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April 11, 2005

Smoking Rockets


by Gordon Prather

The report [.pdf] of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction begins as follows:

"On the brink of war, and in front of the whole world, the United States government asserted that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program, had biological weapons and mobile biological weapon production facilities, and had stockpiled and was producing chemical weapons.

"All of this was based on the assessments of the U.S. Intelligence Community. And not one bit of it could be confirmed when the war was over."

Apparently the assertions the Commission is referring to were those made – on Feb. 6, 2003 – to the UN Security Council by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Here are excerpts from Powell's hair-raising presentation:

"Saddam Hussein already possesses two out of the three key components needed to build a nuclear bomb. He has a cadre of nuclear scientists with the expertise, and he has a bomb design.

"Since 1998, his efforts to reconstitute his nuclear program have been focused on acquiring the third and last component, sufficient fissile material to produce a nuclear explosion. To make the fissile material, he needs to develop an ability to enrich uranium.

"Saddam Hussein is determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb.

"He is so determined that he has made repeated covert attempts to acquire high-specification aluminum tubes from 11 different countries, even after inspections resumed.

"People will continue to debate this issue, but there is no doubt in my mind, these illicit procurement efforts show that Saddam Hussein is very much focused on putting in place the key missing piece from his nuclear weapons program, the ability to produce fissile material."

So Iraq's attempts "to acquire high-specification aluminum tubes" had convinced Colin Powell that Saddam was close to getting his hands on a nuclear weapon.

But UN inspectors empowered by UN Security Council Resolution 1441 – enacted at the urging of the United States the previous November – had been conducting intrusive go-anywhere see-anything inspections in Iraq for several months.

Here are excerpts from an interim report [.pdf], made to the Security Council on Jan. 27, 2003 – a week before Powell's presentation – by Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"Drawing from satellite imagery and other information available to it, IAEA identified a number of sites, some of which had been associated with Iraq's past nuclear activities, where modifications of possible relevance to IAEA's mandate had been made, or new buildings constructed, between 1998 and 2002.

"Eight of these sites were identified by States as being locations where nuclear activities were suspected of being conducted.

"All of these sites were inspected to ascertain whether there had been developments in technical capabilities, organization, structure, facility boundaries or personnel.

"The IAEA has found no signs of nuclear activity at any of these sites.

"Several other facilities which had never been inspected by IAEA or by the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) in the past were inspected in response to information that indicated the presence of large industrial capabilities at those locations.

"None of these facilities has proven to be nuclear-related or to require their declaration by Iraq."

So much for the sites "suspected" by our "intelligence community" of being engaged in – or constructed for – "nuclear" activities.

But what about Powell's smoking gun?

"In response to IAEA questioning, the Iraqi authorities indicated that unsuccessful attempts had been made between 2000 and 2002 to procure high-strength aluminum tubes, but that the tubes had been intended for use in connection with a program aimed at reverse engineering 81-millimeter rockets.

"The IAEA has conducted a series of inspections at sites involved in the production and storage of reverse-engineered rockets, held discussions with and interviewed Iraq personnel, taken samples of aluminum tubes, and begun a review of the documentation provided by Iraq relating to contracts with the traders.

"As a result of these inspection efforts, it has been possible to confirm the existence of a program for producing 81-millimeter rockets.

"The IAEA's analysis to date indicates that the specifications of the aluminum tubes recently sought by Iraq appear to be consistent with reverse engineering of rockets.

"While it would be possible to modify such tubes for the manufacture of centrifuges, they are not directly suitable for such use."

Thus, by the time Powell made his assertions, irrespective of what our intelligence community had concluded, Saddam's nuclear weapons program smoking gun had, in fact, turned out to be an 81-millimeter smoking rocket.


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Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

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