The Nuclear Bomb That Wasn't

Editorial

New York Times

October 6, 2004

Of all the justifications that President Bush gave for invading Iraq, the most terrifying was that Saddam Hussein was on the brink of developing a nuclear bomb that he might use against the United States or give to terrorists. Ever since we learned that this was not true, the question has been whether Mr. Bush gave a good-faith account of the best available intelligence, or knowingly deceived the public. The more we learn about the way Mr. Bush paved the road to war, the more it becomes disturbingly clear that if he was not aware that he was feeding misinformation to the world, he was about the only one in his circle who had not been clued in.

The foundation for the administration's claim that it acted on an honest assessment of intelligence analysis - and the president's frequent claim that Congress had the same information he had - has been steadily eroded by the reports from the Senate Intelligence Committee and the 9/11 commission. A lengthy report in The Times on Sunday removed any lingering doubts.

The only physical evidence the administration offered for an Iraqi nuclear program were the 60,000 aluminum tubes that Baghdad set out to buy in early 2001; some of them were seized in Jordan. Even though Iraq had a history of using the same tubes to make small rockets, the president and his closest advisers told the American people that the overwhelming consensus of government experts was that these new tubes were to be used to make nuclear bomb fuel. Now we know there was no such consensus. Mr. Bush's closest advisers say they didn't know that until after they had made the case for war. But in fact, they had plenty of evidence that the claim was baseless; it was a long-discounted theory that had to be resurrected from the intelligence community's wastebasket when the administration needed justification for invading Iraq.

The tubes-for-bombs theory was the creation of a low-level C.I.A. analyst who got his facts, even the size of the tubes, wrong. It was refuted within 24 hours by the Energy Department, which issued three papers debunking the idea over a four-month period in 2001, and by the International Atomic Energy Agency. A week before Mr. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, in which he warned of an Iraqi nuclear menace, international experts in Vienna had dismissed the C.I.A.'s theory about the tubes. The day before, the International Atomic Energy Agency said there was no evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program and rejected the tubes' tale entirely.

It's shocking that with all this information readily available, Secretary of State Colin Powell still went before the United Nations to repeat the bogus claims, an appearance that gravely damaged his reputation. It's even more disturbing that Vice President Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, had not only failed to keep the president from misleading the American people, but had also become the chief proponents of the "mushroom cloud" rhetoric.

Ms. Rice had access to all the reports debunking the tubes theory when she first talked about it publicly in September 2002. Yet last Sunday, Ms. Rice said that while she had been aware of a "dispute" about the tubes, she had not specifically known what it was about until after she had told the world that Saddam was building the bomb.

Ms. Rice's spokesman, Sean McCormack, said it was not her job to question intelligence reports or "to referee disputes in the intelligence community." But even with that curious job disclaimer, it's no comfort to think that the national security adviser wouldn't have bothered to inform herself about such a major issue before speaking publicly. The national security adviser has no more important responsibility than making sure that the president gets the best advice on life-and-death issues like the war.

If Ms. Rice did her job and told Mr. Bush how ludicrous the case was for an Iraqi nuclear program, then Mr. Bush terribly misled the public. If not, she should have resigned for allowing her boss to start a war on the basis of bad information and an incompetent analysis.