The tubes quickly became a critical exhibit in the administration's brief against Iraq. As the only physical evidence the United States of Mr. Hussein's revived nuclear ambitions, they gave credibility to the apocalyptic imagery invoked by President Bush and his advisers. The tubes were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, asserted on CNN on Sept. 8, 2002. "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
But before Ms. Rice made those remarks, she was aware that the government's foremost nuclear experts had concluded that the tubes were most likely not for nuclear weapons at all, an examination by The New York Times has found. As early as 2001, her staff had been told that these experts, at the Energy Department, believed the tubes were probably intended for small artillery rockets, according to four officials at the Central Intelligence Agency and a senior administration official, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
"She was aware of the differences of opinion," the senior administration official said in an interview authorized by the White House. "She was also aware that at the highest level of the intelligence community, there was great confidence that these tubes were for centrifuges."
Ms. Rice's alarming description on CNN was in keeping with the Bush administration's overall treatment of the tubes. Senior administration officials repeatedly failed to fully disclose the contrary views of America's leading nuclear scientists, The Times found. They sometimes overstated even the most dire intelligence assessments of the tubes, yet minimized or rejected the strong doubts of their own experts. They worried privately that the nuclear case was weak, but expressed sober certitude in public.
I think we can put to rest any notion that, as Connolly and Kessler wrote, "there is little evidence the Bush administration purposely tried to deceive Americans and other world leaders about the threat posed by the alleged weapons..."
Intelligence analysts at the State Department waged a quiet battle against much of the proposed language on tubes. A year before, they had sent Mr. Powell a report explaining why they believed the tubes were more likely for rockets. The National Intelligence Estimate included their dissent - that they saw no compelling evidence of a comprehensive effort to revive a nuclear weapons program. Now, in the days before the Security Council speech, they sent the secretary detailed memos warning him away from a long list of assertions in the drafts, the Intelligence Committee found. The language on the tubes, they said, contained "egregious errors'' and "highly misleading'' claims. Changes were made, language softened. The line about "the mere pressure of my hand,'' for instance, was removed.
"My colleagues,'' Mr. Powell assured the Security Council, "every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions.''
He made his way to the subject of Mr. Hussein's current nuclear capabilities.
"By now,'' he said, "just about everyone has heard of these tubes, and we all know there are differences of opinion. There is controversy about what these tubes are for. Most U.S. experts think they are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Other experts and the Iraqis themselves argue that they are really to produce the rocket bodies for a conventional weapon, a multiple rocket launcher.''
But Mr. Powell did not acknowledge that those "other experts'' included many of the nation's most authoritative nuclear experts, some of whom said in interviews that they were offended to find themselves now lumped in with a reviled government.
In making the case that the tubes were for centrifuges, Mr. Powell made claims that his own intelligence experts had told him were not accurate. 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.''
The Times, very gently, at least reminds us in parts of the article about its own culpability in this mess. Let's see. Sources made claims. Times reports them. Claims later turn out to be bullshit. hmmmm....