In 2002, at a crucial juncture on the path to war, senior members of the Bush administration gave a series of speeches and interviews in which they asserted that Saddam Hussein was rebuilding his nuclear weapons program. In a speech to veterans that August, Vice President Dick Cheney said Saddam could have an atomic bomb "fairly soon." President Bush, addressing the United Nations the next month, said there was "little doubt" about Saddam's appetite for nuclear arms.
The U.S. intelligence community had not yet concluded that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear weapons program. But as the vice president told a group of Wyoming Republicans that September, the United States had "irrefutable evidence" — thousands of tubes made of high-strength aluminum, tubes that the Bush administration said were destined for clandestine Iraqi uranium centrifuges, before some were seized at the behest of the United States.
The tubes quickly became a critical exhibit in the administration's brief against Iraq. As the only physical evidence the United States had of Saddam's revived nuclear ambitions, they gave credibility to the apocalyptic imagery invoked by President Bush and his advisers. The tubes were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, asserted on CNN on Sept. 8, 2002. "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
But before Rice made those remarks, she was aware that the government's foremost nuclear experts had concluded that the tubes were most likely not for nuclear weapons at all, an examination by The New York Times has found. As early as 2001, her staff had been told that these experts, at the Energy Department, believed the tubes were probably intended for small artillery rockets, according to four officials at the Central Intelligence Agency and a senior administration official, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
"She was aware of the differences of opinion," the senior administration official said in an interview authorized by the White House. "She was also aware that at the highest level of the intelligence community, there was great confidence that these tubes were for centrifuges."
Rice's alarming description on CNN was in keeping with the Bush administration's overall treatment of the tubes. Senior administration officials repeatedly failed to fully disclose the contrary views of America's leading nuclear scientists, the Times found. They sometimes overstated even the most dire intelligence assessments of the tubes, yet minimized or rejected the strong doubts of their own experts. They worried privately that the nuclear case was weak but expressed sober certitude in public.
The result was a largely one-sided presentation to the public that did not convey the depth of evidence and argument against the administration's most tangible proof of a revived nuclear weapons program in Iraq.
In response to questions last week about the tubes, administration officials emphasized two points: First, they said they relied on the repeated assurances of George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, that the tubes were in fact for centrifuges. Second, they noted that the intelligence community, including the Energy Department, largely agreed that Saddam Hussein had revived his nuclear program.
Tenet declined to be interviewed. But in a statement, he said he "made it clear" to the White House "that the case for a possible nuclear program in Iraq was weaker than that for chemical and biological weapons." Regarding the tubes, Tenet said that "alternative views were shared" with the administration after the intelligence community drafted a new National Intelligence Estimate in late September 2002.
But the estimate as a whole, particularly its sections on the tubes and Iraq's nuclear programs, has been largely discredited by the Senate Intelligence Committee. After a yearlong investigation, the committee unanimously concluded this summer that most of the estimate's findings about the tubes were either unsupported, overstated or incorrect.
Today, 18 months after the invasion of Iraq, investigators there have found no evidence of hidden centrifuges or a revived nuclear weapons program. The absence of unconventional weapons in Iraq is now widely seen as evidence of a profound intelligence failure, of an intelligence community blinded by "group think," false assumptions and unreliable human sources.
Yet the tale of the tubes, pieced together through records and interviews with senior intelligence officers, nuclear experts, administration officials and congressional investigators, reveals a different failure.
Far from "group think," American nuclear and intelligence experts argued bitterly over the tubes. A "holy war" is how one congressional investigator described it. That debate, which started in April 2001, produced two competing theories about the tubes. One, championed by the CIA, suggested a new nuclear menace. The other, advanced by the Energy Department, suggested a regime replenishing its rocket supply.
But in the months after 9/11, as the nation moved to war footing, an overwhelming momentum gathered behind the CIA assessment. It was a momentum built on a pattern of haste, secrecy, ambiguity, bureaucratic maneuver and a persistent failure in the Bush administration and even among Democrats in Congress to ask hard questions. That momentum gave urgency to the call for action against Iraq.
"We have a tendency — I don't know if it's part of the American character — to say, 'Well, we'll sit down and we'll evaluate the evidence, we'll draw a conclusion,' " Cheney said as he discussed the tubes on the NBC News program "Meet the Press" in September 2002.
"But we always think in terms that we've got all the evidence. Here, we don't have all the evidence," he said. "We have 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent. We don't know how much. We know we have a part of the picture. And that part of the picture tells us that he is, in fact, actively and aggressively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons."