Tuesday :: Nov 29, 2005

WMDgate: Fixing Intelligence Around Policy - The Aluminum Tubes, Part 2B-2

by eriposte

This post is part of a series (see Introduction and Parts 1, 2A-1, 2A-2, 2A-3, 2A-4, 2A-5, 2B-1) focused on building a case to demonstrate the Bush White House's intelligence manipulation, fixing and misrepresentation, mostly using published Congressional reports like the Phase I Senate (SSCI) Report, the Robb-Silberman WMD Commission Report, etc. While it is clear that even without the use of Congressional reports, the case against the Bush White House is pretty solid - see here and here for example - I wanted to demonstrate that the parliamentary reports, rather than make the case against the White House weaker, actually make it stronger. [Note: All extracts from published reports may have lost some original formatting (in particular, italics). This is unintentional, but it does not change the meaning or content in any way. All emphasis (bold) is mine.]

Part 2A-1 through Part 2A-5 used CIA, DIA, DOE, INR and foreign intelligence reporting (British, UN/IAEA, Australian) to demonstrate that the Bush administration made deliberately false or misleading statements on the end use of the aluminum tubes in early September 2002. In Part 2B-1, I showed that in the post-September 2002 period, the Bush administration's mendacity was even more inexcusable considering that the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) had prominent dissents by INR (and DOE) on the purported end use of the tubes. In particular, INR and DOE explicitly pointed out that the tubes were poorly suited for centrifuges and most likely intended for conventional weapons like rockets. In this part, I wrap-up the discussion on the post-September 2002 (but pre-Iraq invasion) period by focusing on additional information provided to the Bush administration by the IAEA (and to some extent, the information provided by British intelligence).

1. IAEA (UN)
2. British Intelligence
3. Conclusions

1. IAEA (UN)

Let's start with the Senate (SSCI) Report:

IAEA Investigation of Tubes

(U) After publication of the NIE but before the war had begun in Iraq, the IAEA was able to investigate Iraq's claims that the aluminum tubes were intended for its Nasser 81 rocket program. The IAEA told Committee staff that, primarily because of U.S. concerns about the tubes, investigating the tubes became one of the key lines of work during inspections in Iraq.

(U) The IAEA was able to verify that Iraq was engaged in rocket production at the Nasser 81 facility, making propellant and warheads and painting the rockets. A random spot check showed that the Iraqis had 13,000 completed rockets in their inventory. These rockets were being produced from the older 7075-T6 aluminum tubes at Nasser. Many of the older tubes had corroded because they had been stored outside and the Iraqis told the IAEA that they were trying to procure more tubes because they were going to run out of unspoiled tubes in about twelve to eighteen months. The older Nasser tubes had not been anodized, and the Iraqis told the IAEA the new anodization requirement was intended to protect the new tubes from spoiling in the elements.

(U) The bottom line assessment of the IAEA was that the tubes Iraq was trying to procure were capable of being adapted for use in a uranium centrifuge, but that it would require significant research and development and technical skills which would require years of work, even for people who knew what they were doing. The IAEA officials said they could not totally disregard the scenario that the tubes could be used in a centrifuge, but there were many inconsistencies with that scenario, while the theory that the tubes were being used for rockets was completely consistent with the evidence in Iraq.

David Albright at ISIS discussed the IAEA efforts and reporting in some detail (and this matches the broad outlines of what was discussed in an October 2004 NYT article). As Albright noted:

After the IAEA inspectors returned to Iraq in December 2002, they started to collect strong evidence that cast doubt on the administration’s case about the tubes. Increasingly, the IAEA became convinced that the tubes were for rockets and not centrifuges. On January 27, 2003 the IAEA’s Director General Mohamed El Baradei briefed the UN Security Council on the status of nuclear inspections in Iraq. He said that the “specifications of the aluminum tubes recently sought by Iraq appear to be consistent with reverse engineering of rockets.” He added that although the tubes could be modified for use in a centrifuge, “they are not directly suitable for such use.” But he added that the IAEA investigation continued (see Part III).

The IAEA had arrived at this conclusion despite a visit from the US government about a week earlier. The CIA again sent Joe to Vienna to challenge the IAEA’s assessments. During a January 22nd briefing, he reiterated that the tubes were too good for rockets. According to an August 10, 2003 Washington Post article, Joe told the IAEA experts that they were making a serious mistake and described the rocket story as a transparent Iraqi lie. According to this article, which quotes people familiar with the slide presentation that afterwards circulated among government and outside specialists, Joe said that the aluminum tubes were “overspecified.” He added that the high-strength aluminum was “inappropriate” and “excessively strong.”

One DOE expert, who reviewed Joe’s briefing, was surprised and angered that DOE’s comments on Joe’s presentation had not been accepted by the CIA. Normally, any briefing presented to a UN agency would be subject to interagency review. DOE had provided corrections to Joe’s presentations and all were ignored. This expert said that part of the briefing was intellectually dishonest. Joe was specifically referring to a table in the briefing that compared certain characteristics, such as the length, diameter, and material, of the tubes Iraq was trying to buy. He specifically showed the Beams and older Zippe centrifuge in this table, but he did not make a comparison to the rockets Iraq bought, despite those numbers matching in every respect (see table 1). In the table in the briefing, the centrifuge matches were only partial. There were no good matches in any dimension, and every match required that Iraq would have to make some major modification to get an exact match. Joe was known to have had the values for the rocket, but he omitted it from his table, sparking the dishonesty comment.
On the Iraqi nuclear weapons program, Powell’s case rested fundamentally on the aluminum tubes. He started by asserting that “Saddam Hussein is determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb.” Powell said that Saddam is “so determined that he has made repeated covert attempts to acquire high-specification aluminum tubes from 11 countries.” He concluded: “Most US experts think they are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium.” Powell was in fact stating that several Defense Department agencies reporting to Donald Rumsfeld had sided with the CIA. He did not say that most individual experts agreed that the conclusion was false.

He said:

“I am no expert on centrifuge tubes, but just as an old army trooper, I can tell you a couple of things. First, it strikes me as quite odd that these tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that far exceeds US requirements for comparable rockets. Maybe the Iraqis just manufacture their conventional weapons to a higher standard than we do, but I don't think so. Second, we actually have examined tubes from several different batches that were seized clandestinely before they reached Baghdad. What we notice in these different batches is a progression to higher and higher levels of specification, including in the latest batch an anodized coating on extremely smooth inner and outer surfaces. Why would they continue refining the specifications, go to all that trouble for something that, if it was a rocket, would soon be blown into shrapnel when it went off?"

Powell ignored the growing body of criticism about the administration’s view on the tubes. He did not mention the existence of the reverse-engineered Iraqi rocket that was under production in Iraq, or information that contradicted his claims about the significance of the tighter tolerances. He also did not mention that the tubes are rocket motors and not the warhead. The motor must be anodized or carefully painted to prevent corrosion. Even a small pit caused by corrosion can cause the rocket motor to fail and kill the person launching it. By then, the IAEA had established an alternative, logical explanation for the tightened tolerances that supported the use of the tubes in rockets. In addition, both the Department of Energy and the State Department’s intelligence branch provided significant comments on drafts of Powell’s speech. Their comments were ignored.

Senior IAEA officials had personally briefed Powell about many of their findings in December 2002, when El Baradei and Jacques Baute, the head of the IAEA’s Iraq Nuclear Verification Office, met Powell in Washington. Powell told them that the tubes were giving him a headache. He appeared well aware that there was a controversy about the tubes. The IAEA officials reported on their findings that raised serious doubts about the CIA’s claim.

According to the August 10, 2003 Washington Post, Powell’s CIA briefers, using information originating from Joe, told him that Iraq had over-specified the tubes, increasing expense without making them more useful for rockets. Reportedly, that argument helped persuade Powell that Iraq had another purpose for the tubes.

Powell continued the administration’s strategy of attacking critics. He mentioned that disagreement existed among experts about the purpose of the tubes, but he then dismissed it as a minority view. He said, "Other experts, and the Iraqis themselves, argue that they are really to produce the rocket bodies for a conventional weapon, a multiple rocket launcher."

Many experts, including DOE scientists, felt insulted and accused of being disloyal for their technical assessments. Houston Wood captured their sentiment in the October 2003 Four Corners television program. He said:

That really was like a slap in the face. And I think that my friends in the Department of Energy felt shocked by that. He said, "the Iraqis and other experts". We were thrown in the same camp as the Iraqis. We were trying to argue with the Iraqis. And that was hurtful when he said it in that way.

Part III: IAEA Inspection Results

When inspections resumed in December 2002, the IAEA focused on Iraq’s actual and potential use of aluminum tubes. In particular, the inspectors investigated Iraq’s past use of similar aluminum tubes, its short-range 81-mm rocket programs, recent attempted procurements of aluminum tubes, and the status of any Iraqi gas centrifuge program.

The inspectors found that the Iraqi decision-making process about the design of these rockets was well documented. Iraq provided the inspectors with copies of design documents, procurement records, minutes of committee meetings, and supporting data and samples. Some of this information was obtained during no-notice inspections of Iraqi facilities. The inspectors also interviewed several Iraqis involved in the rocket and former gas centrifuge programs.

On March 7, 2003, El Baradei reported the IAEA’s major findings on the aluminum tubes to the Security Council. After conducting a thorough investigation of Iraq's attempts to purchase large quantities of high-strength aluminum tubes, he said that extensive field investigation and document analysis failed to uncover any evidence that Iraq intended to use these 81 millimeter tubes for any project other than the reverse engineering of rockets. He said that the IAEA had found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq. The IAEA also did not find any evidence that any of the 160,000 tubes Iraq imported in the 1980’s had been diverted to centrifuges.

The IAEA assembled a specially qualified team of international centrifuge manufacturing experts from the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. This team concluded that Iraq's efforts to import these aluminum tubes “were not likely to have been related to the manufacture of centrifuges and, moreover, that it was highly unlikely that Iraq could have achieved the considerable re-design needed to use them in a revived centrifuge program.”

The Robb-Silberman report also notes the IAEA reporting prior to the Bush SOTU and the Iraq invasion:

Outside the Intelligence Community, the IAEA, after inspections resumed in fall 2002, also weighed in on the dispute, concluding with DOE and INR that the tubes were likely intended for use in Iraq's 81 millimeter rocket program. [71] During this time the CIA continued to explain to senior policymakers that the Intelligence Community was not of one view on the most likely use for the tubes, [72] but CIA offered its own view that the "alternative explanation" for the tubes' intended use--that they would be used for rockets--was likely an Iraqi "cover story." [73]

Here's reference 71 and 72:

[71] Department of State, UNVIE Vienna 001134 (July 25, 2002); UNVIE Vienna 000240 (March 4, 2003) (Iraq explanation that tubes are for 81 mm rocket program is "credible").

[72] Senior Executive Memorandum, Questions on Why Iraq is Procuring Aluminum Tubes and What the IAEA Has Found to Date (Jan. 10, 2003) (noting that CIA, DIA, NGA, and NSA all assess that the tubes are most likely for centrifuges, while DOE intelligence and INR believe that the tubes are for the rocket program).

So, the IAEA made it very clear on multiple occasions prior to the war and prior to Bush's State of the Union in 2003 (and Powell's Feb 2003 speech) that the aluminum tubes were ill-suited to centrifuges and that they were most likely intended for Iraq's rocket program.

2. British Intelligence

The Butler Report (pages 131-132) had this to say (and as stated at the beginning of this post, all emphasis is mine - except for italics):

536. That Iraq wanted aluminium tubes was therefore never in doubt. Nor was it in doubt that they were made of a proscribed material. But the purpose for which the tubes were sought was not established. We were assured that advice was obtained not only from the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) but also from a world expert on nuclear technology who had formerly worked at British Nuclear Fuels Limited. Even so, this did not solve the puzzle. It was clear from an early date that, on the basis of the specifications of the tubes Iraq was seeking to acquire, they would have required substantial re-engineering to make them suitable for gas centrifuge use, including reducing them in length, and machining metal off the inside and outside. This was paradoxical, since Iraq had laid down very fine tolerances for the tubes.

537. The JIC, in March 2002, was careful in its description of the seized tubes:

A shipment stopped in Jordan was inspected by the IAEA, who accepted, that with some modifications, the aluminium would be suitable for use in centrifuges. But we have no definitive intelligence that the aluminium was destined for a nuclear programme.

[JIC, 15 March 2002]

538. The Government’s dossier of September 2002 said:

Intelligence shows that the present Iraqi programme is almost certainly seeking an indigenous ability to enrich uranium to the level needed for a nuclear weapon. It indicates that the approach is based on gas centrifuge uranium enrichment, one of the routes Iraq was following for producing fissile material before the Gulf War . . .

Iraq has also made repeated attempts covertly to acquire a very large quantity (60,000 or more) of specialised aluminium tubes. The specialised aluminium in question is subject to international export controls because of its potential application in the construction of gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium, although there is no definitive intelligence that it is destined for a nuclear programme.

539. The JIC both reported the IAEA’s caution on the need for modifications and reflected the uncertainty about the purpose to which the tubes might be put. The dossier repeated the JIC’s language on this latter point. But we consider that the omission from the dossier of the fact that the tubes would need substantial re-engineering before they could be used materially strengthened the impression that they were suitable for gas centrifuge use.

540. There was, from the outset, an alternative explanation available for the aluminium tubes. Their potential for use as rocket motor casings was mentioned in intelligence reporting as early as summer 2001. One of the earliest intelligence reports recorded that Iraq had been seeking tubes of the same precise specification from Switzerland “probably for the Iraqi Air Force”. Other reports also suggested possible conventional military uses for the tubes. Combined with the known engineering obstacles to the use of the tubes as centrifuge rotors, this uncertainty contributed to the JIC’s unwillingness to conclude that the tubes had a definite nuclear application.

Rather than add my own comments on the implications of the Butler Report's observations, I'll mention some highly observant comments from reader KM:

A quite fundamental problem with the centrifuge case, one which all of its advocates ignored, fraudulently misrepresented, or tried to minimise, was the fact that whereas the tubes sought in 2000-2 would have had to be rather seriously modified on a number of important dimensions in order to make them even candidates for use in a gas centrifuge, they were almost exactly identical (same materials, same dimensions) to tubes which Iraq was known to have purchased and to have used to build its Nasser 81-mm. rockets in 1987-9. There were many, many differences between the tubes Iraq sought and those required for Zippe centrifuges. By contrast, there were only two differences between the 2000-2 tubes and the 1987-9 tubes: (1) the anodisation of the interior of the 2000-2 tubes and (2) the high tolerances to be applied to their specs.

It is therefore no coincidence that these are really the only two points raised by Powell in his infamous UN presentation when he sought to counter possible objections to the tubes case.

The anodisation issue is quickly taken care of, and is at any rate in itself a knock against the centrifuge case, as anodisation is not only totally unnecessary for centrifuge tubing but in fact potentially deleterious to its smooth operation. Once the previous Iraqi purchase of virtually identical tubes in the 1980s was widely known, the tolerances question was really the only card the Admin/CIA had.

But here's the devastating point put in so concise and (perhaps predictably) so understated a fashion by the Butler Report: the aluminum tubes sought by Iraq in 2000-2 would have had to be substantially machined in order to make them suitable for gas centrifuge use (e.g. in order to reduce the tubes' thickness to about a third of its original value). But "This was paradoxical, since Iraq had laid down very fine tolerances for the tubes." If the tubes had to be machined inside and out, the tolerances of the original construction would have been meaningless, as then the only tolerances applying to the finished tubes would be those governing the new machining.

So not only did it make no sense that the Iraqis would specify very high tolerances on the tubes they sought, when they would just have to machine those tolerances away anyway; as a matter of brute fact the machining that would be necessary to convert the tubes to centrifuge use made any original tolerances to which the tubes were first constructed completely irrelevant. It really didn't matter what tolerances the Iraqis had specified. If the Iraqis had been after the tubes for nuclear purposes, the tolerances they ordered for the tubes' initial construction would have been utterly meaningless and irrelevant to the final product and its end use.

This fact alone completely rubbishes the entire argument about tolerances -- and hence, in effect, the whole centrifuge case. (There are, nevertheless, many other devastating points that apply to the tolerances argument.)

KM also added:

...the very same machining required to make the tubes candidates for centrifuge use would also of course destroy any interior-surface anodisation which had originally been applied. So there goes the anodisation argument too.

It turns out, the British Hutton Report also looked at the coverage of the aluminum tubes topic in the September 2002 British dossier and KM made an important observation in that context as well:

On Sept. 19 [2002], however, a third draft of the [British] dossier was issued and distributed, with a memo from Scarlett attached. Among other things that memo said:

"I should draw your attention to some changes to the Executive Summary, reflecting comments from the Foreign Office.... In particular you should note that we have toned down the reference to aluminium tubes in paragraph 22 on page 28, and removed it from the Executive Summary. This reflects some very recent exchanges on intelligence channels."

There are many comments that could be made on this. At the very least it's worth pointing out:

(a) One presumes that the "exchanges" were with foreign, not British, intelligence. This entails that dissenting (and apparently pretty authoritative) intelligence -- perhaps from multiple venues -- not only existed but was being shared with the British and, one assumes, others. One wonders with whom (plural?) the "exchanges" (plural) were. (IAEA? Foreign agencies or intelligence services? -- clearly, as you point out, Australia's ONA was aware that "US agencies differ[ed]" on the subject.) Almost certainly some of the "exchanges" occurred prior to Sept. 12.

(b) The British were both able to engage in and -- ultimately, and however reluctantly -- willing to heed "exchanges on intelligence channels" that cast doubt on the reliability of the aluminum claims. Contrast, if you will, WINPAC and the White House -- who, to emphasise a crucial point I've raised before, were actors here.

Reader KM's comments capture the issue concisely. Let's just say that, at the minimum, the British Dossier of September 2002 had stated that "there is no definitive intelligence that [the tubes are] destined for a nuclear programme".

3. Conclusions

The White House (including the President) was aware of the IAEA's position prior to the 2003 State of the Union. The White House was briefed using the following memo (via the Robb-Silberman report):

[72] Senior Executive Memorandum, Questions on Why Iraq is Procuring Aluminum Tubes and What the IAEA Has Found to Date (Jan. 10, 2003) (noting that CIA, DIA, NGA, and NSA all assess that the tubes are most likely for centrifuges, while DOE intelligence and INR believe that the tubes are for the rocket program).

Additionally, the IAEA made it's position very clear to Powell in December 2002 and to the U.N. Security Council (including the U.S. Government) on January 27, 2003 (prior to the Bush SOTU). Specifically (via David Albright):

On January 27, 2003 the IAEA’s Director General Mohamed El Baradei briefed the UN Security Council on the status of nuclear inspections in Iraq. He said that the “specifications of the aluminum tubes recently sought by Iraq appear to be consistent with reverse engineering of rockets.” He added that although the tubes could be modified for use in a centrifuge, “they are not directly suitable for such use.”

Yet, Bush administration officials made the following claims (among others, including Powell's) in the post-September 2002 period, and even after the IAEA report on January 27, 2003 which said that the tubes "are not directly suitable for" use in centrifuges:

Iraq has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes and other equipment needed for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. - George Bush, October 7, 2002

I will say this is something that the President has said publicly, that Iraq did, in fact, seek to buy these tubes for the purpose of producing, not as Iraq now claims conventional forces, but for the purpose of trying to produce nuclear weapons. And so it's, on the one hand, mildly encouraging that Iraq would now admit to what it's been doing. But on the other hand, a lie is still a lie, because these -- they sought to produce these for the purpose of production of nuclear weapons, not conventional. - Ari Fleischer, December 2, 2002

Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide. - George Bush, January 28, 2003

Are we convinced that those tubes were designed and were intended for enrichment of uranium? The answer is definitely, yes. - John Negroponte, January 29, 2003

Thus, even in the post-September 2002 period, despite significant counter-evidence from its own nuclear intelligence experts (DOE), from INR, the IAEA and others, the Bush administration continued to repeatedly lie to, or deliberately mislead, Americans on the intended end use of the tubes, by intentionally ignoring or eliminating the evidence contrary to its false assertions.

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