Posted by Scott Malensek on 14 November, 2007 at 8:25 am. 12 comments already!

This week there were two news stories that re-opened an incredibly dangerous question about Saddam Hussein and nuclear weapons. Before examining those stories, it’s important to reflect on the historical facts regarding Saddam Hussein and claims from five years ago that he was a nuclear threat to stability in the region and the world.

In September 2002 there was a flood of secret intelligence reports flowing into the nation’s 16 different intelligence agencies. Washington was flustered with fears that Saddam Hussein would have a nuclear bomb soon. Some reports said he might have one already. After all, he had managed to secretly build a bomb back in 1992, and all he needed to make it work back then was the precious weapons-grade nuclear material; a special metal ball of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Despite the hundreds of tons of nuclear material later found in Iraq, thankfully, none of it was of weapons-grade quality, form, or shape.

Still, in the late summer of 2002 the fear was building with every new intelligence report. It had been four years (December 1998) since the world had weapons inspectors and spies inside Iraq. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, intelligence officials were almost paranoid about making some sort of mistake, afraid of making the wrong comment, and afraid of dismissing a report that might prove to have been a real threat. This post-911 focus and fear, coupled with the lack of intelligence for four years, made the new flood of intelligence warnings disconcerting to say the least.

Whatever effect was being felt by people of the intelligence community was exacerbated by the rhetoric and tough talk in Washington D.C. by politicians. Actually, the saber rattling began right after the 911 attacks.

“There is no doubt that. Saddam Hussein has reinvigorated his weapons programs. Reports indicate that biological, chemical and nuclear programs continue apace and may be back to pre-Gulf War status.”(2)

In the wake of the new reports about Saddam in the late summer/early fall of 2002, it seemed as if the Bush Administration and every politician in Washington was afraid. The drums of war were beating hard and fast towards war.

“As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I firmly believe that the issue of Iraq is not about politics. It’s about national security. We know that for at least 20 years, Saddam Hussein has obsessively sought weapons of mass destruction through every means available. … Each day he inches closer to his longtime goal of nuclear capability — a capability that could be less than a year away.”(3)

The specter of war with Saddam was a grave image-particularly if the claims of weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Queda were correct. It was more than that though. Everyone knew that after 12 years of trying to make Saddam comply with the United Nations; not diplomacy, sanctions, blockades, sponsored coups, encouraged rebellions, assassination attempts, a partial invasion, infinite air strikes, or even entire bombing campaigns. Everyone knew it was going to take an invasion, and if he did have nuclear weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction, then tens of thousands of Americans were going to die-probably a great many more.

So people wanted to be sure. Additionally, mid-elections were coming up, and the 2004 Presidential campaign had started half a year early. Gov. Howard Dean was already running for President, and at the core of his platform was the fueling of a following who opposed any sort of action against Iraq. Others who were planning to run for President in the subsequent months saw that he was sweeping up money and support around his anti-war theme. They had to decide if the 16 intelligence agencies saw a threat in Saddam worth confronting, or if the Governor of Vermont had better intelligence regarding Iraqi weapons and terrorist ties. The call went out for a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction-of particular concern was the nuclear threat.

Late on Wednesday, October 2, 2002 a classified version of the NIE (a combined threat assessment from all of the nation’s intelligence entities) was presented to Congress. Members could read it, but because portions of it contained classified sections that would reveal how the intelligence was collected, they couldn’t get their own copies. They had to go to a special room, sign in, and read it there. For reasons lost to history and politics, only a few of the hundreds of members of Congress chose to sign in and read the classified report(4).

A few others chose to read a de-classified version of the report that was open to the public, but they later complained that “caveats” about the reliability of various claims and sourcing had been removed (intrinsic to the very idea of creating a de-classified version was the idea that sources and the types of sources which vary in reliability by their nature were not to be revealed). Of course, if the members of Congress really cared about the sources and their reliability, they’d have read the classified version rather than dismissing the very reports that should have been at the core of their decision to authorize or not authorize the use of force (albeit after five months of yet another failed diplomatic effort). Whether they read the classified NIE, or the declassified one, or even if they were on an intelligence committee and had dozens of closed door secret meetings directly with intelligence officials; none of that mattered. What was important was looking tough, talking belligerently, and carrying the party line that Saddam’s regime was a threat-even a nuclear threat.

“In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program…. It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.”(5)

This claim and others were supported by the statements in the NIE regarding Saddam’s nuclear desires and capabilities

“How quickly Iraq will obtain its first nuclear weapon depends on when it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.

  • If Baghdad acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year.
  • Without such material from abroad, 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.

Most agencies believe that Saddam’s personal interest in and Iraq’s aggressive attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuge rotor – as well as Iraq’s attempts to acquire magnets, high-speed balancing machines, and machine tools – provide compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad’s nuclear weapons program. (DOE agrees that reconstitution of the nuclear program is underway but assesses that the tubes probably are not part of the program.)”(6)

“It depends on”, “If Baghdad aquires”, “Without such material from abroad” These are caveats. Many of the people, who claimed to have read the declassified NIE and claimed that it lacked caveats, were misleading their constituents. Yet there were more, bigger, far more important caveats that those same people claimed never existed because-for whatever reason-they weren’t responsible enough, or energetic enough to read the classified version. In later years opponents of the war who falsely claimed the NIE lacked caveats should have had their misleading statements identified and questioned. Instead, many believed them. The fact remains that the NIE which so many deliberately chose to ignore did have caveats. They would point to aluminum tubes, uranium from Niger, and they hoped that people would forget their own warmongering, their authorization to use force, and their Congressional responsibility to the nation in terms of even informally declaring war.

The classified NIE did include caveats about the aluminum tubes. Members of the Bush Administration and of the intelligence community had said that Iraq had Sought aluminum tubes with very unique and precision machining that could be used to turn them into centrifuges for enriching uranium. Opponents distracted from the tubes Sought, and instead they focused on the tubes Bought; tubes that were used to make illegal conventional munitions, not illegal unconventional arms).  (DOE agrees that reconstitution of the nuclear program is underway but assesses that the tubes probably are not part of the program.)(6)

Sometimes politicians have skills that make magicians seem inept, and a similar sleight of hand was used to spin the intelligence reporting that was in regards to uranium and Niger, but the NIE was clear (at least to those who read it):

Annex A
Iraq’s Attempts to Acquire aluminum Tubes
(This excerpt from a longer view includes INR’s position on the African uranium issue)

INR’s Alternative View: Iraq’s Attempts to Acquire Aluminum Tubes

Some of the specialized but dual-use items being sought are, by all indications, bound for Iraq’s missile program. Other cases are ambiguous, such as that of a planned magnet-production line whose suitability for centrifuge operations remains unknown. Some efforts involve non-controlled industrial material and equipment – including a variety of machine tools – and are troubling because they would help establish the infrastructure for a renewed nuclear program. But such efforts (which began well before the inspectors departed) are not clearly linked to a nuclear end-use. Finally, the claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in INR’s assessment, highly dubious.(6)

The combination of intelligence reports that were coming into the 16 different intelligence agencies was high in quantity, low in quality, and as such these caveats and doubts and question marks remained. The best assessment that the entire intelligence community could declare was that:

  1. Saddam wanted a bomb
  2. Saddam still had some nuclear program infrastructure, and was acquiring some more (though they couldn’t reveal it at the time, many knew about the AQ Khan network which was selling nuclear program components to anyone and everyone in 2002).
  3. Saddam had already built a bomb back in 1992, but it didn’t have a warhead because he didn’t have the special weapons grade material, and if he could somehow get that material from outside Iraq, then he could rebuild his bomb in no time. Some said months. Some said years. The consensus was that if nothing was done about Iraq, and sanctions continued to decay or were lifted, then he’d most likely have a bomb as early as 2007.

Even if they hadn’t read the declassified report as responsible members of Congress with the slightest bit of integrity and responsibility would have done, just about everyone pretended to be authorities on Iraq. Many politicians “hyped” the intelligence, exaggerated, and otherwise tried to scare the nation into war despite the caveats shown in the NIE (something that probably wouldn’t have happened if they’d have read the NIE report that they “demanded” earlier).

“There is unmistakable evidence that Saddam Hussein is working aggressively to develop nuclear weapons and will likely have nuclear weapons within the next five years.”(7)

“If Iraq could acquire this material from abroad, the CIA estimates that it could have a nuclear weapon within one year.”(8)

“Saddam Hussein’s track record is too compelling to ignore. We know that he continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear devices.”(9)

Oddly enough, while President Bush was being portrayed by opponents of the war and fair weather patriots  (positive polling patriots?) as rushing to war…., it was he who tried to be realistic about the threat, the lack of solid intelligence reporting, and the need to try diplomacy before rushing to war as he himself had been accused of doing.

“Many people have asked how close Saddam Hussein is to developing a nuclear weapon. Well, we don’t know exactly, and that’s the problem.”


Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. As President Kennedy said in October of 1962, “Neither the United States of America, nor the world community of nations can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small. We no longer live in a world,” he said, “where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nations security to constitute maximum peril.”(10)

The harsh, threatening rhetoric of war continued almost entirely unabated despite the President’s effort to convey the lack of understanding, and the need for inspectors to resolve the dangerous questions of loose WMD in the hands of Saddam Hussein.

“In October 2001, we picked up warnings that terrorists had acquired a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb. If detonated in New York City, hundreds of thousands of Americans would have died, and most of Manhattan would have been destroyed. Sam Nunn had an important warning, “This intelligence report was judged to be false. But it was never judged to be implausible or impossible.”(11)

Not included in the NIE, and known only to a handful of people in the entire world, was the fact that the U.S. had finally managed to secure a human intelligence source inside Saddam’s inner circle, and in September 2002, the source reported that,

“The Committee told Saddam that a nuclear weapon would be ready within 18-24 months of acquiring the fissile material. The return of UN inspectors would cause minimal disruption because Iraq was expert at denial and deception.”(12).

Saddam did not have a reconstituted nuclear bomb program when the US and its Coalition allies invaded in March 2003. The Iraq Survey Group (ISG) (13) put together a three-volume 1000+ page report (packed with very clear pictures). 1400 people, hundreds of millions of dollars, and two servicemen’s lives were the cost of the investigation. One of the things that are particularly interesting in regards to the ISG’s findings is that Saddam had in fact successfully secreted away valuable portions of his nuclear program. Some equipment was hidden in bunkers, others in secret labs, and more disguised as benign, everyday dual-use equipment. This is stated repeatedly, but the pictures in the report demonstrate it unmistakably. After years of inspections, and months of renewed inspections, after the IAEA had declared that Saddam’s regime was not a nuclear threat, the truth was hidden everywhere. There were even centrifuge parts hidden in a person’s rose garden and blueprints hidden in a scientist’s home.

“Iraq has maintained its nuclear scientists and technicians as well as sufficient dual-use manufacturing capability to support a reconstituted nuclear weapons program. Iraqi defectors who once worked for Iraq’s nuclear weapons establishment have reportedly told American officials that acquiring nuclear weapons is a top priority for Saddam Hussein’s regime. “(14)

While an active nuclear program was not found in post-war Iraq, the ISG’s September 2004 report confirmed what the Bush Administration’s inside source had told them two years earlier:

  1. Saddam wanted a bomb
  2. Saddam still had some nuclear program infrastructure, and was acquiring some more (though they couldn’t reveal it at the time, many knew about the AQ Khan network which was selling nuclear program components to anyone and everyone in 2002).
  3. Saddam had already built a bomb back in 1992. It didn’t have a warhead because he didn’t have the special weapons grade material, but if he could somehow get that material from outside Iraq, then he could rebuild his bomb in no time.

Saddam may not have had nuclear weapons in his arsenal in 2003, but if the United States would have bowed to international pressure and backed down from Saddam rather than invading, then the intelligence is overwhelming that he would have become a nuclear power in 2007; today. This isn’t supposition or reading tea leaves either. It’s where this week’s news stories come to the forefront.

Earlier this week NBC News reported on a new book, The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack (15) by Ronald Kessler. The book includes commentary from Saddam’s interrogator. His words prove the 2002 assessment was true:

  1. Saddam wanted a bomb
  2. Saddam still had some nuclear program infrastructure, and was acquiring some more.
  3. And since Saddam had already built a bomb back in 1992 sans a nuclear core (that special metal ball of enriched uranium or plutonium), it remains perfectly logical that if he could somehow get that material from outside Iraq, then he could have rebuilt his bomb in no time.

The last part of this horrifying equation is the third news story, “Iran hands IAEA nuclear blueprints”AP (16). There’s plenty of people in the world who are still ignorant enough to actually believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is working on peaceful nuclear power and has no desire to acquire nuclear bombs. This week, the government of Iran decided to acquiesce to the IAEA’s demands and hand over the plans they had bought illegally from the AQ Khan nuclear component network. These plans detailed the process of taking enriched, weapons-grade uranium and molding it into a special metal ball for use only in a nuclear warhead. Iran claims that it doesn’t want nuclear warheads, but until this week had refused to hand over the plans to make something that can only be used in a nuclear bomb(s). Even in the face of stories like this one, there are still be people who believe that having actual plans to build a bomb, and refusing to hand over those plans are both benign actions that in no way indict Iran’s claims of pursuing peaceful nuclear power.

“VIENNA, Austria – Iran has met a key demand of the U.N. nuclear agency, handing over long-sought blueprints showing how to mold uranium metal into the shape of warheads, diplomats said Tuesday.


“Iran maintains it was given the papers without asking for them during its black market purchases of nuclear equipment decades ago that now serve as the backbone of its program to enrich uranium — a process that can generate both power or create the fissile core of nuclear warheads.” (16)

If US hadn’t invaded Iraq in 03, the world would be facing the usual bi-annual Pakistan/India nuclear brinkmanship issues, a nuclear-armed Saddam, a nuclear-armed Ahmadinejad, a nuclear-armed Israel, and Al Queda leaders meeting with intelligence services in all three of those nuclear Muslim powers all at the same time.  Such a scenario doesn’t have a diplomatic solution. No degree of arm twisting, no amount of carrots and incentives, and no sanctions regime could counter that hair-trigger to Armageddon setting. There’s also no military option either. Even nuclear deterrence doesn’t work when terrorists like Al Queda can be used to covertly deliver a bomb in such a way as to allow the bomb’s creating state to escape retaliation for lack of evidence (nuclear explosions are notoriously effective at destroying everything).

After reviewing the threat intelligence regarding Saddam’s regime in 2002, after confirming-through the ISG and Saddam’s interrogator-that he was capable, and he intended to restart his program and acquire nuclear weapons one can only reach the conclusion that the post-war intelligence suggests in both quantity and now quality that yes, Saddam would “be able to make a weapon [between] 2007 to 2009.” Given the current crisis in nuclear-armed Pakistan, the likelihood that Iran too is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, it seems that the invasion of Iraq in 2003-costly as it has been in blood and treasure, actually did accomplish something. It has staved off a scenario where nuclear powers from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia were on the brink of nuclear holocaust, and a scenario where there was nothing the world could do to prevent a slide down the slippery slope towards hell on Earth. Whether he meant to or not, President Bush got something right, and the confirmation of the Iraqi nuclear threat helps disprove, The Lie That Bush Lied (17).

  1. “What If Iraq Was Never Invaded?” Scott Malensek
  2. Letter to President Bush, signed by Sen. Bob Graham (D-then head of SSCI) and others, Dec, 5, 2001
  3. Sen. John Edwards (D) 9/12/02
  4. “Few senators read Iraq NIE report”,By Manu Raju, Elana Schor and Ilan Wurman, The Hill. June 19, 2007
  5. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D), Oct 10, 2002
  6. Key Judgments (from October 2002 NIE), Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction
  7. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), Oct 10, 2002
  8. Sen. John Kerry (D) 10/09/2002
  9. Congressman Richard A. Gephardt (D) 10/10/02
  10. President Bush Outlines the Iraqi Threat at Cincinnati Union Terminal Speech, October 7 2002
  11. Sen. John Kerry 1/23/03
  12. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Phase II pt2 report on “Pre-War Intelligence and Assessments”; “Additional Views” section, pg. 142
  13. Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD (aka The Duelfer Report)
  14. Sen. John Kerry (D) 10/09/2002
  15. “Saddam Was No Threat, Right?” Flopping Aces
  16. “Iran hands IAEA nuclear blueprints”AP
  17. “The Lie That Bush Lied” Scott Malensek
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