2004 October 02 Saturday
The Iraq Aluminum Tubes Saga In Detail

The New York Times has an excellent, important, and lengthy report on the controversy over whether Iraq's aluminum tubes purchase was part of an effort to restart their nuclear weapons development program.

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.

My reaction here is that if the CIA had only a dozen people who had any technical understanding of the nuclear fuels then that says something pretty damning about the CIA. One former Oak Ridge engineer recruited into the CIA was the only guy they had who could evaluate the significance of an Iraqi aluminum tubes purchase? Isn't there something wrong with this picture?

Suddenly, Joe's work was ending up in classified intelligence reports being read in the White House. Indeed, his analysis was the primary basis for one of the agency's first reports on the tubes, which went to senior members of the Bush administration on April 10, 2001. The tubes, the report asserted, "have little use other than for a uranium enrichment program."

This alarming assessment was immediately challenged by the Energy Department, which builds centrifuges and runs the government's nuclear weapons complex.

The next day, Energy Department officials ticked off a long list of reasons why the tubes did not appear well suited for centrifuges. Simply put, the analysis concluded that the tubes were the wrong size - too narrow, too heavy, too long - to be of much practical use in a centrifuge.

What was more, the analysis reasoned, if the tubes were part of a secret, high-risk venture to build a nuclear bomb, why were the Iraqis haggling over prices with suppliers all around the world? And why weren't they shopping for all the other sensitive equipment needed for centrifuges?

All fine questions. But if the tubes were not for a centrifuge, what were they for?

Within weeks, the Energy Department experts had an answer.

It turned out, they reported, that Iraq had for years used high-strength aluminum tubes to make combustion chambers for slim rockets fired from launcher pods. Back in 1996, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency had even examined some of those tubes, also made of 7075-T6 aluminum, at a military complex, the Nasser metal fabrication plant in Baghdad, where the Iraqis acknowledged making rockets. According to the international agency, the rocket tubes, some 66,000 of them, were 900 millimeters in length, with a diameter of 81 millimeters and walls 3.3 millimeters thick.

The tubes now sought by Iraq had precisely the same dimensions - a perfect match.

That finding was published May 9, 2001, in the Daily Intelligence Highlight, a secret Energy Department newsletter published on Intelink, a Web site for the intelligence community and the White House.

"Joe" and his CIA colleagues argued against the Energy Department interpretation. You can read the full article to find out why.

It is important to note that the tubes were probably the strongest argument that the Bush Administration had as evidence for a serious attempt by the Iraqis to restart their nuclear weapons development program. There were many other things that the Iraqis would have been doing that would have been part of such a restart effort that would have been detectable by Western intelligence agencies that the Iraqis were obviously not doing. But the Bush Administration misrepresented the strength of the argument for the tubes. In fact, I would characterize the Bush Administration's position on the tubes as a bright shining lie. Did Cheney deep down believe the lie? Did Bush?

Dick Cheney looked at the intelligence community and saw previous major failures in its attempts to detect activities such as nuclear weapons development efforts. But where Cheney failed is that he didn't understand whether the causes of those previous failures were relevant to analysis of evidence from Iraq in the late 1990s and onward. He obviously and importantly didn't know which supposed experts to trust. His misjudgement has been very harmful to US national interests.

Here is an example of where a lack of scientific education on the part of major politicians and the bulk of the commentariat can lead to absolutely huge mistakes. But ignorance in physics and engineering were not the only contributing factors for the Iraq debacle. Ignorance on matters of culture, religion, history, and human nature contributed as well. The idea that the Iraqis would treat us as liberators for more than a short period of time (and not even that in many cases) was a huge and foreseeable mistake. pessimists on Muslim democracy pointed out why analogies with Japan and Germany are erroneous. Lots of other factors working against secular liberal democracy in Iraq have been explained by a number of commentators. Also see Steve Sailer's Cousin Marriage Conundrum.

Two major stated reasons for invading Iraq were to stop nuclear proliferation and spread democracy to undermine the reasons for grievances among Muslims against the West. Well, invading Iraq didn't stop nuclear proliferation and we have increased Muslim hostility toward the United States and helped Al Qaeda recruiting.

So why did US policy toward Iraq go so badly wrong? (and I'm ignoring people who claim otherwise for about the same reason I ignore people who reject the theory of evolution by natural selection: overwhelming evidence) Over on Gideon's Blog Noah Millman takes up the question by first discussing George Will's savaging of the neocons.

I'm not sure there's another pundit out there with the chops to say what George Will is saying about the neocons. (Steve Sailer directed me to the piece.) I say that because Will is clearly a member in good standing of the new Conservative establishment (he's neither a Buchananite exile nor a Scowcroftian managerial Republican type) and has a strong record of support for Israel. He's not a crank; he's not someone who thinks he lost his job to a neocon; and he's not an Arab-sympathizer. And he's not harping on supposed dual-loyalty (which is mostly a canard and a distraction; there is an *enormous* difference morally between *betraying your country* and being infatuated with a friendly foreign country - as Jefferson was with France, Hamilton with Britain, and various Americans over the decades and centuries have been with Free Cuba, Republican Spain, Nationalist China, Wilhelmine Germany . . . there are probably more instances that I'm not thinking of). He's just saying: these guys are wrong. Badly wrong, dangerously wrong, blindly wrong. He's not hitting below the belt, but he's not pulling his punches. That's a good standard to aspire to, whether one agrees with him or not.

As for whether I agree with him . . . yeah, basically. Do I look forward to a newly dictatorial Russia? No. Do I think America can do much to promote democracy in Russia at this point? No. If there was a window of hope in Russia, that window has closed. Our *best* hope at this point is a cautious, rational dictatorship that bides its time and tries to rebuild the country, and knows that antagonizing America is just a stupid thing to do at this point. *That* Russia I would happily form an alliance with, dictatorship or no. I don't consider that the most-likely outcome. Between the extraordinary power of organized crime, the decrepit condition of the Russian military, the demographic implosion . . . Russia is going to be very, very lucky to avoid chaos and civil war on the one hand, or an ultranationalist, expansionist dictatorship on the other. Putin is very bad. And we could do much, much worse.

Noah sees a failure to examine contrary evidence and arguments as the base cause of the debacle.

And so what's hard to understand is: why did the Administration ignore this stuff? Not why did Rumsfeld listen to Wolfowitz or Bush listen to Rumsfeld - why did Wolfowitz believe this stuff? Why didn't everyone see the sheer unlikelihood of success in our endeavor? Sitting on the outside, I assumed that the Administration had evaluated all this stuff and come to the conclusion that war was necessary, and that we were doing everything we could to assure success. But that's clearly not the case: we did almost *nothing* to assure success. Why?

That's the mystery to me: not how the neocons got Iraq at the top of the foreign policy agenda (that's just inertia from pre 9-11 days speeded up by 9-11-induced urgency) nor why they thought toppling Saddam would be a good thing for America and its allies, most notably Israel, but why and how the decisionmaking process got so broken that contrary argument and evidence couldn't break through? *That's* what's bizarre. And *that's* what Bush hasn't done anything demonstrable to correct. And *that's* the biggest argument against his reelection. Which is why I think Kerry should be making just that argument.

But I do not find that explanation satisfying because he provides no answers to the questions he poses. Are the Bushies dumb? Do they really have conflicting loyalties as many critics of the neocons (I'm nodding YES) claim? Are the neocons really not conservatives and really ideological leftists (I'm nodding YES again) who care less about evidence and more about fighting wars for their ideas? These people need to be explained and analyzed.

Here's a really pedestrian simple explanation for much of what goes wrong in politics: Smarter people tend to study the hard sciences and engineering in college and stay out of politics in their careers. People who have the mental chops to critically sort through claims about nuclear arms proliferation tend not to be the people examining the evidence or trying to judge the level of talent of supposed experts giving conflicting advice. Also, more generally, even outside the hard sciences and engineering in areas like history and religous studies are not the sorts of people who often find their way to positions of advisors to the high and mighty. Plus, making all ths worse, a guy like George W. Bush even wins votes by not appearing to be too intellectual or learned. So I do not see that Washington DC has the talents we need there to make the big calls.

Here's another explanation: It helps to have a lot of money if you run for high office. But most rich people do not want to run for high office. So we are left with the rich people who are not so talented to serve as a pool of contenders for the US Presidency. Look at Bush. He made his money by convincing a bunch of voters to vote for a bond issue to fund the construction of a stadium that made a baseball team worth much more to its owners (of which he was one). Kerry married his money. Neither of these guys are smart on the level of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Well, Bill and Warren aren't going to take off time from their busy lives to lower themselves down into the political arena. So we get Dubya and to choose among instead.

On a related note about why the neocons in the Bush Administration are such a bunch of dangerous loons Johann Hari has a profile in The Independent (so it is written from a Leftist perspective) of former leftist and now anti-Islamofascist ally of the neocons Christopher Hitchens which shows how much Hitch sees Wolfowitz as an ideological kindred spirit. (same article here)

He believes neoconservatism is a distinctively new strain of thought, preached by ex-leftists, who believed in using US power to spread democracy.


With the fine eye for ideological division that comes from a life on the Trotskyite left, Hitch diagnoses the intellectual divisions within the Bush administration. He does not ally himself with the likes of Cheney; he backs the small sliver of pure neocon thought he associates with Wolfowitz. "The thing that would most surprise people about Wolfowitz if they met him is that he's a real bleeding heart. He's from a Polish-Jewish immigrant family. You know the drill - Kennedy Democrats, some of the family got out of Poland in time and some didn't make it, civil rights marchers? He impressed me when he was speaking at a pro-Israel rally in Washington a few years ago and he made a point of talking about Palestinian suffering. He didn't have to do it - at all - and he was booed. He knew he would be booed, and he got it. I've taken time to find out what he thinks about these issues, and it's always interesting."

Hitchens and Wolfowitz still think using Leftist intellectual categories. Neoconservatives are really not consevative. They represent a schism in the Left. In a follow-up in his own blog Hari makes it clear that he sees Islamic terrorism's cause as the standard Leftist explanation for everything: economic oppression by The Man.

I differ with Hitch on two points. Firstly, I do not believe that the Bush method is sufficient for – or very effective at – battling Islamic fundamentalism. There are many occasions when Islamic fundamentalists can only be defeated by force – in Afghanistan, for example – and we need to support those fights when the Bush administration enters into them. But force alone is not sufficient; there needs to be a Marshall Plan for the Arab world (precisely the opposite of the economic misery spread at the moment by the USA’s proxies, the IMF and World Bank) and a determined effort to tackle legitimate Muslim grievances. So far the force has been forthcoming – but nothing else. If you want a real fight against Islamofascism, you have to want much better than Bush

This really gets old. Economic oppression is not the root cause of Islamic anger at the West. Try considering cultural clash between religions combined with ethnic conflict fed by consanguineous cousin marriage and their own deficiencies and feelings of inferiority and you will be a lot closer to the truth of the matter. But such ideas have no place in Leftist ideological theorizing.

A number of left-leaning bloggers have responded to Hari's profile of Hitchens. One leftie blogger demonstrates that even some people who call themselves leftists correctly recognize the neocons as a particular strain of radical internationalists.

Hitchens is right in a way. These are early days yet, but the Neocons are proof that there is today a radical-democratic, internationalist and universalist Right promoting Enlightenment values. People like Wolfowitz and Perle are actually preaching the spreading of these values worldwide. A fairly idealist and radical approach.

Being conservative in a more conventional sense I do not believe the whole world can be transformed into a liberal democratic utopia and I think efforts to bring about that change are more likely to cause problems than produce a happy outcome.

More comments on the HItchens profile can be found here and here and here.

Noah Millman is left wondering what we ought to do.

It is not enough to say that most Iraqis hate the insurgents. *Do they hate them enough to die fighting to keep them out of power?* We don't know the answer to that question, yet. Most South Vietnamese didn't want the Communists to win; 1 million boat people proved that pretty decisively. They lost anyhow. And even if we knew the answer to that question was "yes" that only answers the most pressing question about Iraq. All the other simmering difficulties remain. And remember: I'm not even talking about what it would take for Iraq to be a democracy. I'm talking about what it would take to get out and not leave chaos and civil war behind.

Look: this is not a partisan issue for me. I actually want to figure out what to do. It's readily apparent to me that Bush is winging it, and that the last thing he's going to do is talk straight to the country about how the war is going. It's also readily apparent to me that Kerry has no better clue about what to do. Kerry has taken every position it's possible to take on almost every aspect of the Iraq issue. In 1997 he said was pounding the tub loudly for war to stop Saddam from acquiring WMD and threatening America. In the primaries he said anyone who didn't think deposing Saddam made America safer was unfit to be President. He voted against the Gulf War and for the Iraq war, and then voted not to fund the latter war effort. He defended that vote by saying he really objected that the war effort was funded with debt rather than taxes . . . but then he also said we're (a) not spending nearly enough on the war and reconstruction effort; (b) spending way too much when there are such pressing needs at home. When asked what he'd do differently from Bush he says, "everything" and then lists things the Bush Administration is trying to do right now. He's hopeless. So: what follows?

My choices are summed up here: Unilaterally Withdraw From Iraq Or First Partition? But I realize most people are not ready to admit just how modest our ambitions have to be for Iraq at this point. Well, if you are not willing to admit defeat your only choice that I can see at this point is to cheer on the creation of a new Iraqi Army. But if the desertions and collaboration with the insurgency by Iraqi soldiers do not lessen I do not see how the US can arrange for a graceful face-saving exit.

Update: US National Security Advisor Condoleezza is still claiming there is some chance that the aluminum tubes were purchased for uranium enrichment centrifuges.

"As I understand it, people are still debating this," Rice said on ABC's "This Week" program. "And I'm sure they will continue to debate it."

David Albright says Rice "was grasping at straws". No kidding. The Bush Administration can not be trusted on the subject of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. They do the country a disservice by crying wolf when there is no wolf.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 October 02 09:18 PM  Mideast Iraq

gcochran said at October 3, 2004 12:29 AM:

Was the CIA that poorly staffed, or were they pressured to come up with the wrong answer?

Both, I think. It is hard to see why a sharp young engineer or physicist would hire on there. I interviewed at Langley once: they don't pay that much and the security is incredibly oppressive. And, like most bureacracies, they have evolved to efficiently smell out what the boss wants to hear and tell him that: it's about as surprising as leaves tracking the sun. I remember someone explaining that if became clear that the Prez wanted to hear it, they would rapidly find lots of connections between Omama Bin Laden and the Kingdom of Tonga.

I remember someone on Pournelle's site saying that of course the people in our government knew much more than us and we had to trust them. I said I was quite sure that I knew more than the Feds did, and events have certainly borne me out. It looks as if I wasn't even much outnumbered, when it came to nuclear technology - not my speciality, but of course you have to understand nuclear weapons or you can't even cast a rational vote. I think there were several hundred rational votes cast last time....

Looking into the more interesting parts of the future - which of course have nothing to do with Iraq - we will someday wish that we had had real experts on genetic engineering at Langley. Won't happen though till the horse has flown out of the barn, and probably not even then.

Luke Lea said at October 3, 2004 11:28 AM:

Excellent post, Randall. I admit I supported the Iraqi invasion originally on humanitarian grounds (getting rid of Sadam, like a bully on a playground) and because I wanted to give the Iraqis at least a chance to choose freedom and democracy. I believed people everywhere would want these things if given a chance, because the alternative -- being not free, and having no say in the people who rule over you -- seemed so obviously less desirable. Thus what is happening in Iraq is a real challenge to my world view, which is universalist and Judeo-Christian in some broad sense. I suspect many other people are wrestling with this same challenge now, including the neo-conservatives, for sure, but also cosmopolitan and semi-cosmopolitan liberals of various stripes. I do not know how I am going to deal with this in the long run, or where I will finally come out, but honesty demands that I admit the conundrum I am in. Score this round to the conservatives.

gcochran said at October 3, 2004 11:50 AM:

Luke, how much history have you read? Does it feel real to you? I don't think our invasion of Iraq, or the local reaction to it, illustrates anything that hasn't happened many times before. Placing special emphasis on the invasion and occupation of Iraq in developing your theory of the world is a pretty obvious mistake. Lots of people do that - they build their picture based solely or disproportionately on the very limited set of experiences they've lived through rather than considering the broader historical record.
Of course, most people don't base their world-picture on any data at all, and in that case personal experience is certainly better than ideology, ideology being defined as a an attempt to create a picture of the world that can be expressed on a 3 x 5 card.

As for having a say in choosing your leaders: has there ever been an instance in which your say made a difference?

Luke Lea said at October 3, 2004 12:38 PM:

Yeah, Greg, I've read tons of history, for going on 40 years now, since college; it is one of my favorite subjects. And as I reflect on it, I can think of other instances in which people "turned down democracy" so to speak, or at least seemed to: in parts of Europe (Spain, Russia, Germany) in the early parts of the 20th century, for example. One factor, I think, is that when one is raised in an authoritarian society, one develops or has instilled in oneself a moral reflex against democracy on the part of others, over whom one is used to exercising control or class priviledge. Maybe this is what is going on in Iraq, and the majority is to docile to object? I would prefer that explanation to the notion that some groups are just too dimwitted and morally obtuse to choose freedom over servitude, which is tantamount to saying they are not fully human. Which reminds me of the Hebraic attitude toward non-believers in the time of Moses: the human race having been created in the image of God, those who did not believe in God were judged as not being human.

Anyway, Greg, what is your take on these issues?

Randall Parker said at October 3, 2004 1:16 PM:


I would prefer that explanation to the notion that some groups are just too dimwitted and morally obtuse to choose freedom over servitude, which is tantamount to saying they are not fully human.

Sentimentalism about the human race is producing enormous amounts of avoidable problems and suffering. Your preferences should not enter into your attempts to understand human nature and to figure out the causes of human behavior.

A lot of problems are now intractable because their causes are denied. Yes, some people really are dumber than others. Some groups really are substantially dumber than other groups. Denying it does not make it any less true. Denying it does not make the differences any less problematic. In factm the denial makes the differences more problematic.

IQ differences are not the only reason that democracy fails in the Middle East. Islam matters too. So does consanguineous marriage. So does Arab culture. So does whatever genes and/or cultural factors that cause a preference for negative sum games.

I assume you admit that there are individual differences in intelligence. So then are the dumber people among us in our own society less human? It depends on how you define human. But it seems obvious to me that we do not all have an equal capacity or desire to respect the rights of others. Some people are more impulsive, more aggressive, and less empathetic by nature. Capacity to respect the rights of others is a necessary quality for members of a free society who are recognized to have innate rights. By that measure we are not akk rights-possessing beings to the same extent and some humans can fairly be said to be totally lacking in the qualities that are necessary for a person to be a rights-possessing being.

gene berman said at October 11, 2004 10:12 AM:

Within recent memory (and quite recently enough for the significance of arms, i.e.,WMD, proliferation to have been in the consciousness of intelligence and military agencies) the US government itself disposed of--directly to the market via public sale--an entire plant, fully equipped with both production and control facilities, for the conversion of uranium hexafluoride gas in the process of producing nuclear fuel material. This was not an antiquated or outdated system or even one relatively worn out through use and fit simply for scrap with only
the potential for reclamation of a few usable components. Rather, it was an entire "turn-key" type of set up, complete with computer control of processes and sophisticated, automated provisions for weigh-counting and robotized packaging and palletization of product. Everything was brand-new--unused except for proof-run testing to make sure it worked. No idea whatever who bought it but I recollect it bringing less than a quarter-million.

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