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[casi] Aluminum Tube Hype (USA Today Investigative Article)

Source: Bill Nichols and John Diamond, "Speculation, fact hard to separate
in story of Iraq's 'nuclear' tubes", USA Today, 2 August 2003,


WASHINGTON — President Bush has been under heavy criticism for 16 disputed
words in his State of the Union address about Iraq's attempts to buy uranium
in Africa. Far less attention has been paid to the next 20 words he said
that night — the administration's other prime piece of evidence alleging
that Saddam Hussein was trying to build a nuclear bomb.

"Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase
high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production," Bush
told the nation.

Bush's assertion sounded straightforward. In fact, though, it glossed over
serious internal disagreements about what the tubes were for and may have
been as shaky as the uranium-from-Africa charge. Interviews with
administration officials, weapons experts, critics of the administration and
members of Congress reveal deep doubts about the claims and emphasize the
ambiguity of even the best intelligence information.

Behind the scenes, U.S. intelligence professionals disagreed strongly about
why Iraq wanted the tubes. It's not unusual for intelligence experts to
argue about complicated topics. But in the case of Iraq, where the evidence
was ambiguous and experts were divided, the White House consistently
downplayed the uncertainty and backed the interpretation most likely to
support the case for war. And at crucial moments, such as the president's
nationally televised speech to Congress on Jan. 28, the White House
presented hotly disputed assertions as if they were indisputable fact.

Since the fall of Saddam's regime, no new evidence has emerged to support
the conclusion that the aluminum tubes were destined for the manufacture of
nuclear weapons. If the allegation about the tubes falls through, two key
pillars of the administration's claim that Iraq was aggressively pursuing
nuclear weapons will have been undercut.

"In speech after speech, TV appearance after TV appearance, the most senior
administration officials left the impression with the American people that
Iraq was on the verge of reconstituting nuclear weapons," Sen. Joseph Biden,
D-Del., said Thursday at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The truth
is that there was an ongoing debate within our intelligence community about
each of these allegations."


Administration officials point out that a week after Bush's speech, in a
presentation to the United Nations Security Council, Secretary of State
Colin Powell acknowledged "controversy" and "differences of opinion" about
the tubes. The administration continues to support its tubes claim, and even
critics acknowledge that there is no definitive evidence on the issue. White
House Communications Director Dan Bartlett told reporters last week that
"there was a very open discussion about that. It is an assessment which (CIA
Director George Tenet) and the CIA stand by to this day."

The tubes in question were intercepted in Jordan in 2001 on their way to
Iraq. The shipment, which originated in China and contained about 60,000
tubes, was intercepted by a means that U.S. intelligence officials have
declined to identify. Iraq kept trying to get tubes; at least one more
shipment was blocked in 2002.

The CIA argued, in an October 2002 intelligence paper on Iraq, that the
tubes were destined to become part of a uranium-enrichment plant, a key tool
for making high-grade material for nuclear bombs.

But British intelligence questioned whether the tubes were intended for a
nuclear use. And experts at the Department of Energy, which oversees uranium
enrichment and nuclear bomb production in the United States, said the tubes
were too long and too thick for such use. State Department intelligence
officials backed up that analysis and concluded the tubes were the right
size and shape for conventional battlefield rockets.

Iraqi officials, in public statements and interviews with U.N. weapons
inspectors, insisted the tubes were meant for use in rockets. Iraq had
imported similar tubes earlier to make rockets, and some of the new tubes
even bore an inscription that included the word "rocket."

Those concerns were delivered to the White House by the CIA in classified
reports four months before the State of the Union address. Yet Bush made no
mention of the concerns or of the doubts that British intelligence had about
the tubes. In the case of the uranium charge, Bush directly cited British
intelligence as the source.

For the most part, the divisions within the Bush administration about the
intelligence on Iraq's weapons remained secret until after the war.
Confronted with differences of opinion, as in the case of the tubes, the
administration repeatedly adopted the interpretation that advanced the case
for war. Other examples:

•British intelligence said Iraq sought uranium in Africa. The CIA repeatedly
raised doubts about that charge. Bush sided with the British, though the
White House later said that was a mistake.

•The CIA concluded that Iraq was developing unmanned aerial vehicles
primarily for use in delivering chemical and biological weapons. But
recently declassified CIA documents show that the Air Force's intelligence
chief, Maj. Gen. Ronald Sams, disagreed. He said the small size of Iraq's
fleet of such aircraft "strongly suggests a primary role of reconnaissance."
The White House sided with the CIA position.


Iraq's efforts to buy aluminum tubes came to light on Sept. 8, 2002, four
days before Bush delivered a much-anticipated speech on Iraq to the U.N.
General Assembly. A front-page story in The New York Times disclosed the
administration's suspicion that shipments of aluminum tubes intercepted
earlier that year and in 2001 were intended for use in uranium enrichment.

Enrichment is a large-scale industrial process that involves the
introduction of a gaseous form of uranium into a fast-spinning metal drum.
The idea is to separate bomb-grade uranium, known as U-235, from a far more
abundant kind, U-238.

The newspaper article appeared the same day Vice President Cheney and
national security adviser Condoleezza Rice spoke on Sunday talk shows.

"We do know with absolute certainty that (Saddam) is using his procurement
system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build
a nuclear weapon," Cheney said on NBC's Meet The Press.

The tubes "are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge
programs," Rice said on CNN's Late Edition. Rice sticks to that claim today.
She says the key judgment that the tubes were for uranium enrichment was
made not at the White House but at the CIA.

In Powell's presentation to the Security Council on Feb. 5, he acknowledged
disagreements about the intended use of the tubes but said "most U.S.
experts think they are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to
enrich uranium."

A former U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity,
says Powell made that statement after having been warned on two occasions by
the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research that the tubes were
more likely to be used in rockets. The former official helped prepare the
briefings for Powell.

The doubts Powell mentioned to the U.N. had actually coalesced months
earlier in a CIA-coordinated intelligence overview, which was given in
classified form to high-level administration officials in October. The
public, however, got only a partial window into the document's findings.

A summary of the overview released in October said: "All intelligence
experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons and that these tubes
could be used in a centrifuge enrichment program. Most intelligence
specialists assess this to be the intended use, but some believe that these
tubes are probably intended for conventional weapons programs."

A classified version of the intelligence estimate released to the public
last month offers a fuller account. The main text says the Energy Department
"agrees that reconstitution of the nuclear program is underway but assesses
that the tubes probably are not part of the program." A lengthy footnote
notes that Energy Department technical experts concluded "that the tubes
Iraq seeks to acquire are poorly suited for use in gas centrifuges to be
used for uranium enrichment."

State Department intelligence specialists concurred and added reasons of
their own: The large numbers of tubes that Iraq tried to buy, the way Iraq
planned to test them, and an "atypical lack of attention to operational
security" in the way Iraq went about trying to buy them all indicated an
intended use far less sensitive than nuclear arms production.


The tubes confiscated in Jordan were about 1 meter long and 81 millimeters
in diameter (about 39 inches by 3 inches). They closely match the
specifications for a conventional rocket on the international market for
more than two decades. Iraq imported the same type of tube in the 1980s.

The CIA's opinion was heavily influenced by an investigation conducted by
the U.S. Army National Ground Intelligence Center. This organization
concluded that the engineering tolerances on the tubes in the 2001 shipment
were so tight as to rule out any use other than centrifuges. The tolerances
demanded by the Iraqis on these tubes exceeded the Pentagon's strict
requirements for Army multiple-launch rocket systems.

The Energy and State departments argued a different case, an opinion
supported by many private experts. In a March 10 paper on the topic, former
U.N. nuclear inspector David Albright said that although the tubes could be
modified for use in a centrifuge, their thickness and diameter would make
that very difficult.

Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security in
Washington, wrote that "the vast majority of gas centrifuge experts in this
country and abroad who are knowledgeable reject the CIA's case and do not
believe the tubes are specifically designed for gas centrifuges."

On March 8 — 11 days before the war in Iraq started — Mohamed ElBaradei,
director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the Security
Council that investigators had found no evidence that Iraq intended to use
the tubes for any project other than rockets.

To this day, the impasse over the tubes continues. "We know the
administration's best technical experts concluded that the tubes were
'poorly suited' for nuclear weapons production," says Rep. Henry Waxman,
D-Calif., a leading administration critic. "I don't understand why the
president ignored their expertise and objections."


Nathaniel Hurd
Consultant on Iraq policy
Tel. (Mobile): 917-407-3389
Fax: 718-504-4224
777 1st Avenue
Suite 7A
New York, NY  10017

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