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Depiction of Threat Outgrew Supporting Evidence

"There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons," Rice added, "but we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

Anna Perez, a communications adviser to Rice, said Rice did not come looking for an opportunity to say that. "There was nothing in her mind that said, 'I have to push the nuclear issue,' " Perez said, "but Wolf [Blitzer] asked the question."

Powell, a confidant said, found it "disquieting when people say things like mushroom clouds." But he contributed in other ways to the message. When asked about biological and chemical arms on Fox News, he brought up nuclear weapons and cited the "specialized aluminum tubing" that "we saw in reporting just this morning."

Cheney, on NBC's "Meet the Press," also mentioned the tubes and said "increasingly, we believe the United States will become the target" of an Iraqi nuclear weapon. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, on CBS's "Face the Nation," asked listeners to "imagine a September 11th with weapons of mass destruction," which would kill "tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children."

Bush evoked the mushroom cloud on Oct. 7, and on Nov. 12 Gen. Tommy R. Franks, chief of U.S. Central Command, said inaction might bring "the sight of the first mushroom cloud on one of the major population centers on this planet."

In its initial meetings, Card's Iraq task force ordered a series of white papers. After a general survey of Iraqi arms violations, the first of the single-subject papers -- never published -- was "A Grave and Gathering Danger: Saddam Hussein's Quest for Nuclear Weapons."

Wilkinson, at the time White House deputy director of communications for planning, gathered a yard-high stack of intelligence reports and press clippings.

Wilkinson said he conferred with experts from the National Security Council and Cheney's office. Other officials said Will Tobey and Susan Cook, working under senior director for counterproliferation Robert Joseph, made revisions and circulated some of the drafts. Under the standard NSC review process, they checked the facts.

In its later stages, the draft white paper coincided with production of a National Intelligence Estimate and its unclassified summary. But the WHIG, according to three officials who followed the white paper's progress, wanted gripping images and stories not available in the hedged and austere language of intelligence.

The fifth draft of the paper was obtained by The Washington Post. White House spokesmen dismissed the draft as irrelevant because Rice decided not to publish it. Wilkinson said Rice and Joseph felt the paper "was not strong enough."

The document offers insight into the Bush administration's priorities and methods in shaping a nuclear message. The white paper was assembled by some of the same team, and at the same time, as the speeches and talking points prepared for the president and top officials. A senior intelligence official said last October that the president's speechwriters took "literary license" with intelligence, a phrase applicable to language used by administration officials in some of the white paper's most emotive and misleading assertions elsewhere.

The draft white paper precedes other known instances in which the Bush administration considered the now-discredited claim that Iraq "sought uranium oxide, an essential ingredient in the enrichment process, from Africa." For a speechwriter, uranium was valuable as an image because anyone could see its connection to an atomic bomb. Despite warnings from intelligence analysts, the uranium would return again and again, including the Jan. 28 State of the Union address and three other Bush administration statements that month.

Other errors and exaggerations in public White House claims were repeated, or had their first mention, in the white paper.

Much as Blair did at Camp David, the paper attributed to U.N. arms inspectors a statement that satellite photographs show "many signs of the reconstruction and acceleration of the Iraqi nuclear program." Inspectors did not say that. The paper also quoted the first half of a sentence from a Time magazine interview with U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix: "You can see hundreds of new roofs in these photos." The second half of the sentence, not quoted, was: "but you don't know what's under them."

As Bush did, the white paper cited the IAEA's description of Iraq's defunct nuclear program in language that appeared to be current. The draft said, for example, that "since the beginning of the nineties, Saddam has launched a crash program to divert nuclear reactor fuel for . . . nuclear weapons." The crash program began in late 1990 and ended with the war in January 1991. The reactor fuel, save for waste products, is gone.

A senior intelligence official said the White House preferred to avoid a National Intelligence Estimate, a formal review of competing evidence and judgments, because it knew "there were disagreements over details in almost every aspect of the administration's case against Iraq." The president's advisers, the official said, did not want "a lot of footnotes and disclaimers."

But Bush needed bipartisan support for war-making authority in Congress. In early September, members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence began asking why there had been no authoritative estimate of the danger posed by Iraq. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) wrote Sept. 9 of his "concern that the views of the U.S. intelligence community are not receiving adequate attention by policymakers in both Congress and the executive branch." When Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), then committee chairman, insisted on an NIE in a classified letter two days later, Tenet agreed.

Explicitly intended to assist Congress in deciding whether to authorize war, the estimate was produced in two weeks, an extraordinary deadline for a document that usually takes months. Tenet said in an interview that "we had covered parts of all those programs over 10 years through NIEs and other reports, and we had a ton of community product on all these issues."

Even so, the intelligence community was now in a position of giving its first coordinated answer to a question that every top national security official had already answered. "No one outside the intelligence community told us what to say or not to say," Tenet wrote in reply to questions for this article.

The U.S. government possessed no specific information on Iraqi efforts to acquire enriched uranium, according to six people who participated in preparing for the estimate. It knew only that Iraq sought to buy equipment of the sort that years of intelligence reports had said "may be" intended for or "could be" used in uranium enrichment.

Richard J. Kerr, a former CIA deputy director now leading a review of the agency's intelligence analysis about Iraq, said in an interview that the CIA collected almost no hard information about Iraq's weapons programs after the departure of IAEA and U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, arms inspectors during the Clinton administration. He said that was because of a lack of spies inside Iraq.

Tenet took issue with that view, saying in an interview, "When inspectors were pushed out in 1998, we did not sit back. . . . The fact is we made significant professional progress." In his written statement, he cited new evidence on biological and missile programs, but did not mention Hussein's nuclear pursuits.

The estimate's "Key Judgment" said: "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."

According to Kerr, the analysts had good reasons to say that, but the reasons were largely "inferential."

Hussein was known to have met with some weapons physicists, and praised them as "nuclear mujaheddin." But the CIA had "reasonably good intelligence in terms of the general activities and whereabouts" of those scientists, said another analyst with the relevant clearances, and knew they had generally not reassembled into working groups. In a report to Congress in 2001, the agency could conclude only that some of the scientists "probably" had "continued at least low-level theoretical R&D [research and development] associated with its nuclear program."

Analysts knew Iraq had tried recently to buy magnets, high-speed balancing machines, machine tools and other equipment that had some potential for use in uranium enrichment, though no less for conventional industry. Even assuming the intention, the parts could not all be made to fit a coherent centrifuge model. The estimate acknowledged that "we lack specific information on many key aspects" of the program, and analysts presumed they were seeing only the tip of the iceberg.

According to outside scientists and intelligence officials, the most important factor in the CIA's nuclear judgment was Iraq's attempt to buy high-strength aluminum tubes. The tubes were the core evidence for a centrifuge program tied to building a nuclear bomb. Even circumstantially, the CIA reported no indication of uranium enrichment using anything but centrifuges.

That interpretation of the tubes was a victory for the man named Joe, who made the issue his personal crusade. He worked in the gas centrifuge program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the early 1980s. He is not, associates said, a nuclear physicist, but an engineer whose work involved the platform upon which centrifuges were mounted.

At some point he joined the CIA. By the end of the 1990s, according to people who know him casually, he worked in export controls.

Joe played an important role in discovering Iraq's plans to buy aluminum tubes from China in 2000, with an Australian intermediary. U.N. sanctions forbade Iraq to buy anything with potential military applications, and members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a voluntary alliance, include some forms of aluminum tubing on their list of equipment that could be used for uranium enrichment.

Joe saw the tubes as centrifuge rotors that could be used to process uranium into weapons-grade material. In a gas centrifuge, the rotor is a thin-walled cylinder, open at both ends, that spins at high speed under a magnet. The device extracts the material used in a weapon from a gaseous form of uranium.

In July 2001, about 3,000 tubes were intercepted in Jordan on their way to Iraq, a big step forward in the agency's efforts to understand what Iraq was trying to do. The CIA gave Joe an award for exceptional performance, throwing its early support to an analysis that helped change the agency's mind about Iraq's pursuit of nuclear ambitions.

"He grabbed that information early on, and he made a name for himself," a career U.S. government nuclear expert said.

Doubts about Joe's theory emerged quickly among the government's centrifuge physicists. The intercepted tubes were too narrow, long and thick-walled to fit a known centrifuge design. Aluminum had not been used for rotors since the 1950s. Iraq had two centrifuge blueprints, stolen in Europe, that were far more efficient and already known to work. One used maraging steel, a hard steel alloy, for the rotors, the other carbon fiber.

Joe and his supporters said the apparent drawbacks were part of Iraq's concealment plan. Hussein's history of covert weapons development, Tenet said in his written statement, included "built-in cover stories."

"This is a case where different people had honorable and different interpretations of intentions," said an Energy Department analyst who has reviewed the raw data. "If you go to a nuclear [counterproliferation official] and say I've got these aluminum tubes, and it's about Iraq, his first inclination is to say it's for nuclear use."

But the government's centrifuge scientists -- at the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory and its sister institutions -- unanimously regarded this possibility as implausible.

In late 2001, experts at Oak Ridge asked an alumnus, Houston G. Wood III, to review the controversy. Wood, founder of the Oak Ridge centrifuge physics department, is widely acknowledged to be among the most eminent living experts.

Speaking publicly for the first time, Wood said in an interview that "it would have been extremely difficult to make these tubes into centrifuges. It stretches the imagination to come up with a way. I do not know any real centrifuge experts that feel differently."

As an academic, Wood said, he would not describe "anything that you absolutely could not do." But he said he would "like to see, if they're going to make that claim, that they have some explanation of how you do that. Because I don't see how you do it."

A CIA spokesman said the agency does have support for its view from centrifuge experts. He declined to elaborate.

In the last week of September, the development of the NIE required a resolution of the running disagreement over the significance of the tubes. The Energy Department had one vote. Four agencies -- with specialties including eavesdropping, maps and foreign military forces -- judged that the tubes were part of a centrifuge program that could be used for nuclear weapons. Only the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research joined the judgment of the Energy Department. The estimate, as published, said that "most analysts" believed the tubes were suitable and intended for a centrifuge cascade.

Majority votes make poor science, said Peter D. Zimmerman, a former chief scientist at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

"In this case, the experts were at Z Division at Livermore [Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory] and in DOE intelligence here in town, and they were convinced that no way in hell were these likely to be centrifuge tubes," he said.

Tenet said the Department of Energy was not the only agency with experts on the issue; the CIA consulted military battlefield rocket experts, as well as its own centrifuge experts.

On Feb. 5, two weeks after Joe's Vienna briefing, Powell gave what remains the government's most extensive account of the aluminum tubes, in an address to the U.N. Security Council. He did not mention the existence of the Medusa rocket or its Iraqi equivalent, though he acknowledged disagreement among U.S. intelligence analysts about the use of the tubes.

Powell's CIA briefers, using data originating with Joe, told him that Iraq had "overspecified" requirements for the tubes, increasing expense without making them more useful to rockets. That helped persuade Powell, a confidant said, that Iraq had some other purpose for the tubes.

"Maybe Iraqis just manufacture their conventional weapons to a higher standard than we do, but I don't think so," Powell said in his speech. He said different batches "seized clandestinely before they reached Iraq" showed 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 specification, go to all that trouble for something that, if it was a rocket, would soon be blown into shrapnel when it went off?"

An anodized coating is actually a strong argument for use in rockets, according to several scientists in and out of government. It resists corrosion of the sort that ruined Iraq's previous rocket supply. To use the tubes in a centrifuge, experts told the government, Iraq would have to remove the anodized coating.

Iraq did change some specifications from order to order, the procurement records show, but there is not a clear progression to higher precision. One tube sample was rejected because its interior was unfinished, too uneven to be used in a rocket body. After one of Iraq's old tubes got stuck in a launcher and exploded, Baghdad's subsequent orders asked for more precision in roundness.

U.S. and European analysts said they had obtained records showing that Italy's Medusa rocket has had its specifications improved 10 times since 1978. Centrifuge experts said in interviews that the variations had little or no significance for uranium enrichment, especially because the CIA's theory supposes Iraq would do extensive machining to adapt the tubes as rotors.

For rockets, however, the tubes fit perfectly. Experts from U.S. national labs, working temporarily with U.N. inspectors in Iraq, observed production lines for the rockets at the Nasser factory north of Baghdad. Iraq had run out of body casings at about the time it ordered the aluminum tubes, according to officials familiar with the experts' reports. Thousands of warheads, motors and fins were crated at the assembly lines, awaiting the arrival of tubes.

"Most U.S. experts," Powell asserted, "think they are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium." He said "other experts, and the Iraqis themselves," said the tubes were really for rockets.

Wood, the centrifuge physicist, said "that was a personal slam at everybody in DOE," the Energy Department. "I've been grouped with the Iraqis, is what it amounts to. I just felt that the wording of that was probably intentional, but it was also not very kind. It did not recognize that dissent can exist."

Staff writers Glenn Kessler, Dana Priest and Richard Morin and staff researchers Lucy Shackelford, Madonna Lebling and Robert Thomason contributed to this report.

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