The Bush administration’s first public relations campaign to lobby for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was centered around the claim that Iraq had restarted its nuclear program. This was based upon Baghdad trying to buy 60,000 aluminum tubes in 2001. The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq used the tubes to claim that Iraq had renewed its atomic program. The problem was this story was always contested, especially by the Energy Department and nuclear specialists, while just one CIA analyst was able to get this claim propagated by the White House.
On April 10, 2001, the CIA filed its first report on Iraq trying to buy several thousand aluminum tubes. The paper claimed that the tubes could be used for little else other than centrifuges to enrich uranium for a bomb, although there was no real argument to prove that claim. The report did acknowledge that using aluminum was a step back for Iraq as it was using steel before the Gulf War. This was written by a CIA analyst named Joe at its Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control (WINPAC) division. He worked in the nuclear field in the 1990s, including a stint at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of America’s pre-eminent facilities. All of the major reporting out of the Agency on the tubes would come from Joe, and his work would go on to be repeated by other U.S. intelligence agencies and by the White House.
The main critic of the CIA’s position was the Energy Department (DOE). It wrote its own analysis of the tubes on April 11 arguing that they could be for centrifuges but their specifications weren’t right for any that Iraq used before. It pointed out that the large quantity Iraq tried to put would point to a large scale nuclear program, which no one had evidence of. The purchase was also public, and Baghdad was arguing over prices, not something that a country trying to secretly rebuild its capabilities would do. Finally, Energy put out its own thesis that the tubes were meant for conventional rockets. A second DOE report on May 9 found that the tubes fit the specifications for rocket launchers, which Iraq had used before. The Energy Department made a much more convincing argument than the CIA’s. It gave an analysis of how the tubes were made, finding that they did not match any centrifuge plans Iraq had used before, and that they fit rockets instead.
These two views started a debate within the intelligence community over the purpose of the tubes. From June 2001 to July 2002 the CIA issued 10 assessments on the tubes, all saying that they were for centrifuges. In one report from July 2, 2001, CIA analyst Joe argued that the tubes far exceeded the specifications for rocket launchers, and did match those of the 1950s Zippe centrifuge design. On August 2, 2001, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) compared the views of the CIA and Energy Department and threw in with the former, agreeing that the tubes could work with the Zippe plans. The Energy Department countered with an August 17 paper that the tubes not only did not match any centrifuges Iraq ever used, but not any centrifuges that ever worked. Finally, during the drafting of the October National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the pre-eminent report on Iraq’s weapons program, the Energy Department was joined by the State Department in the criticism of the CIA and DIA position. The two dissenters were given their own side boxes in the NIE on the subject as a result, but the CIA’s view became the basis for almost the entire section on the tubes and Baghdad’s nuclear program. The CIA had the weaker argument, but given its standing in the intelligence community it was able to overcome the objections of the Energy and State Departments, especially because it had the backing of the DIA.
In September 2002, the Bush administration began its first public relations campaign to convince the American public that Iraq was a threat based upon the CIA’s reporting on the aluminum tubes. The White House leaked the tubes story to the New York Times, which wrote two articles on it in September. Officials told the Times that Iraq was trying to buy materials for its nuclear program, which started in 2001 with the tubes. They repeated the CIA’s positions that the tubes were for centrifuges. The second piece noted that there was a debate about the tubes, but that the majority opinion, which included the CIA, National Security Agency, and the Oak Ridge facility believed that they were for centrifuges, with the State and Energy Departments disagreeing. This was topped off by several administration officials saying they didn’t want proof that Iraq had a nuclear program to be a mushroom cloud. That story and line would be repeated by the administration in papers, statements, TV appearances, and speeches from September until the war in 2003. The problem was the White House’s claims were not completely true. The director at Oak Ridge said that it and other nuclear specialists did not agree with the CIA on the tubes. That didn’t matter as the government held the attention of the press and headlines, dominating the coverage. The Energy Department and its supporters launched its own media campaign talking to outlets like the Washington Post, Knight Ridder, England’s Guardian, and local papers, but they never got the front pages or the lead stories on TV like the administration could.
In 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was taking part in the inspections in Iraq reported that the tubes were likely for rockets not centrifuges. In January, the IAEA said that the tubes would not work as centrifuges. IAEA head Mohammed El-Baradei told the United Nations Security Council that the tubes were for rockets. That led CIA analyst Joe to travel to Vienna to argue his case with the agency, but they were not convinced. The response in Washington was that the IAEA was being deceived by Iraq, and that the intelligence agencies stood by their assessment. Here again, another set of nuclear experts were being dismissed for the opinion of a single analyst within the CIA. The White House wanted to push the worst-case scenarios because they supported its campaign to build support for war. The CIA on the other hand, believed that Iraq had reconstituted all its weapons programs, and therefore was all too willing to back reports like the aluminum tubes.
In the end, the aluminum tubes story was another failure of the U.S. intelligence community. The CIA’s standing not only got it to win the debate within the community with a weak argument, but its reports got to the highest levels of government, while those of the Energy and State Departments did not. The White House in turn, went with whatever negative reports it could find to mount its campaign against Iraq. Officials might have known about the debate over the usages of the tubes, but if reports such as the NIE said that Iraq had reconstitution its nuclear program and the tubes were the reason why it would go with that over a sidebar by the Energy or State Departments. When the dust had settled and Saddam was toppled it would turn out that the tubes were for rockets, and various reviews by bodies such as the Senate Intelligence Committee and the presidential commission on WMD lamented how things played out. The fact was, the CIA wanted to believe that Iraq had a nuclear program, and therefore went with Joe’s analysis over everyone else’s. That was also exactly what the government was looking for, and why it used it in its public campaign.
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