the borders of those states. It is all the more true when IAEA inspectors visit sites they have been invited to visit by a Khadafy, a Saddam Hussein, or the clerical rulers of Iran.
The unpleasant truth is that Khadafy's decision to come clean to Washington and London about his long-secret nuclear weapons program has left ElBaradei's IAEA looking incompetent if not simply irrelevant.
ElBaradei appeared merely naive Monday in Libya when he allowed that it was "an eye- opener to see how much material has been going from one country to another." But he seemed disingenuous when he complained that "low-level programs like this are difficult to detect. . . . You would have to be lucky or have very good intelligence to run across it. We're doing a lot of soul-searching."
At the end of that search, the IAEA should cease using as inspectors only UN employees who are approved by the countries they are supposed to inspect. The agency should be less trusting of suspect states and more aggressive in detecting and stopping black-market sales and transfers of prohibited materials and technologies. And the IAEA should welcome properly trained inspectors and intelligence tips from all sources.
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