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<i>60 Minutes II</i>: Educating The Enemy

One of the bitter ironies of Sept. 11 is that the hijackers who committed mass murder relied on skills they learned in America.

It's such a troubling fact that just yesterday President Bush signed an order to pick up and question more than 5,000 mostly Middle-Eastern men, many of whom entered this country legally on student visas.

Most foreign students have only goodwill in mind. But the U.S. has also been educating the enemy - and we have been doing it for years, 60 Minutes II Correspondent Vicki Mabrey reports.

That's no surprise to the U.S. government, which was put on notice one morning 10 years ago, in a parking lot in Baghdad during a surprise inspection of Saddam Hussein’s secret nuclear weapons program just after the Gulf War.

Acting on an intelligence tip, a special team of United Nations inspectors descended on an office building in Baghdad. They knew what they were looking for.

Bob Galluci, a U.S. diplomat and member of the inspection team, says what they were seeking – and found – was the design for a nuclear bomb and the names of the people who would put it together.

“They had enormous commitments of personnel and resources, with one purpose - so they could have nuclear weapons," Galluci says.

Galluci and the weapons inspectors squared off with the Iraqis over the lists of names.

The Iraqis did not want to give up the list.

“We did manage to get out of that parking lot and out of the country some very important documents before the head of the nuclear weapons program arrived and before they took the bulk of the documents,” Galluci says. “We did arrange for that to happen.”

60 Minutes II has learned that among those documents was a secret computer list of Iraqi students sent abroad to learn the science needed to build a nuclear bomb for Iraq. The list of 150 students was flown out of Baghdad that day, and became a road map for United Nations analyst David Dorn.

“We could take these names,” Dorn says, “and follow them back to the universities where they studied, find out what they studied, and then see how that fit together.”

Dorn concluded 10 years ago that Iraq had a strategy to exploit the West to build weapons of mass destruction.

Khidhir Hamza was one of those students, whose studies were planned and financed by the Iraqi government.

In the 1960s, the Iraqi government sent Hamza to MIT to study nuclear physics. He then got a Ph.D. from Florida State.

“Oh, I loved it.,” Hamza says of his American studies. He wanted to stay, but the Iraqi government called. They threatened to harm Hamza’s family unless he came home to use what he had learned.

“Almost immediately, within a year, I was approached by two of Saddam’s assistants and asked to put a program together that will lead Iraq to produce nuclear weapons,” Hamza recalls. “And I did.”

Hamza became head o Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. He filled its ranks, using a proven method. The top Iraqi students were sent abroad to fill in the gaps in all of the weapons programs.

If the program needed chemical engineers or electrical engineers, the scholarship program was redesigned, with hundreds of people sent abroad in these areas.

With expertise in basic science, Hamza says, students could easily learn to make weapons – not just nuclear, but chemical and biological as well.

And Hamza says it wasn’t only the universities that were spreading the knowledge.

In 1989 – even as the world became increasingly aware of Saddam’s intentions – Hamza was able to send two military engineers to Portland, Ore., for a seminar on high explosives. Among the seminar’s sponsors was the U. S. government. All they had to do was apply.

Hamza says he was surprised at the technical expertise that could be learned from the seminar.

“Some of the sponsors of the seminar are Livermore Laboratory, which is a nuclear weapons lab - Los Alamos Nuclear Weapons Lab, “ he says. “So anybody who has weapon-making in mind, nuclear weapons in mind, will go there and they were accepted easily.

U. N. weapons inspectors found Western-trained scientists in the top ranks of all of Iraq’s weapons programs. Perhaps the most notorious – Nihab Taha – was trained in England, then built Iraq’s biological arsenal. Iraq’s pursuit of know-how was one of the things the CIA asked Hamza about when he defected to the U.S. in 1994.

Hamza insists it wasn’t just an Iraqi strategy. “All countries with intent of making nuclear weapons needed some science and technology available in the U.S. and all used it, and we were one of them,” he says.

Iraq almost succeeded. after the Gulf War, U.N. inspectors learned that Iraq was only six months to a year away from getting the bomb. They destroyed as much of Saddam’s hardware as they could find. But that was the easy part. The student list had more sobering implications.

“That would tell me that the Iraqis were planning ahead,” Galluci says, “and if they were educating their students at American universities, they were in this for the long haul.”

After the Gulf War, the U.S. State Department restricted Iraqis from studying nuclear science – as it already had for Libyans, Pakistanis and Iranians. But the government did little else.

Then, in 1993, a bomb exploded at the World Trade Center. It was driven there by a Jordanian named Eyad Ismoil. He studied engineering at Wichita State, dropped out, and stayed in the U.S. on an expired student visa. The U.S. had no efficient way to track foreign students then – and doesn’t today.

While the U.S. may have failed to acknowledge the potential threat of foreign students, many European countries have not. In France, intelligence officers inspect foreign stdents’ records and talk to their professors. In Germany, schools need a special license to teach foreigners certain technologies. In Britain, the government advises universities to deny admission to any student it feels may pose a threat to national security.

“I think it’s automatic that we should be vetting every single student that might be studying a sensitive subject, particularly subjects like physics, chemistry, and some aspects of engineering, “ says Ken Reid, a professor at Swansea Institute in Wales.

That’s where U.S. intelligence believe convicted terrorist Ramzi Youssef studied electronics before he engineered the first World Trade Center bombing. Reid sees cooperating with intelligence agents as part of his job.

The U.S. hasn’t ignored this problem. In 1996, Congress ordered the creation of a computer system that would track foreign students. The computer that would keep tabs not only who they were and where they were but also what they were studying. Twenty-one universities in the Southeast agreed to test the computer program for the U.S. immigration service. After two years, the colleges and the INS deemed the system a success.

“It couldn’t be doctored. It couldn’t be jimmied. It couldn’t be fraudulently altered. It would be a real-time situation,” says Tom Fischer, head of the INS office in Atlanta and the computer pilot program.

“You’ve got masters. You’ve got post-graduate. You’ve got language training – that’s ESL. Vocational-technical, which would be like flight school training.”

Fischer says he just wanted to know what the students were studying.

“I don’t care what grade they got,” he says. “I don’t care if they get a B or a C or a D. I just want to be comfortable that one, they’re here legally; two, they don’t want to undermine our national security; and three, they’re going to abide by our laws.

The computer system grew out of a 1995 report to Congress, calling the current tracking process “weak, ineffective and vulnerable.”

Despite this, a powerful special interest group representing colleges and universities opposed the computerized system, fearing it would harm the $12 billion foreign student market. Twenty-one U.S. senators – including the current attorney general, John Ashcroft - joined in and got the program put on hold.

“If we could have just identified one of these individuals before Sept. 11, perhaps we could have then initiated an ongoing investigation,” Fischer says. “Perhaps we could have compromised what their objectives were."

Of the 19 hijackers, at least one entered on a student visa. Four or more enrolled in flight schools, which, Fischer points out, would have been covered by a computer tracking system.

Of Sept 11, Fischer says, “I don’t know if we could have prevented it but it would have been little bit, or a lot more difficult for these individuals to do what they did.”

The INS now says tracking students is a priority. Khidhir Hamza agrees. With a relatively small number of American- and European-trained Ph.Ds, Iraq got very close to having nuclear weapons.

“A terrorist’s aims are smaller,” Hamza says. “ He want to create havoc in a certain area in a country. So if a terrorist has a few scientists and technologists, yes, he could make a great deal of danger. That’s why a lot of action is needed now to stop this.”

After 21 years in the State Department, Bob Galluci, the former weapons inspector, is now the dean of foreign service at Georgetown University. He says the country has to strike a careful balance.

“The purpose of the university is to create knowledge and to transmit knowledge That’s what it does,” he says. “The challenge in a free and open society, is how the government can do its job and not prevent the universities from serving their purpose of transmitting knowledge."

With more than a half-million foreign students in the United States at any given time, is it possible that some might go back to their countries and use what they learned in order to hurt interests of the United States or American citizens?

“ I don’t see how you could exclude that possibility,” Galluci says.

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