U.S. officials didn't heed doubts about Hussein's nuclear plans

Experts faulted sole piece of physical evidence

October 03, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In 2002, at a crucial juncture on the path to war, senior members of the Bush administration gave a series of speeches and interviews in which they asserted that Saddam Hussein was rebuilding his nuclear weapons program.

In a speech to veterans that August, Vice President Dick Cheney said Hussein could have an atomic bomb "fairly soon." President Bush, addressing the United Nations the next month, said there was "little doubt" about Hussein's appetite for nuclear arms.

The U.S. intelligence community had not yet concluded that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear weapons program. But as the vice president told a group of Wyoming Republicans that September, the United States had "irrefutable evidence" - thousands of tubes made of high-strength aluminum, tubes that the Bush administration said were destined for clandestine Iraqi uranium centrifuges, before some were seized at the behest of the United States.

The tubes quickly became a critical exhibit in the administration's brief against Iraq. As the only physical evidence the United States had of Hussein's revived nuclear ambitions, they gave credibility to the claims of President Bush and his advisers. The tubes were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, asserted on CNN on Sept. 8, 2002. "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

But before Rice made those remarks, she was aware that the government's foremost nuclear experts had concluded that the tubes were most likely not for nuclear weapons at all, an examination by The New York Times has found. As early as 2001, her staff had been told that these experts, at the Energy Department, believed the tubes were probably intended for small artillery rockets, according to four officials at the CIA and a senior administration official, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

"She was aware of the differences of opinion," the senior administration official said in an interview authorized by the White House. "She was also aware that at the highest level of the intelligence community, there was great confidence that these tubes were for centrifuges."

Rice's alarming description on CNN was in keeping with the Bush administration's overall treatment. Senior administration officials repeatedly omitted to fully disclose contrary views of America's leading nuclear scientists, The Times found. They sometimes overstated even the most dire intelligence assessments of the tubes, yet minimized or rejected the strong doubts of their own experts. They worried privately that the nuclear case was weak but expressed certitude in public.

The result was a largely one-sided presentation to the public that did not convey the depth of evidence and argument against the administration's most tangible proof of a revived nuclear weapons program in Iraq.

In response to questions last week about the tubes, administration officials emphasized two points: First, they said they relied on the repeated assurances of George J. Tenet, then the director of the CIA, that the tubes were for centrifuges. Second, they noted that the intelligence community, including the Energy Department, largely agreed that Hussein had revived his nuclear program.

Tenet declined to be interviewed. But in a statement, he said he "made it clear" to the White House "that the case for a possible nuclear program in Iraq was weaker than that for chemical and biological weapons."

The estimate as a whole, particularly its sections on the tubes and Iraq's nuclear programs, has been largely discredited by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The committee unanimously concluded that most of the estimate's findings about the tubes were unsupported, overstated or incorrect.

Today, 18 months after the invasion of Iraq, investigators there have found no evidence of hidden centrifuges or a revived nuclear weapons program. The absence of unconventional weapons in Iraq is now widely seen as evidence of a profound intelligence failure.

Yet the tale of the tubes, pieced together through records and interviews reveals a different failure.

Far from "group think," American nuclear and intelligence experts argued bitterly over the tubes. That debate, which started in April 2001, produced two competing theories about the tubes. One, championed by the CIA, suggested a new nuclear menace. The other, advanced by the Energy Department, suggested a regime replenishing its rocket supply.

But in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, as the nation moved to war footing, overwhelming momentum gathered behind the CIA assessment.

It was a momentum built on a pattern of haste, secrecy, ambiguity, bureaucratic maneuver and a persistent failure in the Bush administration and among Democrats in Congress to ask hard questions.

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