Some Evidence on Iraq Called Fake
U.N. Nuclear Inspector Says Documents on Purchases Were Forged
By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 8, 2003; Page A01
A key piece of evidence linking Iraq to a nuclear weapons program appears to have been fabricated, the United Nations' chief nuclear inspector said yesterday in a report that called into question U.S. and British claims about Iraq's secret nuclear ambitions.
Documents that purportedly showed Iraqi officials shopping for uranium in Africa two years ago were deemed "not authentic" after careful scrutiny by U.N. and independent experts, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the U.N. Security Council.
ElBaradei also rejected a key Bush administration claim -- made twice by the president in major speeches and repeated by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday -- that Iraq had tried to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes to use in centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Also, ElBaradei reported finding no evidence of banned weapons or nuclear material in an extensive sweep of Iraq using advanced radiation detectors.
"There is no indication of resumed nuclear activities," ElBaradei said.
Knowledgeable sources familiar with the forgery investigation described the faked evidence as a series of letters between Iraqi agents and officials in the central African nation of Niger. The documents had been given to the U.N. inspectors by Britain and reviewed extensively by U.S. intelligence. The forgers had made relatively crude errors that eventually gave them away -- including names and titles that did not match up with the individuals who held office at the time the letters were purportedly written, the officials said.
"We fell for it," said one U.S. official who reviewed the documents.
A spokesman for the IAEA said the agency did not blame either Britain or the United States for the forgery. The documents "were shared with us in good faith," he said.
The discovery was a further setback to U.S. and British efforts to convince reluctant U.N. Security Council members of the urgency of the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Powell, in his statement to the Security Council Friday, acknowledged ElBaradei's findings but also cited "new information" suggesting that Iraq continues to try to get nuclear weapons components.
"It is not time to close the book on these tubes," a senior State Department official said, adding that Iraq was prohibited from importing sensitive parts, such as tubes, regardless of their planned use.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein pursued an ambitious nuclear agenda throughout the 1970s and 1980s and launched a crash program to build a bomb in 1990 following his invasion of neighboring Kuwait. But Iraq's nuclear infrastructure was heavily damaged by allied bombing in 1991, and the country's known stocks of nuclear fuel and equipment were removed or destroyed during the U.N. inspections after the war.
However, Iraq never surrendered the blueprints for nuclear weapons, and kept key teams of nuclear scientists intact after U.N. inspectors were forced to leave in 1998. Despite international sanctions intended to block Iraq from obtaining weapons components, Western intelligence agencies and former weapons inspectors were convinced the Iraqi president had resumed his quest for the bomb in the late 1990s, citing defectors' stories and satellite images that showed new construction at facilities that were once part of Iraq's nuclear machinery.
Last September, the United States and Britain issued reports accusing Iraq of renewing its quest for nuclear weapons. In Britain's assessment, Iraq reportedly had "sought significant amounts of uranium from Africa, despite having no active civil nuclear program that could require it."
Separately, President Bush, in his speech to the U.N. Security Council on Sept. 12, said Iraq had made "several attempts to buy-high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons."
Doubts about both claims began to emerge shortly after U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq last November. In early December, the IAEA began an intensive investigation of the aluminum tubes, which Iraq had tried for two years to purchase by the tens of thousands from China and at least one other country. Certain types of high-strength aluminum tubes can be used to build centrifuges, which enrich uranium for nuclear weapons and commercial power plants.
By early January, the IAEA had reached a preliminary conclusion: The 81mm tubes sought by Iraq were "not directly suitable" for centrifuges, but appeared intended for use as conventional artillery rockets, as Iraq had claimed. The Bush administration, meanwhile, stuck to its original position while acknowledging disagreement among U.S. officials who had reviewed the evidence.
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, Bush said Iraq had "attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."
Last month, Powell likewise dismissed the IAEA's conclusions, telling U.N. leaders that Iraq would not have ordered tubes at such high prices and with such exacting performance ratings if intended for use as ordinary rockets. Powell specifically noted that Iraq had sought tubes that had been "anodized," or coated with a thin outer film -- a procedure that Powell said was required if the tubes were to be used in centrifuges.
ElBaradei's report yesterday all but ruled out the use of the tubes in a nuclear program. The IAEA chief said investigators had unearthed extensive records that backed up Iraq's explanation. The documents, which included blueprints, invoices and notes from meetings, detailed a 14-year struggle by Iraq to make 81mm conventional rockets that would perform well and resist corrosion. Successive failures led Iraqi officials to revise their standards and request increasingly higher and more expensive metals, ElBaradei said.
Moreover, further work by the IAEA's team of centrifuge experts -- two Americans, two Britons and a French citizen -- has reinforced the IAEA's conclusion that the tubes were ill suited for centrifuges. "It was highly unlikely that Iraq could have achieved the considerable redesign needed to use them in a revived centrifuge program," ElBaradei said.
A number of independent experts on uranium enrichment have sided with IAEA's conclusion that the tubes were at best ill suited for centrifuges. Several have said that the "anodized" features mentioned by Powell are actually a strong argument for use in rockets, not centrifuges, contrary to the administration's statement.
The Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based research organization that specializes in nuclear issues, reported yesterday that Powell's staff had been briefed about the implications of the anodized coatings before Powell's address to the Security Council last month. "Despite being presented with the falseness of this claim, the administration persists in making misleading arguments about the significance of the tubes," the institute's president, David Albright, wrote in the report.
Powell's spokesman said the secretary of state had consulted numerous experts and stood by his U.N. statement.
Top Inspectors Criticize CIA Data on Iraqi Sites
By Bob Drogin and Greg Miller
LA Times Staff Writers
Saturday 08 March 2003
Blix and Elbaradei reject key intelligence claims. Some U.S. officials admit quality is poor.
UNITED NATIONS -- On the eve of a possible war in Iraq, a question looms increasingly large: If U.S. intelligence is so good, why are United Nations experts still unable to confirm whether Saddam Hussein is actively concealing and producing illegal weapons?
That troubling issue erupted Friday when top U.N. weapons inspectors expressed frustration with the quality of intelligence they have been given.
"I would rather have twice the amount of high-quality information about sites to inspect than twice the number of expert inspectors to send," Hans Blix, who heads the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, told the Security Council.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, went further, charging that documents provided by unidentified states may have been faked to suggest that the African country of Niger sold uranium to Iraq between 1999 and 2001.
He said inspectors concluded that the documents were "not authentic" after scrutinizing "the form, format, contents and signatures ... of the alleged procurement-related documentation."
ElBaradei also rejected three other key claims that U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly cited to support charges that Iraq is secretly trying to build nuclear weapons.
Although investigations are continuing, ElBaradei said, nuclear experts have found "no indication" that Iraq has tried to import high-strength aluminum tubes or specialized ring magnets for centrifuge enrichment of uranium.
Inspectors also have found "no indication" of "nuclear-related prohibited activities" in newly erected buildings or other sites identified by satellite, ElBaradei said.
"After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq," ElBaradei said.
Bush administration officials insist that they are providing all relevant information to the U.N. teams. But some officials privately acknowledge that the quality and quantity of intelligence are thin.
"We have some information, not a lot," said one U.S. official familiar with the CIA's daily "packages" of material it delivers to a Canadian official at the U.N. who handles intelligence issues for Blix.
Although U.N. teams have conducted nearly 600 inspections of about 350 sites since November, only 44 were of new sites based on fresh tips.
The issue spilled into Congress this week when Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) accused the administration of deliberately withholding information on suspected Iraqi weapons facilities from Blix's teams.
Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the inspectors have been given "only a small fraction" of the sites that appear on classified lists circulated in the intelligence community.
He warned of a "nightmare scenario" if U.S. troops are attacked with weapons of mass destruction from sites that could have been inspected had the CIA shared information.
Levin also accused the White House of seeking to undermine the inspection process, saying the administration has withheld data in part "because they genuinely believe the inspections were useless and said so from the beginning."
But CIA officials rejected the charges. In a letter to key lawmakers released Thursday night, CIA Director George J. Tenet said the agency has "provided detailed information on all of the high-value and moderate sites" to the United Nations.
Tenet said the CIA has shared information on "all but a handful" of sites -- even those deemed of "lower interest" -- with the current weapons inspectors or those who worked in Iraq between 1991 and 1998. Blix's team has visited "far more than half of these 'lower interest sites,' " Tenet said.
He said the CIA shared its analysis of Iraq's 12,000-page Dec. 7 declaration to the United Nations of its weapons programs and inventory. Both U.S. and U.N. officials sharply criticized the document as untruthful and incomplete.
"We've briefed them on missiles, we've briefed them on the nuclear program, we've briefed them on chemical weapons, on biological weapons, on a whole range of subjects," Tenet added.
A U.S. intelligence official said some of the information the CIA has compiled is of such low value that it would not be useful to inspectors.
"You don't swamp the U.N. with everything we have ever heard," the official said. Asked whether the CIA would withhold important information, the official said, "The logic of that escapes me."
Other officials said that the CIA has shared its best data with inspectors, but that the information may not be enough. One congressional source said the intelligence community has identified "hundreds" of suspect sites, including dozens that are of "top" or "high" value.
But even in this category, the intelligence can be meager, the source said, and often the sites appear on the list more because the CIA wants to learn more about them than because of existing evidence the agency possesses.
Only one tip from U.S. intelligence is known to have produced results. In January, inspectors recovered a cache of documents at the home of an Iraqi nuclear scientist. Although the seizure made headlines, the documents concerned Iraq's long-abandoned efforts on laser enrichment of uranium and did not answer current questions about Iraqi weapons.
Other U.S. officials blamed Blix for failing to publicly announce new evidence that he revealed in his 173-page "working document" of unresolved disarmament issues. Officials were surprised to read that the inspectors recently found an Iraqi drone with a 24 1/2-feet wingspan, which may violate U.N. rules.
According to a copy of the document, inspectors are still trying to determine whether the drone can fly more than 93 miles, the limit set by U.N. regulations. But a senior U.S. official insisted that it "could be used to distribute or disperse" chemical or biological agents and thus was a danger.
"It should have been in [Iraq's weapons] declaration, and it's surprising it was not in Blix's report" to the Security Council on Friday, the official said.
The role of U.S. spying was brought into high relief Feb. 5 when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented the council with a dramatic display of U.S. satellite images, bugged conversations, defector accounts and other intelligence to buttress his claims that Iraq is deliberately deceiving the U.N. teams.
But Blix subsequently challenged Powell's interpretation of at least one of the satellite images. And on Friday, Blix said inspectors cannot yet verify claims by "intelligence authorities" that Iraq is shifting illegal weapons by truck to avoid detection, that it is producing and storing weapons in underground bunkers, and that it has built mobile laboratories to produce germ warfare agents.
Inspectors have found "food testing mobile laboratories and mobile workshops ... as well as large containers with seed processing equipment," Blix said. "No evidence of proscribed activities has so far been found."
In response, Powell blamed Baghdad. "If Iraq genuinely wanted to disarm, we would not have to be worrying about setting up means of looking for mobile biological units -- they would be presented to us," he told the council.
"The inspectors should not have to look under every rock, go to every crossroads, peer into every cave for evidence, for proof," he added.
Powell did not repeat a charge he made this week that Iraq is secretly building Al-Samoud 2 missiles while it is destroying others under U.N. auspices.
The charge, which President Bush repeated in his news conference Thursday night, surprised Blix's staff.
An aide said U.S. officials had not provided information that inspectors can use to check -- and presumably stop -- such illegal activities.
Drogin reported from the United Nations and Miller from Washington. Times staff writer Robin Wright in New York contributed to this report.
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