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[casi] From 1991: "Hyping the Iraqi Bomb"

The following articles were written during the 1991 Gulf War, but they read like
the morning news.

Here we have William Safire asserting (based on unspecified sources) that "Iraq
was enriching uranium with 26 centrifuges" and then later insinuating "that
those who wanted to see evidence were part of a 'burgeoning appeasement
movement' which was threatening the president's showdown in the Gulf."

((Iraq's centrifuge enrichment program was later found to be in its infancy,
though the maturity of its calutron program caught experts by surprise, as is
discussed in the second article below.))

Here we have Gwynne Roberts (of Lake Rezazza/"Wide Angle" fame) commissioning
"satellite photos of a site in northern Iraq (which) Jane' s Defence Weekly said
... could have served several military purposes. But one day later in a ... 60
Minutes broadcast, the site was identified as a uranium mine."

((The site was added to Gulf War target lists, though later investigation
revealed no uranium mine at the location.))

It would be satisfying to dismiss similar reports as mere scare-mongering, but
the record and its lessons re: non-proliferation and deterrence are more
conplex.  For example, while centrifuge enrichment proved to be a non-issue, the
Iraqi calutron-based uranium enrichment program was far more extensive than
thought, and its signatures were missed by coalition intelligence and

The following by arms control expert David Albright* and Mark Hibbs appeared in
the journal "Bulletin of Atomic Scientists".

Drew Hamre
Golden Valley, MN USA

* Bio:


March 1991
Vol. 47, No. 2

Hyping the Iraqi bomb.
By David Albright and Mark Hibbs

Two days after a November poll concluded that Americans would support a war in
the Persian Gulf if it would keep Iraq from getting the bomb, President Bush
suggested that Iraq's bomb was only months away.

Credible estimates of the amount of time Iraq needs to produce weapon grade
uranium range between five and ten years--just about where they were when Saddam
Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2. But that message was distorted for a few
weeks in late 1990, while the United States prepared for war.

On November 22, President George Bush told U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia that Iraq
was a lot closer to possession of nuclear weapons. "Those who would measure the
timetable for Saddam's atomic program in years may be seriously underestimating
the reality of that situation and the gravity of the threat," Bush said.

By the New Year, Iraqs nuclear threat had receded. "How soon will Saddam get the
bomb?" the title of a Time article asked in mid-December. "Not nearly so soon as
the Bush Administration claims," it prudently concluded.

The administration was not the only source of the exaggerated claims, however.
As the United States prepared to go to war with Iraq, the interests of the
administration, some nonproliferation experts, and media feature editors
coalesced. Together they escalated Iraq's nuclear threat on the basis of sketchy
and sometimes bad or incomplete information.

During the late 1980s Iraqs ongoing effort to make nuclear weapons made only
sporadic headlines. On the eve of a visit to the United States by Israeli
Premier Yitzhak Shamir in April 1988, the Washington Post asserted that Iraq had
a secret two year crash program to develop a nuclear weapon, financed by Saudi
Arabia. Two years later, an internationally coordinated sting operation exposed
an Iraqi attempt to acquire detonator components usable in nuclear weapons [see
the preceding article]. Neither event prompted a significant reassessment of the
timetable for an Iraqi nuclear weapon. "Too much important know- how and
technology was missing," according to an official at the U.S. Arms Control and
Disarmament Agency.

Another strain of the story focused on Iraqs effort to develop centrifuges to
enrich uranium for use in weapons. Before the invasion, Der Spiegel, followed by
U.S. nonproliferation and export control experts, asserted that machine tools
acquired by Iraq from Germany could be used to make centrifuges.1 But no one who
made these claims pointed out the difference between making centrifuges and
making some centrifuge components. That distinction "could make a difference of
about five years" in Iraq' s enrichment timetable, according to an official at
Urenco the European trilateral centrifuge manufacturer and operator whose plans
were diverted to Iraq.

It was also said that Iraq had working centrifuges. Based on unspecified
sources, William Safire asserted in a series of five articles in the New York
Times between August and November that Iraq was enriching uranium with 26
centrifuges on hand and was producing a lot more centrifuges. "With the first
few thousand off the line, a 'cascade' can be set up to separate U-235 from
uranium in a gaseous state. Each cascade can turn out 50 pounds of weapons-grade
uranium-enough for a city-destroying atom bomb-every three months." 2

U.S. officials who watch Iraqs nuclear program say they have never seen any
intelligence documents indicating that Iraq has 26 working centrifuges, or any
at all. They assume the story was launched by Israeli officials and backed by
officials at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency who have an interest in
motivating the United States to strike Iraqi targets.

If reports that Iraq has working centrifuges are true, the credibility of
assertions that Iraq had indeed been making fast progress would be enhanced. But
statements from Bruno Stemmler, a German centrifuge engineer who saw the results
of Iraqs centrifuge development program in 1988, indicate they are far off the
mark [see the preceding article]. U.S. officials say the Stemmler report is
consistent with technical intelligence on Iraq' s centrifuge program. The report
is also consistent with recent statements by South African centrifuge engineers
about the development timetable for their own indigenous and, until now,
clandestine centrifuge effort. 3

While the invasion stirred new interest in Iraqs nuclear program, the CBS
television network was one of the first news organizations to exploit the story.
After British journalist Gwynne Roberts commissioned Soviet authorities to take
satellite photos of a site in northern Iraq, Jane' s Defence Weekly said the
site could have served several military purposes. 4 But one day later, in a
November 4 CBS 60 Minutes broadcast, the site was identified as a uranium mine.
While a number of analysts had fingered Saddam's drive toward centrifuge
technology as the key element in Iraqs nuclear weapons quest, CBS asserted
instead that lack of uranium was holding him up: "Now it seems he has just what
he needs right on his own doorstep. "The Iraqi leader was "mining [uranium] to
produce a nuclear bomb."

The complex process chain from uranium ore to weapon-grade uranium metal was
ignored. Richard Macklin, a senior researcher at the Uranium Institute, a
London-based industry organization, who was interviewed by the 60 Minutes team,
said afterward that CBS "simply assumed that Iraq had a complete fuel cycle."
The report also ignored the fact that Iraq has possessed for several years
hundreds of tons of natural uranium concentrate (yellowcake).

But by mid-November, U.S. troops were languishing in Saudi Arabia, diplomatic
initiatives were getting nowhere, and domestic support for Operation Desert
Shield was slipping, A November 20 CBS/New York Times poll concluded that a
majority of Americans would not go to war in the Gulf to protect access to
Middle East oil, but would support a military effort to prevent Iraq from
getting the bomb. A few days later President Bush asserted that Iraq might be
months away from nuclear weapons.

On November 24, 1990, just two days after Bush sounded the alarm, National
Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney clarified
that there was, in fact, no new evidence prompting an escalation of the Iraqi
nuclear threat. Statements by Bush were instead based on a " worst case
assessment" which assumed that Saddam would try to build a bomb in a hurry using
the small quantity of highly enriched uranium Iraq had pledged to use for
peaceful purposes under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The uranium
had recently been reinspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

It didn't matter. For two reasons the message took weeks to sink in.

The first is what one U.S. government nuclear official called an " emerging war
psychology" which took hold in some administration circles as the Gulf crisis
unfolded. "As long as significant interests are backing a war effort here," he
said, "nagging questions about Iraq's real nuclear capabilities just won't be

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on November 30, William
R. Graham, a defense consultant, turned the tables on those who would challenge
Gulf hawks to show evidence that Iraq was close to possessing nuclear weapons.
"Instead of asking for proof beyond a shadow of a doubt that Iraq has completed
all the design, engineering, and non- nuclear testing work required to create a
weapon," Graham said, "we should ask ourselves this question: Why wouldn't Iraq,
under Saddam Hussein, have done these things?"

Few were asking if Iraq could do them, and those who did found the burden of
proof on their shoulders. Safire insinuated that those who wanted to see
evidence were part of a "burgeoning appeasement movement" which was threatening
the president's showdown in the Gulf. 5

The second reason it took so long to put Iraqs potential nuclear threat into
perspective was the surfeit of halftruths, unsourced assertions reported as
facts, rumors, and just plain errors which already filled press clipping files.
Bush's November warning was frontpage news,. and a flurry of articles, drawing
on these files, followed into mid-December.

One Newsweek reporter was put onto the story "when our senior editors made the
connection between the White House and the media poll which shows America will
buy the message." A skeptical reporter at a major U.S. daily said in late
November he had "serious doubts" about the administration' s case. But because
editorial Wiiters had made the "Saddam bomb" a personal crusade, the reporter
said, "I'm not about to get involved until I find out from upstairs what our
story line is."

Outside experts were cited as sources of grossly inaccurate media assertions. In
its assessment of Iraq's nuclear threat, the Boston Globe, for example,
attributed a serious mistake-the assertion that Iraq could already enrich
uranium to weapons grade-to experts from the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology and the Washington-based Near East Policy Research Institute. 6

While the administration was collapsing Iraq's nuclear timetable by piling up
worst-case scenarios, both nonproliferation experts and journalists were
oversimplifying the technical processes necessary to enrich uranium. And the
shift in the burden of proof on Iraq's nuclear threat boosted the credibility of
those who re-reported allegations or rumors as fact.

Missing links in Iraq's nuclear effort-highly enriched uranium, uranium
hexafluoride gas, or centrifuge parts not found on the premises of Swiss or
German firms suspected of smuggling-were filled in, on the basis of unverifiable
sources, by secret aid from Brazil, Pakistan, or China. The apparent absence of
uranium hexafluoride feedstock for its enrichment effort was explained away by
unspecific intelligence sources asserting that Iraq has the "technology and
expertise" to make the material. 7

Polish workers returning from Iraq were cited as the sources for articles in the
New York Times asserting that Iraq was enriching uranium in more than one
location. 8 The Polish government-which supported an August NPT initiative that
could have resulted in a special inspection in Iraq to look for clandestine
facilities-checked the reports and found them not to be credible. 9 Reports
nonetheless persist that Iraq is enriching uranium at several remote locations.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger suggested late in
November that Iraq had clandestinely obtained a cache of unsafeguarded highly
enriched uranium from an outside source. He retracted the statement one day
later, but only after it had been reported in the press and added to Iraq's bomb
folklore. Gary Milhollin, a nonproliferation specialist testifying before the
U.S. Senate on November 30, suggested that he was not ready to believe the
administration's assertion. Milhollin said the administration "should make [its]
evidence public immediately and stop making vague insinuations about what Iraq
might or might not do in the next six months." Nevertheless, he postulated: "If
Iraq has acquired enriched uranium from a foreign source, the problem is much
bigger than keeping the peace in the Middle East."

The zenith of hype was reached on December 16, when the London Sunday Times
asserted that Iraq had mounted a mammoth nuclear manufacturing effort which put
Saddam Hussein only months away from a steady stream of bomb-grade uranium. The
article claimed that the Iraqis had not only completed development of single
centrifuges, but were also mass-producing them and had built an enrichment
cascade light under the noses of IAEA inspectors, at the Tuwaitha Nuclear
Research Center near Baghdad.

This time, however, the allegation was so massive it had to be checked out-and
it could not be substantiated. In re-reporting the story on December 22, the New
York Times concluded, as most experts had earlier, that Iraq is a decade away
from the ability to make nuclear weapons.

When the U.S. Gulf commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, announced January 20 that
air strikes had bombed Iraqi reactors and had crippled Iraq's "nuclear
capacity," another bonfire of speculation was ignited by outside sources.

"Specialists agreed," the Washington Post said on January 22, that "allied air
attacks ... did not necessarily eliminate [Iraq's] ability to manufacture at
least one crude atomic device." Kurdish resistance sources, who told Gwynne
Roberts in November that Iraq was mining uranium, now contended that an H-shaped
form that turned up on enhanced satellite photos was a secret reactor which
could produce plutonium.

But U.S. officials with access to hard information had a different impression.
Following a post-attack briefing of the Senate Intelligence Committee given
January 18 by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency,
and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Committee Chairman David L. Boren reflected that
before the attacks, the U.S. government had seriously overestimated Iraqs
nuclear capability.

For a number of weeks, observers in the halls of Congress, on national
television, and on the opinion pages of major newspapers had been insinuating
ambiguously that Iraq was on the brink of possessing nuclear weapons. A simple
logic drove this development: the more dramatic you made your case, the more
attention you got.

Many of these individuals have rightly pointed out that their concerns about the
spread of nuclear weapons are ignored and that the U.S. government has seldom
given its commitment to nonproliferation top priority. The cases of Pakistan and
Israel are prime examples. But when President Bush put nonproliferation on page
one, the Iraqi threat was inflated and the credibility of some administration
officials, feature editors, and nonproliferation experts suffered.


1. "Orders aus Baghdad," Der Spiegel (Dee. 18,1989), p. 93; Gary Milhollin,
"Must the U.S. Give Brazil and Iraq the Bomb?" New York Times, July 29,1990, p.

2. William Safire, "Giving Iraq Time," New York Times, Nov. 12,1990, p. A-19.

3. Daniel M. Kemp et al., "Uranium Enrichment Technologies in South Africa"
(Atomic Energy Corp. of South Africa, Oct. 1990).

4. Gwynne Roberts, "Satellite Reveals 'Uranium Mine'," Jane's Defence Weekly
(Nov. 3, 1990).

5. William Safire, "Giving Iraq Time."

6. Joshua Cooper Ramo, "Iraq and the Bomb: New U.S. Fears," Boston Globe, Aug.

7. Gary Milhollin, "A Mideast Dilemma: What Is Saddam's Nuclear Timetable?"
Washington Post, Nov. 25,1990, p. C-5.

8. Malcolm W. Browne, "Iraqi Chemical Arms: Difficult Target," New York Times,
Sept. 5,1990; Steven Engelberg, "Poles Tell of Americans Held at Iraqi Chemical
Plant," New York Times, Aug. 25,1990, p. 7.

9. Mark Hibbs, "No Centrifuge Plant in Iraq, but Investigators Seek Know-how
Source," Nucleonics Week (Oct. 18,1990), p. 7.

David Albright is a senior scientist at Friends of the Earth in Washington, D.C.
Mark Hibbs is European editor of Nuclear Fuel and Nucleonics Week, in Bonn,

September 1991
Vol. 47, No. 7

Iraq's nuclear hide-and-seek.

By David Albright and Mark Hibbs

  The high-stakes shell game Iraq has played with its clandestine nuclear
program is coming to an end. While not all information has been gathered by a
U.N. Special Commission responsible for finding and eliminating Iraq's nuclear
weapons capabilities, officials involved in the effort are confident there will
be no surprises as great as those of the last few months-especially the
revelation that Iraq may have been as close as a few years from possession of
nuclear weapons.

Six months ago, after the Pentagon ordered the destruction of Iraq' s nuclear
infrastructure, President George Bush said, "Our pinpoint attacks have put
Saddam Hussein out of the nuclear bomb-building business for a long time to
come." In an article published in the Bulletin last March, we questioned whether
bombing could accomplish that goal, since we believed that Iraq's nuclear
program had been hindered by export controls and by considerable lack of
expertise. We also surmised that it would take Iraq a year to build a single
nuclear weapon, and a number of years to produce--in a gas centrifuge plant--the
highly enriched uranium necessary to build a small nuclear arsenal.

In spring, a defecting Iraqi expert revealed that Iraq, using a technology
discarded by the United States for weapons purposes in 1945, may have been able
to produce significant quantities of highly enriched uranium within two or three

But the new revelations were apparently not alarming enough for Washington's
purposes. In June and July, when the extent of Iraq's secret program became
apparent, U.S. officials-who had hyped up Iraq's nuclear program to justify the
allied offensive in January-again leaked inflated estimates of Iraqi nuclear
prowess to eager journalists, whose front-page stories tested the waters for
another effort to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

<... snipped due to space, but recommended ...>

Still no uranium mine. U.N. officials said they asked the United States to
reevaluate the possibility that uranium was being mined in the Gara Mountains in
northern Iraq, near the Turkish border, as media accounts--notably CBS's Sixty
Minutes--suggested in late 1990. Diplomatic sources say that U.S. intelligence
investigated the suspected site but found no evidence of a uranium mine there.

<... snipped due to space, but recommended ...>

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