National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said yesterday it is still unclear whether Iraq attempted to procure tens of thousands of aluminum tubes for a nuclear weapons program or a conventional rocket program, despite conclusions by the Senate intelligence committee and U.N. investigators that the tubes could not be used in any nuclear program.
"As I understand it, people are still debating this," Rice said on ABC's "This Week" program. "And I'm sure they will continue to debate it."
As the Bush administration readied to attack Iraq, the tubes had formed a central part of its intelligence case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein posed a grave threat to the United States. In 2002, Rice had said that the tubes were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs," adding that "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
But, as reported by The Washington Post more than a year ago, the internal debate among intelligence analysts was intense, with the experts at the Department of Energy who specialize in uranium enrichment adamant that the tubes were not suitable for a nuclear program. They argued that the tubes were intended for Iraqi rockets.
Administration officials at the time did not acknowledge that debate, though Rice acknowledged yesterday she was aware of it. "I knew that there was a dispute," she said. "I actually didn't really know the nature of the dispute."
But, she said, "a policymaker cannot afford to be on the wrong side, underestimating the ability of a tyrant like Saddam Hussein." She said she stood by "the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein and remove this threat to American security."
In July, a bipartisan report by the Senate intelligence committee, which reviewed all of the intelligence on the tubes, said that information available to intelligence analysts "indicated that these tubes were intended to be used for an Iraqi conventional rocket program and not a nuclear program." The report also said that assertions that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program were "not supported by the intelligence."
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, who has written extensively on the tubes, said that Rice "was grasping at straws" to suggest there is still a debate on the issue. He said there is little dispute within the intelligence community now, with the "overwhelming number of experts and the evidence" concluding the Energy Department analysis was correct.
"I think she is being disingenuous, and just departing from any effort to find the truth," Albright added.