Monday, March 19, 2018

How U.S. Intelligence Created An Iraqi Nuclear Threat In 2002

In 2002, the Central Intelligence Agency said that Iraq had restarted its nuclear weapons program. This was a change from its previous opinion that Baghdad had retained elements of its program, but it had not been reactivated. The Agency suffered from poor analysis and exaggeration to make its argument, and in retrospect should have never made those claims.

This change in assessment was based upon two pieces of evidence, one of which was Iraq tried to buy aluminum tubes for centrifuges to enrich uranium for a bomb. The aluminum tubes were discovered in 2001, and one CIA analyst created a theory that they were for centrifuges, and dismissed all counter arguments. That included dissenting opinions from the Energy Department, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the International Atomic Energy Agency who all said that the tubes matched Iraqi specifications for rocket launchers, and would not work as centrifuges. The CIA won the debate on the tubes because of its standing within the U.S. intelligence community, and its ideas went on to be repeated by the Bush administration. The Agency proved to be wrong however, but it took until after the 2003 invasion to admit to it. The evidence against the centrifuge theory had been strong, but the CIA discounted all of it for one man’s argument.

The other basis for the claim that Iraq had renewed its nuclear program were several reports that the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) was back at work. This was initially made in an August 2002 CIA paper, and another by the DIA in September. First, the CIA received reports that Iraq was trying to buy magnets, balancing machines, and machine tools that had dual use capabilities for weapons. The magnets were said to be going for missile development however, and Iraq was never able to buy the equipment. Second, the CIA claimed that the IAEC was expanding its facilities and research labs. In April 2002 for instance, there was a human intelligence report that the atomic commission finished construction of a new building. The commission was also going to open a PhD school in nuclear energy. There were no reports linking that activity to building a bomb however. Third, the Agency received word that staff had been reassigned to the IAEC. In fact, that was an exaggeration. The CIA had no information that scientists had recently been sent to the atomic agency, and one commission employee said there was no work on a bomb since the Gulf War. One paper said that the scientists had been consolidated, but that happened in 1998. Another report from a foreign intelligence agency said that most scientists from the program had retired, died or left. There had been management changes but that appeared to be part of a government wide reassignment. Fourth, there were several open source and intelligence reports that Saddam had met with the atomic commission and praised their work. The problem was Saddam was making similar remarks about various parts of the government at that time. For example, Saddam appeared on TV talking about the hard work of engineers at the IAEC, but also the Industry and Oil ministries and the pharmaceutical industry. In the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, it said that Saddam had told the atomic commission to double its work, but the original report said nothing about the nuclear program nor that its work had increased. Another story just claimed Saddam promised to present new plans for the IAEC’s work. Overall, this was such poor intelligence and guess work that it should have never gotten into any major reports. Yet it did, which pointed to a huge failure by the CIA and other agencies. The aluminum tubes led them to believe that Iraq was working on building a bomb again, and that led it to accept these other questionable stories.

It was based upon this shoddy intelligence work that the Bush administration claimed that Iraq was a threat, and Saddam should be overthrown. The aluminum tubes’ argument was bad enough, but at least the CIA had the tubes, and actually made a theory about them that led to a technical argument over their use. The stories about the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission were far worse. It was based upon exaggerations and extrapolations. Despite that, all of this went into the National Intelligence Estimate, the U.S. intelligence community’s overall assessment of Iraq’s weapons program. It then became part of the public relations campaign by the Bush White House for the 2003 invasion. It should have never risen to that level, but the president wanted evidence against Iraq, and U.S. intelligence largely provided what he was looking for.


Select Committee On Intelligence United States Senate, “Report On The U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments On Iraq,” 7/7/04

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