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Now They Tell Us

Mr. Hussein’s dogged insistence on pursuing his nuclear ambitions, along with what defectors described in interviews as Iraq’s push to improve and expand Baghdad’s chemical and biological arsenals, have brought Iraq and the United States to the brink of war.

Administration “hard-liners,” Gordon and Miller added, worried that “the first sign of a ‘smoking gun’… may be a mushroom cloud.” The piece concluded with a section on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons, relying heavily on the information supplied by Ahmed al-Shemri. “All of Iraq is one large storage facility,” he was quoted as saying.

Gordon and Miller argue that the information about the aluminum tubes was not a leak. “The administration wasn’t really ready to make its case publicly at the time,” Gordon told me. “Somebody mentioned to me this tubes thing. It took a lot to check it out.” Perhaps so, but administration officials were clearly delighted with the story. On that morning’s talk shows, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice all referred to the information in the Times story. “It’s now public,” Cheney said on Meet the Press, that Saddam Hussein “has been seeking to acquire” the “kind of tubes” needed to build a centrifuge to produce highly enriched uranium, “which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.” On CNN’s Late Edition, Rice said the tubes “are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs.” She added: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”—a phrase lifted directly from the Times.

In the days that followed, the story of the tubes received wide publicity. And, on September 12, 2002, President Bush himself, in a speech to the UN General Assembly, said that “Iraq has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon”—evidence, he added, of its “continued appetite” for such a weapon. In the following months, the tubes would become a key prop in the administration’s case for war, and the Times played a critical part in legitimizing it.

3.

From the start, however, the Times story raised doubts among many nuclear experts. One was David Albright. A physicist and former weapons inspector who directed the Institute for Science and International Security (the same group for which the defector Khidhir Hamza had worked), Albright favored a tough position on Iraq, believing Saddam to have WMD and advocating strict measures to contain him. In the summer of 2001, however, after the aluminum tubes were intercepted, he had been asked by an official to find out some information about them, and in doing so he had learned of the doubts many experts had about their suitability for use in centrifuges. Some specialists with ties to the US Department of Energy and the International Atomic Energy Agency had concluded that the tubes were more likely destined for use in conventional artillery rockets, as Iraq itself had claimed. Officials at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research would later concur.

Reading the September 8 article, Albright felt it was important for the Times to take note of these dissenting views. In the past, he had worked frequently with Judith Miller; in fact, it was Albright who had arranged for her to interview Khidhir Hamza. Although he was unavailable when Miller tried to contact him for the September 8 story, he had several long conversations with her after it was published. He then described the doubts many centrifuge experts had about the administration’s claims. And, on September 13, 2002, a follow-up story appeared. It was not, however, what Albright had expected. Six paragraphs into an article that summarized the White House’s case against Iraq, Miller and Gordon noted that senior officials acknowledged “that there have been debates among intelligence experts about Iraq’s intentions in trying to buy such tubes.” But, they quickly noted, those officials insisted that “the dominant view” in the administration was that the tubes were intended for use in centrifuges to enrich uranium. While some experts in the State and Energy Departments “had questioned whether Iraq might not be seeking the tubes for other purposes,” the article stated,

other, more senior, officials insisted last night that this was a minority view among intelligence experts and that the CIA had wide support, particularly among the government’s top technical experts and nuclear scientists. “This is a footnote, not a split,” a senior administration official said.

Yet Albright, having talked with a large number of those experts and scientists, knew that many did not support the CIA assessment. “Understanding the purpose of these tubes was very difficult,” he told me.

But hearing there’s a debate in the government was knowable by a journalist. That’s what I asked Judy to do—to alert people that there’s a debate, that there are competent people who disagreed with what the CIA was saying. I thought for sure she’d quote me or some people in the government who didn’t agree. It just wasn’t there.

The Times, he added,

made a decision to ice out the critics and insult them on top of it. People were bitter about that article—it says that the best scientists are with [the administration].

Miller rejects this. The article, she says, clearly stated that there was a debate about the tubes. As written, however, the piece gives far more attention and credence to officials who dismissed the dissenters, and the debate, as inconsequential—a “footnote.”

Frustrated, Albright began preparing his own report about the tubes. Seeking an outlet, he approached Joby Warrick of The Washington Post. In contrast to Miller and Gordon, Warrick had little experience covering national security matters; the environment was his beat. After the September 11 attacks, however, he was assigned to do investigative reporting related to the war on terrorism, and in the summer of 2002 he began looking into Iraq’s weapons programs. Calling around to officials and former inspectors, he quickly discovered that “nobody knew very much.” That, he told me, seemed particularly true of defectors. Francis Brooke, the Washington representative of the Iraqi National Congress, was constantly trying to give him information, but it never seemed to check out. “I became very frustrated at not being able to come up with anything solid showing that there were active weapons programs,” Warrick said.

Albright’s report about the aluminum tubes, however, seemed to offer an inside look at the debate within intelligence circles over Iraq’s nuclear program.2 Drawing on it, Warrick wrote an article describing how the administration’s claims about the tubes were being challenged by “independent experts” who questioned whether they “were intended for a secret nuclear weapons program” or, as some believed, for use in conventional rockets. Warrick also noted reports that the Bush administration “is trying to quiet dissent among its own analysts over how to interpret the evidence.” It was one of the first public mentions of the administration’s possible misuse of the data on Iraq. Appearing on page A18, however, the story caused little stir.

4.

Meanwhile, the tubes were drawing the notice of Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, which serves Knight Ridder’s thirty-one newspapers in the US, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Miami Herald, and The Detroit Free Press. Almost alone among national news organizations, Knight Ridder had decided to take a hard look at the administration’s justifications for war. As Washington bureau chief John Walcott recalled, in the late summer of 2002 “we began hearing from sources in the military, the intelligence community, and the foreign service of doubts about the arguments the administration was making.” Much of the dissent came from career officers disturbed over the allegations being made by political appointees. “These people,” he said, “were better informed about the details of the intelligence than the people higher up in the food chain, and they were deeply troubled by what they regarded as the administration’s deliberate misrepresentation of intelligence, ranging from overstating the case to outright fabrication.”

Walcott assigned two experienced reporters, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, to talk with those sources. Drawing on them, Landay in early September 2002 filed a report for Knight Ridder that quoted senior US officials with access to intelligence on Iraq as saying that “they have detected no alarming increase in the threat that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein poses to American security and Middle East stability.” While it was well known that Iraq was “aggressively trying to rebuild” its weapons programs, Landay noted, “there is no new intelligence that indicates the Iraqis have made significant advances” in doing so.

In early October, Landay’s curiosity was further aroused when the CIA released a declassified version of its new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. For the most part, the document blandly summarized the agency’s longstanding findings regarding Iraq’s ties to terrorists and its efforts to develop WMD. In a brief section on the aluminum tubes, however, it noted that, while the intelligence community as a whole believed the tubes were intended for use in centrifuges, some experts disagreed, believing they were intended for conventional weapons. This was a rare public acknowledgment of dissent within the intelligence agencies, and Landay, intrigued, began making more calls. He eventually reached a veteran of the US uranium enrichment program. “He’d been given data on the tubes, and he said that this wasn’t conclusive evidence,” Landay recalled. In early October, Landay wrote about how the CIA report had “exposed a sharp dispute among US intelligence experts” over Iraq’s arsenal. One expert was quoted as saying he did not believe the tubes were intended for use in nuclear weapons because “their diameters were too small and the aluminum they were made from was too hard.”

On October 8, 2002, Landay and Strobel, joined by bureau chief Walcott, filed a sharp account of the rising discontent among national security officers. “While President Bush marshals congressional and international support for invading Iraq,” the article began, “a growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals and diplomats in his own government privately have deep misgivings about the administration’s double-time march toward war.” These officials, it continued,

charge that administration hawks have exaggerated evidence of the threat that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein poses—including distorting his links to the al-Qaida terrorist network…. They charge that the administration squelches dissenting views and that intelligence analysts are under intense pressure to produce reports supporting the White House’s argument that Saddam poses such an immediate threat to the United States that pre-emptive military action is necessary.

As these reports show, there were many sources available to journalists interested in scrutinizing the administration’s statements about Iraq. Unfortunately, however, Knight Ridder has no newspaper in Washington, D.C., or New York, and its stories did not get the national attention they deserved. But in mid-October, other news organizations began to pick up on some of the same discontent Knight Ridder had documented. The Washington Post, the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian of London all ran articles raising questions about the administration’s case for war. On October 10, The New York Times ran a front-page account by Michael Gordon of the divisions within the administration “over what intelligence shows about Iraq’s intentions and its willingness to ally itself with al-Qaeda.” And on October 24, the Times, again on its front page, reported that top Pentagon officials had set up a special intelligence unit to search for data to support the case for war. Written by Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, the article cited the concerns of some intelligence analysts that civilian policymakers were politicizing the intelligence to fit their hawkish position. The view “among even some senior intelligence analysts” at the CIA, they wrote, “is that Mr. Hussein is contained and is unlikely to unleash weapons of mass destruction unless he is attacked.”

  1. 2

    See “Aluminum Tubing Is an Indicator of an Iraqi Gas Centrifuge Program: But Is the Tubing Specifically for Centrifuges?” ISIS, updated October 9, 2002, at www.isis-online.org.

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