Search in Iraq Fails to Find Nuclear Threat

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2003

In their march to Baghdad on April 8, U.S. Marines charged past a row of eucalyptus trees that lined the boneyard of Iraq's thwarted nuclear dream. Sixty acres of warehouses behind the tree line, held under United Nations seal at Ash Shaykhili, stored machine tools, consoles and instruments from the nuclear weapons program cut short by the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Thirty miles to the north and west, Army troops were rolling through the precincts of the Nasr munitions plant. Inside, stacked in oblong wooden crates, were thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes.

That equipment, and Iraq's effort to buy more of it overseas, were central to the Bush administration's charge that President Saddam Hussein had resumed long-dormant efforts to build a nuclear weapon. The lead combat units had more urgent priorities that day, but they were not alone in passing the stockpiles by. Participants in the subsequent hunt for illegal arms said months elapsed without a visit to Nasr and many other sites of activity that President Bush had called "a grave and gathering danger."

According to records made available to The Washington Post and interviews with arms investigators from the United States, Britain and Australia, it did not require a comprehensive survey to find the central assertions of the Bush administration's prewar nuclear case to be insubstantial or untrue. Although Hussein did not relinquish his nuclear ambitions or technical records, investigators said, it is now clear he had no active program to build a weapon, produce its key materials or obtain the technology he needed for either.

Among the closely held internal judgments of the Iraq Survey Group, overseen by David Kay as special representative of CIA Director George J. Tenet, are that Iraq's nuclear weapons scientists did no significant arms-related work after 1991, that facilities with suspicious new construction proved benign, and that equipment of potential use to a nuclear program remained under seal or in civilian industrial use.

Most notably, investigators have judged the aluminum tubes to be "innocuous," according to Australian Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Meekin, who commands the Joint Captured Enemy Materiel Exploitation Center, the largest of a half-dozen units that report to Kay. That finding is pivotal, because the Bush administration built its case on the proposition that Iraq aimed to use those tubes as centrifuge rotors to enrich uranium for the core of a nuclear warhead.

Administration officials interviewed for this report defended the integrity of the government's prewar intelligence and public statements. None agreed to be interviewed on the record. Vice President Cheney, in a televised interview last month, referred to a National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, which said among other things that there was "compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort." Cheney said investigators searching for confirmation of those judgments "will find in fact that they are valid." His office did not respond to questions on Friday.

No evidence mattered more to the nuclear debate than Iraq's attempt to buy aluminum tubes overseas. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, among many others, scorned the Baghdad government's explanation that it sought the tubes as artillery rocket casings. By August, news accounts made clear that the U.S. government's top nuclear centrifuge experts dissented strongly from the claim that the tubes were meant for uranium enrichment.

Meekin, whose remarks were supported by other investigators who said they feared the consequences of being quoted by name, is the first to describe the results of postwar analysis.

"They were rockets," said Meekin, 48, director general of scientific and technical assessment for Australia's Defence Intelligence Organisation, speaking by satellite telephone from Baghdad. "The tubes were used for rockets."

A U.S. government official, who was unwilling to be identified by name or agency, said Meekin is not qualified to make that judgment. The official did not elaborate. Kay's interim report this month said the question remains open.

Participants in the Pentagon-directed special weapons teams, interviewed repeatedly since late last spring, noted that Kay's operation has taken no steps to collect the estimated 20,000 tubes in Iraq's inventory -- some badly corroded, but others of higher quality than the ones the U.S. government intercepted in Jordan three years ago and described as dangerous technology.

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