The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Pre-OIF Intelligence on Iraq's Nuclear Program

In the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the Intelligence Community (IC) reported to the President and Congress that although Saddam did not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any, that he remained intent on acquiring them. The NIE claimed that, "most agencies assess that Baghdad started reconstituting its nuclear program about the time that UNSCOM inspectors depart - December 1998." The report concluded that the speed with which Iraq could obtain its first nuclear weapon would depend on when it acquired sufficient weapons-grade fissile material: if Baghdad acquired sufficient fissile material from abroad it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year. Without such material from abroad, NIE stated that 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.

This conclusion, though presented as the opinion of the Intelligence Community, was not shared by the Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research (INR). INR stated that it believed that although Saddam still desired nucelar weapons and pursued at least a limited effort to maintain and acquire nuclear weapon-related capabilities, the evidence at hand was not enough to conclude that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. Specifically, INR disagreeded with CIA and DIA regarding the nature of aluminum tubes procured by Iraq.

On 20 March 2006 it was reported that Naji Sabri, Saddam Hussein's last Foreign Minister, was a paid asset of French intelligence. As a senior member of Saddam's inner circle and a friend of his son, Qusay, Mr Sabri would have seemed an extraordinarily good source, but the US intelligence community did not trust him as a source. French intelligence and the CIA used a third-country intermediary to get information him before Saddam's government was toppled by American troops in March 2003. In September 2002, the French arranged a meeting between Sabri and a CIA intermediary while Sabri was attending a UN meeting in New York. At that meeting the Iraqi Foreign Minister provided intelligence on Iraq's weapon programs and Saddam's inner circles to the CIA. NBC reported the information was provided in exchange for a payment of $100,000. The Washington Post reported "It was never clear what he wanted," one former official familiar with the situation said of Sabri, "but we never paid him."

Sabri later broke off the secret contacts with US intelligence agents after refusing to accept the CIA's proposal, hoping for a public relations coup, that he defect to the United States and publicly renounce Saddam. But Sabri came from a prominent Iraqi family and defection was not an option. His brother was an Iraqi official that Hussein had previously killed because of suspected disloyalty.

Sabri reportedly told the CIA's middleman that Iraq wanted a nuclear weapon, but building one would take far more time than the CIA estimate of several months to a year. He said that Saddam had ambitions for nuclear weapons, but that there was no active program. Sabri said Saddam desperately wanted a bomb.

Sabri, who now lives in Qatar, said: "The information carried by NBC are lies, totally fabricated and unfounded. .... After the lies about the weapons of mass destruction which do not exist and the alleged links with al-Qa'eda, it seems that this new lie is aimed at giving a new fake pretext to justify the crime of the century: the invasion of Iraq."

In a speech in February 2004, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet referred to Sabri, although not by name, when he said the CIA had obtained information from "a source who had direct access to Saddam and his inner circle." In that speech Tenet said that Sabri was characterized by CIA's foreign partners as an "established and reliable" source. Tenet said the " .... a source who had direct access to Saddam and his inner circle said: Iraq was not in possession of a nuclear weapon. However, Iraq was aggressively and covertly developing such a weapon. Saddam had recently called together his Nuclear Weapons Committee irate that Iraq did not yet have a weapon because money was no object and they possessed the scientific know how. The Committee members assured Saddam that once the fissile material was in hand, a bomb could be ready in just 18-24 months. The return of UN inspectors would cause minimal disruption because, according to the source, Iraq was expert at denial and deception."

Evidence Presented for Nuclear Reconstitution

Aluminum Tubes

In 2001, the IC became aware that Iraq was attempting to procure 60,000 high-strength aluminum tubes manufactured from 7075-T6 aluminum, with an outer diameter of 81 mm, and inner diameter of 74.4 mm, a wall thickness of 3.3 mm and a length of 900 mm. The tubes were to be anodized using chromic acid and were to be shipped, wrapped in wax paper and separated from each other. Seven thousand series aluminum alloy is extremely hard and strong and when formed into a tube of more than 75 mm in diameter, is a controlled item under the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Annex III of UNSCR 687 and 707 which Iraq was prohibited from importing because it could have nuclear applications. This effort was the main piece of evidence presented by the IC that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program.

On April 10, 2001 CIA published its analysis of the tubes, concluding that it confirmed fears of nuclear reconstitution by Iraq. Its report stated that the tubes "have little use other than for a uranium enrichment program." The assessment did not provide any details outlining why the CIA assessed that the tubes were probably intended for a centrifuge program, but noted, "using aluminum tubes in a centrifuge effort would be inefficient and a step backward from the specialty steel machines Iraq was poised to mass produce at the onset of the Gulf War. Iraq successfully used outdated enrichment technologies, such as its electromagnetic isotope separation effort, before the war." Later in the year, DIA released a paper the supported CIA's position on the nature of the tubes, pointing to WINPAC research which indicated that "the tubes have specifications very similar to the gas centrifuge rotor described in the German scientist, Gernot Zippe's publications: the material was 7075-T6 aluminum with an outer diameter of 74.2-81.9-mm, an inner diameter of 68.6-76.3-mm, a wall thickness of 2.8-mm,13 a length of 279.4-381-mm and a tolerance of 0.1-mm."

CIA's conclusion was not shared by the Department of Energy (DOE), which released a report the day following the CIA's release stating that although the tubes could be used in a centrifuge program, Iraq's procurement activity more likely supported a different application, such as conventional ordnance production. DOE discounted the tubes application in a centrifuge program, noted that the tubes' 81 mm diameter was only half that of the centrifuge machine Iraq successfully tested in 1990, would only be marginally large enough for practical centrifuge applications, and had other specifications that would not be consistent with a gas centrifuge end use. The report stated that the tube specifications and quantity appear to be generally consistent with their use as launch tubes for man-held anti-armor rockets or as tactical rocket casings, most likely Iraq's Nasser 81 millimeter Multiple Rocket Launcher. It also noted that Iraq has purchased similar aluminum tubes previously to manufacture chambers (tubes) for a multiple rocket launcher. The assessment noted that the IAEA had learned that tubes found at the Nasser metal fabrication facility in Baghdad that were 800 mm in length, 81 mm in diameter and had a wall thickness of 3.3 mm, which corresponded to the tubes under examination.

INR agreed with DOE's assessment of the aluminum tubes' end use. INR cited "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" in addition to the DOE assessment. Although DOE disagreed with CIA's judgement regarding the tubes, it still agreed that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear program based on the strength of other evidence.

DIA, which took the CIA's position, held that although 7075-T6 aluminum could be an acceptable metal for small rocket motor bodies, the 3.3-mm wall thickness and overall weight would make these particular tubes poor choices for rocket motor bodies. DIA claimed that the thickness was roughly twice that of known small rocket motor bodies and the 0.1 mm metal thickness tolerance along the 900 mm length would be excessive for both rocket motor bodies and rocket launch tubes. Analysts from the National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC), a component of the U.S. Army recognized as the national experts on conventional military systems, also judged that while it could "not totally rule out the possibility" that the tubes could be used for rockets and thus were not destined for a nuclear-related use, the tubes were, technically speaking, poor choices for rocket bodies. NGIC's expert judgment was therefore that there was a very low probability the tubes were designed for conventional use in rockets.

The NIE presented to Congress in 2002 outlined the following reasons for concluding that the tubes were destined for an Iraqi centrifuge program:

  1. Saddam Hussein had a personal interest in the procurement of the aluminum tubes, suggesting that the acquisition efforts had a high national priority.

  2. The composition, dimensions, and extremely tight manufacturing tolerances of the tubes far exceed the requirements for non nuclear applications but make them suitable for use as rotors in gas centrifuges.

  3. Iraqi agents agreed to pay up to U.S. $17.50 for each 7075-T6 aluminum tube. Their willingness to pay such costs suggested the tubes are intended for a special project of national interest.

  4. Iraq has insisted that the tubes be shipped through intermediary countries in an attempt to conceal the ultimate end user; such activity would be consistent with Iraq's prewar nuclear procurement strategy but were more robust than post war denial and deception (D&D) efforts.

  5. Procurement agents had shown unusual persistence in seeking numerous foreign sources for the tubes, often breaking with Iraq's traditionally cautious approach to potential vendors.

  6. An aluminum tube built to the Iraqi specifications for the tubes seized was successfully spun in a laboratory setting to 60,000 rpm (1000Hz). This test was performed without balancing the tube; a critical step required for full speed operation, but still provided a rough indication that the tube is suitable as a centrifuge rotor.

  7. The dimensions of the tubes were similar to those used in the Zippe and Beams type gas centrifuges. The inner diameter of the seized tubes - 74.4 mm - nearly matches the tube size used by Zippe and is described in detail in his unclassified report on centrifuge development. The length and wall thickness of the seized tubes were similar to Iraq's prewar Beams design.

  8. Iraq performed internal pressure tests to induce a hoop-stress level similar to that obtained by an operating rotor.

  9. The last reason was classified

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

Intelligence information provided before the war showed that Iraq was trying to procure magnets, balancing machines, and machine tools, all materials that had potential applications in a nuclear program. These materials, however, were all dual use and none of the intelligence provided said that the materials were intended for a nuclear end user. Associated with these findings were claims that officials involved in the Pre-Gulf War nuclear program were involved in various procurement efforts. For example, the NIE stated that a large number of personnel for the new magnet production facility worked in Iraq's pre-Gulf War centrifuge program. The NIE also assessed that a front company, trying to procure high speed balancing machines that can be used in centrifuge balancing work, was involved in trying to procure 7075-T6 aluminum tubes. When questioned by Committee staff, CIA analysts noted that procurement companies are often involved in a variety of unrelated procurement efforts and the procurement efforts to obtain balancing machines and to obtain aluminum tubes, may be totally unrelated.

Efforts to Retain Knowledge Applicable to Nuclear Reconstitution

The IC pointed towards evidence that many of Iraq's nuclear scientists had recently been reassigned to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) as evidence of Iraq'snuclear reconstituion efforts. Reporting from a foreign government service indicated that "As of late 1999, several groups from Iraq's nuclear establishment remained intact, although the majority of key nuclear scientists, but not engineers or technicians, either had retired, died, or left Iraq." The report also noted that "As of late 1999, it was unlikely that any nuclear weapons work was taking place." Other reporting indicated that employees of Iraq's pre-Gulf War program maintained a loose professional alliance through their work in engineering and design centers within Iraq's Military Industrialization Commission. Several intelligence reports supported the conclusion in the NIE that scientists had been consolidated into establishments previously associated with the nuclear program and that these facilities retained equipment that could be used in reconstituting a nuclear program at some point.

Attempts to Procure Uranium

Although not listed as a reason the IC believed Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, the NIE did discuss Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium from Africa. In its report, NIE claimed that "A foreign government service reported that as of early 2001, Niger planned to send several tons of "pure uranium" (probably yellowcake) to Iraq. As of early 2001, Niger and Iraq reportedly were still working out arrangements for this deal, which could be for up to 500 tons of yellowcake. Reports indicate[d that] Iraq had also sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo." According to a statement approved by the CIA, it takes about 10 tons to produce enough enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon. This information was the result of a series of CIA reports from the Directorate of Operations (DO) detailing a deal for yellowcake between Iraq and Niger, for which negotiations began in 1999 and concluded in June 2000. A CIA-DO report in February 2002 concluded that "Iraq probably is searching abroad for natural uranium to assist in its nuclear weapons program." The product did not include any judgments about the credibility of the reporting.

While the CIA, DIA and DOE each assessed the initial Niger report as "possible", INR rated it as "highly suspect." This estimate was made because INR thought Niger would be unwilling and unable to sell uranium to Iraq and because they thought Iraq would be unlikely to risk such a transaction when they were bound to be caught. INR held this view because the French appeared to have control of the uranium mining, milling and transport process, and would seem to have little interest in selling uranium to the Iraqis. Although the other agencies (CIA, DIA and DOE) held that it was fairly credible, testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee in October 2002 highlighted further doubts regarding the Niger-yellowcake reporting. When questioned regarding the White Paper released by the British Government in late-September 2002, the Deputy DCI testified that "the one thing where I think they [the British] stretched a little bit beyond where we would stretch is on the points about Iraq seeking uranium from various African locations. We've [the IC] looked at those reports and we don't think they are very credible. It doesn't diminish our conviction that he's going for nuclear weapons, but I think they reached a little bit on that one point. Otherwise I think it's very solid."

On October 9, 2002, an Italian journalist from the magazine Panorama provided U.S. Embassy Rome with copies of documents pertaining to the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium transaction. The journalist had acquired the documents from a source who had requested 15,000 Euros in return for their publication, and wanted the embassy to authenticate the documents. Embassy officers provided copies of the documents to the CIA. These documents did not have much impact on the agencies' thinking regarding the Niger-uranium deal. For those agencies that held the reporting to be credible, these documents merely lent more crediblity to their assessments. INR, however, doubted the authenticity of the documents because a companion document - a document included with the Niger documents that did not relate to uranium - mentioned some type of military campaign against major world powers. The members of the alleged military campaign included both Iraq and Iran, and was, according to the documents, being orchestrated through the Nigerien Embassy in Rome, which all struck the analyst as "completely implausible." Both documents were branded with what the INR analyst judged to be "a funky Embassy of Niger stamp (to make it look official, [he guessed])."

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 24-07-2011 04:44:49 ZULU