The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, October 02, 2004

Iraqi aluminum tubes farrago: the Times dissects

A fascinating 10,000 word piece in tomorrow's New York Times (run on what page?) on the background to the infamous claim that Iraqi purchases of, or attempts to purchase, certain aluminium tubes were evidence that Saddam had restarted his nuclear weapons programme.

The reporters - David Barstow, William J Broad and Jeff Gerth - do not have names I recognise. (Judith Miller, once the Times' Sage of WMD is notably missing from the cast-list!)

The detail of the saga have long faded from my memory; but a skim reveals a picture every bit as ugly as one might have supposed at the time.

I take one point of journalistic process and one of substance:

First - we have what is to me a novelty: a modified anonymouse, half hidden by the Cloak of Invisibility, half in the public gaze. To wit, one Joe, an Agency man.

There is a sort of informal competition for the most bizarre formulation to excuse the anonymity bestowed on a source. Joe's is this:
At the C.I.A.'s request, The Times agreed to use only Joe's first name; the agency said publishing his full name could hinder his ability to operate overseas.

So far, so unremarkable; however, the Times provides a dollop of further information on Joe, such that the Bongo-Bongo Land intelligence services would find identifying the guy within their range:
Joe graduated from the University of Kentucky in the late 1970's with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, then joined the Goodyear Atomic Corporation, which dispatched him to Oak Ridge, Tenn., a federal complex that specializes in uranium and national security research.

Joe went to work on a new generation of centrifuges. Many European models stood no more than 10 feet tall. The American centrifuges loomed 40 feet high, and Joe's job was to learn how to test and operate them. But when the project was canceled in 1985, Joe spent the next decade performing hazard analyses for nuclear reactors, gaseous diffusion plants and oil refineries.

In 1997, Joe transferred to a national security complex at Oak Ridge known as Y-12, his entry into intelligence work. His assignment was to track global sales of material used in nuclear arms. He retired after two years, taking a buyout with hundreds of others at Oak Ridge, and moved to the C.I.A.

The agency's ability to assess nuclear intelligence had markedly declined after the cold war, and Joe's appointment was part of an effort to regain lost expertise. He was assigned to a division eventually known as Winpac, for Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control. Winpac had hundreds of employees, but only a dozen or so with a technical background in nuclear arms and fuel production. None had Joe's hands-on experience operating centrifuges.

Can't be many Joes with anything remotely resembling that CV. (Assuming Joe is his real name, of course: you don't think the Times - or the CIA - could be fibbing?)

Turns out - vastly to oversimplify the Times piece - that Joe was something of a fanatic about these tubes; as the CIA's only reactor man, he indirectly exercised something of a choke-hold on intelligence reaching the White House on the tubes, on account of that agency's quasi-monopoly over intel flows [1].

The piece ends with the dismal February 5 2003 presentation by Colin Powell to the UN Security Council of the evidence (!) of Saddam's WMD activity and consequent threat to humanity:
Intelligence analysts at the State Department waged a quiet battle against much of the proposed language on tubes...The language on the tubes, they said, contained "egregious errors" and "highly misleading" claims. Changes were made, language softened.

But still the final product was full of the false and the misleading:
Mr. Powell, for example, asserted to the Security Council that the tubes were manufactured to a tolerance "that far exceeds U.S. requirements for comparable rockets."

Yet in a memo written two days earlier, Mr. Powell's intelligence experts had specifically cautioned him about those very same words. "In fact," they explained, "the most comparable U.S. system is a tactical rocket - the U.S. Mark 66 air-launched 70-millimeter rocket - that uses the same, high-grade (7075-T6) aluminum, and that has specifications with similar tolerances."

Now, it's great that the details are being teased out - and that the Times has decided that its position as the leading journal of the nation is, after all, compatible with running actual journalism to which the White House is liable to take exception.

But I think it fair to say that many of us did not require twenty months of hindsight to withhold credence from Powell's pitiful performance, and to conclude that the Administration's case for war was a tissue of lies.

I have little doubt that the senior management of the Times, with enough degree certificates between them to paper the average aircraft hangar, reached the same conclusion at the time, but decided that war was better business.

  1. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee report,
    unique access to policymakers and unique control of intelligence reporting...

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