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Speculation, fact hard to separate in Iraq 'tubes' story
By Bill Nichols and John Diamond | USA TODAYWASHINGTON - 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.''
No definitive evidence
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.
Allegation, then doubt
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 El Baradei, 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.''