THE BLOG
04/01/2006 02:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Whatever Bush Knew, the Dispute Over the Aluminum Tubes was No "Professional Disagreement"

A few minutes of fact checking, or a basic knowledge of the subject, would have alerted Judith Miller and Michael Gordon to a basic flaw in their reporting - and to the deception underlying White House claims.

The topic: Aluminum tubes. Miller and Gordon's front-page scoop in The New York Times, published on September 8, 2002, was cited by Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice on the Sunday morning talk shows. According to the Times:

"The diameter, thickness and other technical specifications of the aluminum tubes had persuaded American intelligence experts that they were meant for Iraq's nuclear program."


Within days, word got out that the Department of Energy disagreed. In fact, a DOE analysis discrediting the nuclear hypothesis had been disseminated one year earlier. Still, in their follow-up piece, Miller and Gordon wrote, "George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, has been adamant that tubes recently intercepted en route to Iraq were intended for use in a nuclear program, [administration] officials said." These senior administration officials also claimed "the best technical experts and nuclear scientists at laboratories like Oak Ridge supported the C.I.A. assessment."

The obvious disconnect: Experts at Oak Ridge National Laboratory don't speak for C.I.A., only the Department of Energy, which controls the Tennessee research facility.

(Miller's lapse went beyond her reliance on White House sources. Before her September 13, 2002 article came out, nuclear arms expert David Albright thoroughly briefed her on the internal criticism undercutting the centrifuge hypothesis. However, "the article was heavily slanted to the CIA's position, and the views of the other side were trivialized.")


The second disconnect (revealed by Tenet in his later congressional testimony): The C.I.A. Director remained unaware of the aluminum tubes debate until "mid-September 2002," leaving him scant time to take an "adamant" position.

In all fairness to the White House sources, several professionals with ties to Oak Ridge did support the C.I.A. position. They were Joe T., a centrifuge analyst at the C.I.A. who had previously worked at Oak Ridge, and Andrew Szady and Joseph Dooley, two consulting engineers with "ties to Oak Ridge", whom Joe T. had hired to test the aluminum tubes. Szady and Dooley supported the C.I.A. assessment based on tests they conducted on September 16 - three days after Miller and Gordon's story came out.

Why Were the Aluminum Tubes Special?

Before reviewing the test results, let's consider how such tubes are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Each tube would be an individual gas centrifuge. A centrifuge is a cylinder that operates in a continuous circular rotation Gas centrifuges separate molecules from uranium the same way your washing machine's spin cycle separates water molecules from your towels. When a tube rotates continuously at high speeds, the centrifugal force pushes heavier molecules towards the outside of the tube, while the lighter molecules remain in the center.

The goal is to separate and concentrate the lighter explosive isotope, uranium-235 or U-235, from the rest of the uranium. Natural uranium has a 0.7% concentration of U-235. Fuel for a nuclear power plant has a 3% concentration of U-235. An atomic bomb has a 90% concentration of U-235.

To obtain the increased concentration of U-235, uranium hexafluoride gas is drawn through a sequence of different centrifuges that are interconnected with pipes to form trains or cascades. The uranium hexafluoride gas is placed in the first centrifuge, which is rotated at about 90,000 revolutions per minute. From the rotation, centrifugal force moves the heavier gas molecules toward the outside of the cylinder and the lighter gas molecules, the U-235, collect near the center. These lighter gas molecules are withdrawn and fed into the next spinning centrifuge, where the process is repeated, so that the lighter U-235 is withdrawn into the next centrifuge, and on and on. With about 1,000 centrifuges rotating perfectly and continuously at 90,000 rpm for about one year, Iraq could have produced enough enriched uranium for about 1-1/2 nuclear bombs.

Uranium enrichment is not as easy as it sounds.

For a few years prior to the Kuwait invasion in 1990, Iraq had attempted to build a gas centrifuge system using European equipment and European technicians. By 1990, only two centrifuges had been tested, and only one was demonstrably workable with uranium hexafluoride. Any prototype cascade was far, far off.

Back then, Iraq's centrifuges were made with materials that are much more durable than aluminum - specifically maraging steel and carbon fiber. Aluminum centrifuges had been out of date since the 1950's, since continuous spinning at such high speeds causes weaker metals, such as aluminum, to fall apart.

The C.I.A. Test Results

On September 17, 2002, one day after they performed tests on the aluminum tubes, Szady and Dooley presented their report to Joe T. at the C.I.A. They concluded the tubes were well-suited as centrifuge rotors.

How could a test period of less than 24 hours demonstrate that the tubes would spin perfectly at 90,000 rpm for 12 months? One accepted testing method is to see if the tubes could spin properly at speeds 20% higher than necessary, or at about 110,000 rpm. Dooley and Szady's testing protocol worked the other way. They tried spinning the tubes at 60,000 rpm for a very short period, and then asserted that the tubes met the performance standards of nuclear gas centrifuges. They excluded the fact that the spin tests caused most of the aluminum tubes to fail.

As you would imagine, tubes that spin continuously for 90,000 rpm for over one year must meet very tight specifications. These tubes, purchased for $17.50 each, lacked the precision specs you'd find on an aluminum beer can.

Joe T.'s analysis also had a problem with dimensions. In his highly classified memos, he claimed that the aluminum tubes had approximately the same wall thickness as found in Zippe-type centrifuges. (Dr. Gernot Zippe had designed the world standard for gas centrifuges.) The aluminum tubes had a wall thickness of 3 mm, which, according to Joe T., was close to 2.8 mm thickness found in Zippe-type centrifuges. Except Zippe centrifuges never had a wall thickness greater than 1 mm.

Over an 18-month period, Department of Energy repeatedly informed Joe T. that his dimensions were just plain wrong. But Joe T. persisted in his claims. It was as if an "expert" said that the aluminum siding on a house had the same thickness as the aluminum foil used in a kitchen. Does that strike you as an honest difference of opinion between professionals?

Joe T.'s expertise came from his experience working with centrifuges for a few years in the early 1980s, soon after he got his bachelors in mechanical engineering from the University of Kentucky in the late 1970s.

Over at the Energy Department, Joe T.'s findings were reviewed, and discredited, by Dr. Jon A. Kreykes, head of Oak Ridge's national security advanced technology group, and Professor Houston G. Wood III from the University of Virginia. Dr. Wood, who had founded the Oak Ridge centrifuge physics department and had consulted with Gernot Zippe, was widely recognized as one of the most eminent experts on centrifuge separation technology.

In retrospect, the White House claim that the "the best technical experts and nuclear scientists at laboratories like Oak Ridge supported the C.I.A. assessment," seems, shall we say, ironic.

The National Intelligence Estimate Turned Upside Down

By refuting Joe T., in late 2001, the Energy Department had ostensibly settled the matter, as evidenced by the December 2001 National Intelligence Estimate, which stated:

"Iraq did not appear to have reconstituted its nuclear weapons program."


But ten months later, on September 8, 2002, Miller and Gordon's White House sources gave a different story. And a few days after that, on September 12, 2002, the administration released white paper on Iraq called "A Decade of Deception and Defiance." It stated:

"Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes which officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium."


But as for Energy Department's dissenting opinion, Miller and Gordon wrote, "The C.I.A. position appears to be the dominant view."
The debate itself was an institutional red flag. Since Energy had been kept unaware during 2002 of C.I.A. memos touting the tubes as nuclear components, it never appealed to the Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee (JAEIC), a secret body of experts drawn from across the federal government to resolve such high level technical disputes.

The JAEIC was first asked to consider the aluminum tubes dispute in July 2002. But by then it, was too late. The committee's first formal session, attended by experts on both sides, took place in early August. A second meeting, scheduled for later in August, was postponed. A third meeting was set for early September. But before the September meeting, on August 26, 2002, Dick Cheney announced:

''We now know Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon."


The third JAEIC meeting, like the second meeting, never happened. And then "A Decade of Deception and Defiance," was published on September 12.

By mid-September 2002, Tenet and others in the intelligence community were scrambling. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Senator Bob Graham, unwilling to rely on the administration's white paper, had insisted that a formal National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMD be prepared for Congress prior to any vote authorizing Bush to take military action against Saddam. The deadline for the finished NIE product was October 1, 2002. The Senate vote was scheduled for October 10, a few weeks before the mid-term elections.
Lacking time, Joe T. streamlined the process for testing the aluminum tubes, which, as noted above, must spin continuously and perfectly at 90,000 rpm for 12-months in order to be effective. Joe T. decided that a one-day test at 60,000 rpm was sufficient, and instructed Szady and Dooley to conceal their work from the Oak Ridge Field Intelligence Element, a center of expertise on Iraq's nuclear infrastructure. Again, information on the tube failures was also concealed.

On September 25, 2002, eight days after Szady and Dooley presented their test report, the different agencies met to discuss their collective drafting of the National Intelligence Estimate. Without the JAEIC decision, there was no consensus. Two groups, the C.I.A. and the Defense Intelligence Agency, claimed the tubes were for nuclear weapons. Two groups, the Energy and State Departments, maintained that the tubes were for conventional rocket use. The one group responsible for evaluating conventional ground weapons systems, the National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC), did not attend the meeting. Instead, the Defense Intelligence Agency acted on behalf of the NGIC. So the "majority" view in the NIE - that the tubes were most likely used for nuclear weapons - validated the claims made in administration's white paper. The NIE stated,

"Most agencies assess that Iraq's aggressive pursuit of high-strength aluminum tubes provides compelling evidence that Saddam is attempting to reconstitute a uranium enrichment effort."


And Who Is to Blame?

"Are they guilty of manipulating intelligence on WMD? That, I think, is the thing they are least guilty of. .. the Robb report, which showed there was no political pressure .there was a Senate intelligence report; there was a Butler report. There were all of these reports. None of them found manipulation of intelligence." David Brooks on The NewsHour, November 4, 2005


The Senate Intelligence Committee made twenty conclusions regarding the intelligence of Iraq's nuclear effort. Each conclusion cited a failure to properly evaluate the evidence available at the time.

Today, the conventional spin is that Joe T.'s crackpot theory about aluminum tubes took on a life of its own because of bureaucratic infighting, incompetence and/or groupthink. Excepting the Department of Energy, and the State Department, everybody, including the White House, failed to perform the proper due diligence.

Please. People weren't born yesterday. Where I come from, the corporate and financial world, some things are ambiguous, and some things are clear cut. This is very clear cut.

Suppose instead that Joe T. were testing an axel for Chevrolet or a painkiller for Merck. He'd be in jail for fraud and possibly manslaughter, along with his managers who chose to look the other way. As the Intelligence Committee report makes clear, almost every claim made by the C.I.A. regarding the tubes was either a lie or was supported by fraud. Take two assertions lifted from the National Intelligence Estimate:

"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."

· Joe T. said told the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee that, "Almost every country [the Iraqis] approached has told them we cannot make tubes to these specifications." Joe T.'s backup: six intelligence reports. Five of those reports, mentioned nothing to indicate that any company in any country suggested it lacked the capability to fabricate those tubes. The sixth report mentioned one manufacturer who gave an incomplete response, but no indication that tolerances were a deciding factor.

· In January 2003, C.I.A. analysts asked Department of Defense rocket engineers if the aluminum tubes were excessively toleranced for use in conventional rocket launcher. The rocket engineers said the tubes exceeded the minimum tolerances necessary, but nothing prevented their use in conventional rocket launchers. They said if you're an inexperienced engineer, you go for more tightly toleranced systems. Again, bicycle seat posts or aluminum cans are fabricated to stricter tolerances. At the time, a Defense engineer suggested to the C.I.A. analysts that they contact a "foreign government service" since the tubes were very similar to those used in an Italian rocket design. The C.I.A.'s response: that was not an option.


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

· But some intelligence reports showed the Iraqis had often bargained down the price to under $16, and once as low as $10. The NIE claimed that aluminum was "considerably more expensive than other more readily available materials" and "materials or tubes meeting conventional rocket requirements could be acquired at much lower prices." Later, Department of Defense engineers refuted that claim, noting that aluminum is one of the cheapest materials. For the same tubes, a US manufacturer quoted $19.27 per unit. And $17.50, on an inflation adjusted basis, was less than what Iraq paid for the same tubes in the 1980's.


Murray Waas broke the story that Bush, who received his one-page classified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate, was informed about the doubts concerning the tubes' nuclear application. The scandal inside of that scandal is that this was no bona fide professional disagreement, only a conflict between professional honesty and fraud. And we know which side won.

Note: The passages about Joe T. relied in substantial part on reporting from The Washington Post
and The New York Times. The remainder was based on the "Report on The U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq" and other sources in the public domain.

This liberal arts major also thanks HuffPost readers bobmunck and MarkusQ for pointing out two phrases which were scientifically incorrect, and have since been corrected.