WASHINGTON -- A key piece of evidence in the Bush administration's case against
Iraq is being challenged by a group of independent experts who question whether
thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes recently sought by Iraq were intended
for a secret nuclear weapons program.
The White House last week said attempts by Iraq to acquire the tubes pointed
to a clandestine program to make enriched uranium for nuclear bombs. But the experts
say in a new report that the evidence is ambiguous and in some ways contradicts
what is known about Iraq's past nuclear efforts.
The report, from the Institute for Science and International Security, also
contends that the Bush administration is trying to quiet dissent among its own
analysts over how to interpret the evidence.
The report, a draft of which was obtained by the Washington Post, was written
by David Albright, a physicist who investigated Iraq's nuclear weapons program
following the 1991 Persian Gulf War as a member of the International Atomic Energy
Agency's inspection team. The institute, based in Washington, is an independent
group that studies nuclear and other security issues.
"By themselves, these attempted procurements are not evidence that Iraq is
in possession of, or close to possessing, nuclear weapons," the report said. "They
do not provide evidence that Iraq has an operating centrifuge plant or when such
a plant could be operational."
The controversy stems from shipments to Iraq of specialized aluminum metal
that were seized en route by governments allied with the United States. A U.S.
intelligence official confirmed that at least two such shipments had been seized
within the past 14 months, although he declined to give details. The Associated
Press, citing sources familiar with the shipments, reported that one had originated
in China and had been intercepted in Jordan.
The shipments sparked concern among U.S. intelligence analysts because of the
potential use of such tubes in centrifuges, fast-spinning machines used in making
enriched uranium for nuclear bombs. High-strength, heat-resistant metals are needed
for centrifuge casings as well as for the rotors, which turn at up to 1,000 rotations
There is no evidence that any of the tubes reached Iraq. But in its white paper
on Iraq released to the United Nations last week, the Bush administration cited
the seized shipments as evidence that Iraq is actively seeking to develop nuclear
weapons. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said in a televised
interview that the tubes "are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs,
Since then, U.S. officials have acknowledged differing opinions within the
U.S. intelligence community about possible uses for the tubes -- with some experts
contending that a more plausible explanation was that the aluminum was meant to
build launch tubes for Iraq's artillery rockets.
"But the majority view, held by senior officials here, is that they were most
likely intended for gas centrifuges," one U.S. intelligence official said in an
The new report questions that conclusion on several grounds, most of them technical.
It says the seized tubes were made of a kind of aluminum that is ill-suited
for welding. Other specifications of the imported metal are at odds with what
is known about Iraq's previous attempts to build centrifuges.
In fact, the report said, Iraq had largely abandoned aluminum for other materials,
such as specialized steel and carbon fiber, in its centrifuges at the time its
nuclear program was destroyed by allied bombers in the Gulf War.
According to Albright, government experts on nuclear technology who dissented
from the Bush administration's view told him they were expected to remain silent.
Several Energy Department officials familiar with the aluminum shipments declined
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle