One of TPMs shrewdest

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One of TPM’s shrewdest advisors pointed my attention yesterday to the passage at the end of Saturday’s Niger-Uranium article in the Washington Post.

Officials involved in preparing the speech said there was much more internal debate over the next line of the speech, when Bush said in reference to Hussein, “Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in his Feb. 5 presentation to the United Nations, noted a disagreement about Iraq’s intentions for the tubes, which can be used in centrifuges to enrich uranium. The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency had raised those questions two weeks before the State of the Union address, saying Hussein claimed nonnuclear intentions for the tubes. In March, the IAEA said it found Hussein’s claim credible, and could all but rule out the use of the tubes in a nuclear program.

Now, some people have asked me whether this isn’t the next shoe to drop — another ominous but bogus claim about an alleged Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

I’m not willing to go that far. Not yet at least. But I do think this revelation sheds some important light on the White House’s apparent desperation to get the Niger uranium claims into the president’s state of the union speech, even in the face of so many signs and warnings that it wasn’t true.

First, what to make of the claims about the aluminum tubes?

In their recent article in The New Republic, I think Spencer Ackerman and John Judis make a pretty good case that the weight of analytic opinion was against those tubes being for a nuclear program.

The less ominous interpretation was particularly strong among those who might arguably be said to be most familiar with how you make nuclear weapons — at least those most familiar with what we might call traditional methods, as opposed to freaky-deaky approaches some allege were being employed in Iraq in the last days of Saddam (a long story we’ll get to later).

Here’s a key passage …

Some analysts from the CIA and DIA quickly came to the conclusion that the tubes were intended to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon through the kind of gas-centrifuge project Iraq had built before the first Gulf war. This interpretation seemed plausible enough at first, but over time analysts at the State Department’s INR and the Department of Energy (DOE) grew troubled. The tubes’ thick walls and particular diameter made them a poor fit for uranium enrichment, even after modification. That determination, according to the INR’s Thielmann, came from weeks of interviews with “the nation’s experts on the subject, … they’re the ones that have the labs, like Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where people really know the science and technology of enriching uranium.” Such careful study led the INR and the DOE to an alternative analysis: that the specifications of the tubes made them far better suited for artillery rockets. British intelligence experts studying the issue concurred, as did some CIA analysts.

The key though is that there was a dispute. Indeed, there still is. And that makes it different from the African uranium story about which, as Greg Thielmann makes clear, there really was no serious dispute.
Aside from those who just heard the rumor, said “cool!“, and moved on, pretty much everyone who gave it a serious look decided it didn’t add up. I strongly suspect we’ll still find that political pressure played an important role in pumping up the aluminum tube claim too. But, still, there was a dispute.

The problem was a political one. By January of this year the issue of the aluminum tubes had already become a subject of intense public debate. It was at least clear that there was another interpretation of what those tubes might be for. That meant the big public evidence for a nuclear program was in dispute. And for many opinion-leaders and citizens around the country, the threat of a nuclear-armed Saddam was the one possibility which truly warranted immediate action to remove him from power.

In that context, getting proof that Saddam was buying tons of uranium would really help seal the deal. It wasn’t just one more “data point” as Condi Rice put it today. It was a hugely significant claim, something which the White House certainly realized. It’s one thing to say someone is buying materials to build a nuclear facility. I think that to most people the assumption would be that if you’re buying many tons of uranium that’s prima facie evidence that you already have such a facility. After all, why buy tons of uranium unless you had, or were about to have, some way to start cooking it into nuclear weapons?

That’s why the Niger uranium claims were so tempting. They weren’t just “this one sentence, this 16 words” as Condi Rice repeatedly and ridiculously said today on the morning shows. They made the near-term nuclear threat appear a lot more credible.

Apparently the temptation was just too great.

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