Friday :: Apr 14, 2006

Howling Misjudgements - Part 1

by eriposte

I see that The Daily Howler's Bob Somerby is at it again. This time its an attack on Christy at Firedoglake (and the liberal blogosphere) over the issue of Fitzgerald's now-retracted statement about Scooter Libby and the NIE's key judgements. Somerby also claims (bold text is my emphasis):

In fact, Libby didn’t have to misstate in his conversation with Miller. The NIE’s key judgments did seem to imply that Iraq was seeking uranium. (“Although we assess that Saddam does not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any, he remains intent on acquiring them.”) And as they continued, these same “key judgments” flatly stated that Iraq was seeking “fissile material from abroad.” In fact, “Scooter” didn’t have to misrepresent this document to make the case he wanted to make. The “key judgements” implied that Iraq was seeking uranium...
I'm not sure where to start with this horse manure, but it did make me think, briefly, that I had perhaps stumbled on to Power Line. There is a whole bunch of B.S. that Somerby has propagated this week and, at great time cost, I decided I had to respond to it lest it once again become "conventional wisdom" amongst Bush's propagandists. This is the first part of my response.

In his post on Monday, Somerby said (emphasis mine):

Meanwhile, the “key judgments” section did include this: “Although we assess that Saddam does not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any, he remains intent on acquiring them.” And the next “key judgment” said this: “If Baghdad acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year.” In short, it was a “key judgment” of the NIE that Iraq was seeking uranium/fissile material from abroad. And the NIE did say that Iraq was “vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake” —it just didn’t include this precise statement in the “key judgments” section. (Pincus isn’t even willing to provide that full quote). Pincus is slicing it very thin in that passage from today’s paper.
The sentence I have emphasized in bold is utterly and completely wrong at so many levels; so let's examine why.

For reference, it is instructive to go back to the NIE's key judgements and read the sections Somerby is talking about. In fact, unlike what Somerby has done, let's not deliberately cherry-pick stuff - especially the wrong stuff - to make our case. Let's review everything the key judgements of the NIE said specifically on Saddam's alleged nuclear weapons programs or capabilities (not just uranium) and then discuss how Somerby is deliberately misleading his readers. In Appendix I of this post, I have captured those portions of the Key Judgements of the NIE that deal specifically with Saddam Hussein's alleged nuclear quest/weapons/programs/capabilities. In doing so, I've followed the excellent approach used in Appendix F of the Australian parliamentary report [p. 155] that highlighted the portions that were deliberately removed by the Bush administration in order to create the unclassified "White Paper" of Oct 2002. Readers may want to hop over to Appendix I, read the summary, and return here for the rest of the discussion.

1. The first problem with alleged fact-checker Somerby's narrative is that it is partly nonsensical and reflects a clear attempt to mislead readers who are not familiar with the key judgements of the NIE. The statement "If Baghdad acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year" says absolutely nothing about Saddam Hussein having sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. This key judgement only says that if Saddam acquired fissile material, he could build a nuclear weapon. It is rather unbelievable that Somerby needs to be taught basic English (the meaning of "if"), but this is the depth to which the nonsense has unfortunately descended at The Daily Howler.

In fact, Somerby has the gall to write this:

NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE ESTIMATE: If Baghdad acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year.
Big difference! According to this key judgment, Iraq wasn’t seeking uranium from abroad. It was just seeking fissile material!
You see, if we are to believe Somerby's pleasing, fairy tale rendering of Bush's claim, Bush only stated what we learnt in high-school - that if someone gets their hands on fissile material, that person could make a nuclear weapon. You see, accordingly to Somerby's fairy tale, we should all forget that Bush falsely asserted that the British had learned that Hussein did in fact recently seek significant quantities of uranium from Africa. More on this fissile material business later in this post, but let's just say that it is rather fitting that this tripe was published on the website of a word-parsing 'fact-checker' who likes to say: "Hey Rube".
2. Where we are left with, then, is the other statement by Somerby that "Meanwhile the “key judgments” section did include this: “Although we assess that Saddam does not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any, he remains intent on acquiring them.”". This is really the only statement relevant to Somerby's claim that "it was a “key judgment” of the NIE that Iraq was seeking uranium/fissile material from abroad." The problem with this statement is that Somerby has misstated the meaning of this sentence (not unexpectedly NRO pushed the same line). Let me add a comment in [] to the sentence to make it clearer, without changing its meaning in any way:
Although we assess that Saddam does not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any [nuclear weapons], he remains intent on acquiring them.
A reasonable reading of this sentence makes it clear that the phrase "acquiring them" refers to "acquiring nuclear weapons", not "acquiring uranium from Africa". Moreover, the mention of "material" may have nothing to do with uranium specifically. For example, in the SSCI Report's discussion of the nuclear reconstitution issue, there's this passage (emphasis mine):

2. Procurement Attempts for Magnets, High Speed Balancing Machines and Machine Tools

(U) Intelligence information provided to the Committee shows that Iraq was trying to procure magnets, balancing machines, and machine tools, all materials that have potential applications in a nuclear program. These materials, however, are all dual use and none of the intelligence provided said that the materials were intended for a nuclear end user [sic].

[Incidentally, the State/INR dissent attached to the NIE key judgements (Appendix I) specifically laid out objections to the NIE's nuclear claims - and the dual use angle was one of them].

In fact, after expressing such certainty about his brilliance on Monday, Somerby pared back his assertion on Tuesday:

Is “sufficient material” a reference to uranium? We don’t know, but that seems like a sensible reading. And yes, this is from the NIE’s “key judgments.” If that is a reference to uranium, then Libby’s alleged statement to Miller about the “key judgments” wouldn’t necessarily be wrong (depending on what “them” means).
So, on Monday, Somerby was certain that the key judgements clearly referred to the uranium claim, and on Tuesday, he was not so sure anymore ("we don't know", "if"). Not surprisingly, Thursday was a day to celebrate how he was "right" on Monday and Tuesday. This is the kind of nonsensical discourse one normally expects from, say Power Line, but on the uranium matter this has become almost a trademarked approach at The Daily Howler.

Before we move on, let me re-emphasize the main point here. On two fronts, Somerby's inference about the meaning of the passage he cites is easily challenged. This only becomes more apparent when we get into other details.

3. There's even more direct evidence against Somerby's fantasy, but let me add another point before we get to that. If read the portions of the key judgements that I've captured in Appendix I, you will notice that contrary to Somerby's claim that "the next “key judgment” said this", there was one (or two - if you consider each sentence separately) key judgement in between. This was a leading statement to a series of judgements that followed it (sentence highlighted in bold below, prior to the statement that Somerby discusses):
How quickly Iraq will obtain its first nuclear weapon depends on when it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.
  • If Baghdad acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year.

In other words, the single "key judgement" that Somerby picked out (the bullet point above) was actually a sub-item under a broader key judgement focused *ENTIRELY* on discussing Saddam's possible acquisition of weapons-grade fissile material. And here's what Somerby conveniently forgot to tell his readers. The entire section discussing Saddam's possible acquisition of fissile material says NOT one word about his having actually sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa or anywhere else. Saddam's possible acquisition is entirely discussed as hypothetical - "if" and "when" he acquires fissile-material, not that Saddam had in fact "sought fissile material from abroad or Africa". Somerby, unsurprisingly, misrepresented the significance of this section to his readers.

UPDATE: Some readers have remarked, correctly, that raw uranium or yellowcake by itself is not "fissile material". Significant processing steps using specialized equipment (e.g., large numbers of centrifuges) are required to convert uranium to fissile material. (e.g., Reader Andy said: "Iraq is supposed to have sought yellowcake uranium in Africa. But yellowcake is NOT "fissile material" -- far from it!". Reader Donald said: "uranium isn't fissile material when you mine and mill and export it from niger, or from anywhere else. raw uranium isn't fissile material, period. the key judgment is that if Iraq gets fissile material, it can make a bomb within some amount of time." Reader E points out: "There is a big difference between "Fissile materials" and yellowcake. Weapons-grade fissile material is uranium that has already been significantly enriched or plutonium. If you have the material, a uranium-based bomb is pretty simple to make. Plutonium is tougher - you have to build a reactor, run it, separate the plutonium, and then the bomb design is far more exacting. So, saying that you can make a bomb in a few months if you have the weapons-grade uranium is mostly a tautology. But getting from yellowcake to weapons-grade uranium is a very difficult and expensive process." Reader Sofla says: "Uranium in many of its forms isn't 'fissile' material, unless and until it has been 'highly enriched.' In particular, yellowcake uranium is not fissile material, as it has been barely enriched and requires much more, orders of magnitude more enrichment, before it reaches weapons grade.")

4. To people who are actually knowledgeable about the whole uranium from Africa scandal, what I mentioned in #3 above would come as no surprise. After all, the SSCI report clearly explains why the IC deliberately chose to NOT include the allegation of Saddam Hussein having sought uranium from Africa in the key judgements of the NIE. Somerby perhaps hopes that his readers will swallow his misleading nonsense and attacks against the liberal blogosphere (and media) - and celebrate his ignorance. But some of us do like to do actual fact-checking before acting like we are the father of all fact-checkers. So, what does the SSCI report say? Here's the relevant Senate Report discussion on this (emphasis mine):
(U) At the NIE coordination meeting, the only analyst who voiced disagreement with the uranium section was an INR analyst. Several analysts from other agencies told Committee staff that they did not recall even discussing the uranium reporting at the meeting. All of the analysts said that the bulk of the time at the meeting was spent debating other issues such as the aluminum tubes, time lines for weapons designs, and procurement of magnets and other dual use items. CIA, DIA and DOE analysts all said that at the time the NIE was written, they agreed with the NIE assessment that Iraq was attempting to procure uranium from Africa. Some analysts said, in retrospect, the language should have been more qualified than it was, but they generally agreed with the text.

(U) The uranium text was included only in the body of the NIE, not in the key judgments section because the interagency consensus was that Iraq's efforts to acquire uranium were not key to the argument that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. According to the NIO, the key judgments were drawn from a CIA paper which only highlighted the acquisition of aluminum tubes as the reason Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. The NIO said that at the NIE coordination meeting, analysts added other reasons they believed Iraq was reconstituting, such as acquiring magnets, machine tools, and balancing machines, and reestablishing Iraq's nuclear scientists cadre. When someone, the NIO was not sure who [7 - eRiposte note: this may have been a DOE analyst per the footnote] suggested that the uranium information be included as another sign of reconstitution, the INR Iraq nuclear analyst spoke up and said that he did not agree with the uranium reporting and that INR would be including text indicating their disagreement in their footnote on nuclear reconstitution. The NIO said he did not recall anyone else at the coordination meeting who disagreed with the uranium text, but also did not recall anyone really supporting including the uranium issue as part of the judgment that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, so he suggested that the uranium information did not need to part of the key judgments. He told Committee staff he suggested that "We'll leave it in the paper for completeness. Nobody can say we didn't connect the dots. But we don't have to put that dot in the key judgments."

Somerby, who loves to cite official reports when they allegedly make his case, should have noted this in his post. But no. That would make it rather difficult to 'catapult the propaganda', wouldn't it?

Even if Somerby had no interest in reading the SSCI report, surely he would have had time to read the spin-statement from George Tenet on July 11, 2003?

... Also in the fall of 2002, our British colleagues told us they were planning to publish an unclassified dossier that mentioned reports of Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium in Africa. Because we viewed the reporting on such acquisition attempts to be inconclusive, we expressed reservations about its inclusion...

In September and October 2002 before Senate Committees, senior intelligence officials in response to questions told members of Congress that we differed with the British dossier on the reliability of the uranium reporting.

In October, the Intelligence Community (IC) produced a classified, 90 page National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's WMD programs. There is a lengthy section in which most agencies of the Intelligence Community judged that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. Let me emphasize, the NIE's Key Judgments cited six reasons for this assessment; the African uranium issue was not one of them.

But in the interest of completeness, the report contained three paragraphs that discuss Iraq's significant 550-metric ton uranium stockpile and how it could be diverted while under IAEA safeguard. These paragraphs also cited reports that Iraq began "vigorously trying to procure" more uranium from Niger and two other African countries......Much later in the NIE text, in presenting an alternate view on another matter, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research included a sentence that states: "Finally, the claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in INR's assessment, highly dubious."

An unclassified CIA White Paper in October made no mention of the issue, again because it was not fundamental to the judgment that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, and because we had questions about some of the reporting. For the same reasons, the subject was not included in many public speeches, Congressional testimony and the Secretary of State's United Nations presentation in early 2003.

The bottom line is that in the NIE coordination meeting that took place, a deliberate decision was made to exclude the uranium claim from the NIE's key judgements. The NIO himself said that he "also did not recall anyone really supporting including the uranium issue as part of the judgment that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program". Further, the CIA paper that the NIO mentions, the one from which "the key judgments were drawn" and which "only highlighted the acquisition of aluminum tubes as the reason Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program", was none other than an August 2002 CIA paper from CIA NESA that had completely dropped the uranium claim (and likely for good reason - the claim was false).

For completeness, let me also add something I've said a few times now:

...immediately after the NIE was released, the CIA started to seriously backtrack and dismiss the uranium claim as not credible. The CIA's unclassified White Paper (which was actually a truncated version of the Key Judgements section of the classified NIE) that was released *after* the NIE was released, did not mention the uranium from Africa claim. This is important to note because even if the CIA did not want to reveal "sources and methods" (as was incredulously claimed by the WINPAC Director as the reason why he wanted the claim removed from the Bush 2003 SOTU - see Sec. 3.2.5 below) they could easily have introduced a simple, general statement that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from Africa, in the NIE Key Judgements and the White Paper (just like the British did in their own declassified White Paper released prior to the NIE). That would not have revealed sources or methods. Yet they chose not to do so - because the claim was not based on credible or reliable intelligence.

5. On top of all this, Somerby comically took credit (yes, believe it or not) for how "right" he was, in his post on Thursday, oblivious as always to his proud display of ignorance on this topic:
Readers, you can be comfortable knowing that your DAILY HOWLER is almost constantly right. By Tuesday evening, Patrick Fitzgerald had corrected last week’s filing on Scooter Libby—in a way which comported with what we wrote here on Monday and Tuesday mornings. Yes, the Web Excitables were deeply disturbed by the “selective” way Libby had briefed Judith Miller. But on Monday, we showed you how weak that reading seemed to be—and “Fitzie” came around the next day.

Utterly laughable, especially the parts in bold. Fitzgerald's correction had nothing really to do with "what" Somerby wrote "on Monday and Tuesday". Moreover, Fitzgerald's correction was, on balance, not particularly friendly to Libby.

More in my next post.

APPENDIX I: The Key Judgements in the 2002 NIE that relate specifically to Saddam Hussein's alleged nuclear quest/capabilities/weapons/programs

Following the excellent approach of this Australian parliamentary report, the portions shown underlined were those that were deliberately removed by the Bush administration, when they released the unclassified version of the key judgements as a white paper in October 2002.

We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade. (See INR alternative view at the end of these Key Judgments.)
Since inspections ended in 1998, Iraq has maintained its chemical weapons effort, energized its missile program, and invested more heavily in biological weapons; in the view of most agencies, Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.

  • Although we assess that Saddam does not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any, he remains intent on acquiring them. Most agencies assess that Baghdad started reconstituting its nuclear program about the time that UNSCOM inspectors departed—December 1998.

How quickly Iraq will obtain its first nuclear weapon depends on when it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.

  • If Baghdad acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year.
  • Without such material from abroad, Iraq probably would not be able to make a weapon until 2007 to 2009, owing to inexperience in building and operating centrifuge facilities to produce highly enriched uranium and challenges in procuring the necessary equipment and expertise.
    • Most agencies believe that Saddam’s personal interest in and Iraq’s aggressive attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuge rotors—as well as Iraq’s attempts to acquire magnets, high-speed balancing machines, and machine tools— provide compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad’s nuclear weapons program. (DOE [Department of Energy] agrees that reconstitution of the nuclear program is underway but assesses that the tubes probably are not part of the program.)
    • Iraq’s efforts to re-establish and enhance its cadre of weapons personnel as well as activities at several suspect nuclear sites further indicate that reconstitution is underway.
    • All agencies agree that about 25,000 centrifuges based on tubes of the size Iraq is trying to acquire would be capable of producing approximately two weapons’ worth of highly enriched uranium per year.
  • In a much less likely scenario, Baghdad could make enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon by 2005 to 2007 if it obtains suitable centrifuge tubes this year and has all the other materials and technological expertise necessary to build production-scale uranium enrichment facilities.


State/INR Alternative View of Iraq’s Nuclear Program

The Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research (INR) believes that Saddam continues to want nuclear weapons and that available evidence indicates that Baghdad is pursuing at least a limited effort to maintain and acquire nuclear weapon-related capabilities. The activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons. Iraq may be doing so, but INR considers the available evidence inadequate to support such a judgment. Lacking persuasive evidence that Baghdad has launched a coherent effort to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program, INR is unwilling to speculate that such an effort began soon after the departure of UN inspectors or to project a timeline for the completion of activities it does not now see happening. As a result, INR is unable to predict when Iraq could acquire a nuclear device or weapon.

In INR’s view Iraq’s efforts to acquire aluminum tubes is central to the argument that Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, but INR is not persuaded that the tubes in question are intended for use as centrifuge rotors. INR accepts the judgment of technical experts at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) who have concluded that the tubes Iraq seeks to acquire are poorly suited for use in gas centrifuges to be used for uranium enrichment and finds unpersuasive the arguments advanced by others to make the case that they are intended for that purpose. INR considers it far more likely that the tubes are intended for another purpose, most likely the production of artillery rockets. The very large quantities being sought, the way the tubes were tested by the Iraqis, and the atypical lack of attention to operational security in the procurement efforts are among the factors, in addition to the DOE assessment, that lead INR to conclude that the tubes are not intended for use in Iraq’s nuclear weapon program.

Confidence Levels for Selected Key Judgments in This Estimate

High Confidence:

• Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.

• We are not detecting portions of these weapons programs.


• Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once if [it? - eriposte note] acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.

Moderate Confidence:

• Iraq does not yet have a nuclear weapon or sufficient material to make one but is likely to have a weapon by 2007 to 2009. (See INR alternative view, page 84).



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