Monday, October 04, 2004

Rice Defends Going to War Despite Dispute About Iraqi Weapons

The New York Times
October 4, 2004

Rice Defends Going to War Despite Dispute About Iraqi Weapons

WASHINGTON, Oct. 3 - Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, on Sunday defended the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein even while intelligence analysts disputed an important piece of evidence behind a rationale for the war, namely, that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear weapons program.

"Whatever the case there," Ms. Rice said on the ABC News program "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos, referring to a debate in 2002 over whether Iraq's efforts to acquire aluminum tubes were related to nuclear weapons, "I stand by the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein and remove this threat to American security."

Ms. Rice also said she was aware of the dispute in September 2002, when she said in a television interview that the tubes "are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs." But, she said Sunday, it was not until after that television appearance that she learned "the nature of the dispute."

The Central Intelligence Agency said it believed that the tubes were intended for centrifuges used to enrich uranium, an important step in building a bomb. But the Energy Department said it believed that the tubes were more likely intended for rockets.

The difference is important: it would be more troubling if Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear weapons program than if it was acquiring small artillery rockets. The "principal part" of the C.I.A.'s conclusion in 2002 that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear weapons program was its efforts to acquire tubes, a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee found this summer.

Ms. Rice was reacting to an article in The New York Times on Sunday about the debate. The article said she had been aware before her remarks in 2002 that government experts differed over whether the tubes were intended for nuclear weapons but that she knew that the nuclear theory was strongly backed at the highest level of the intelligence agencies. The article also said experts on her staff, though not Ms. Rice herself, had been told months earlier that Energy Department scientists believed that the tubes were more likely for rockets.

On Sunday, Ms. Rice said of the tubes, "People are still debating this." The Iraq Survey Group, which searched for illicit weapons after Mr. Hussein's fall, told the C.I.A. and Congress that it had found no indications that the tubes were for nuclear weapon development or that Iraq had resumed its weapons program. C.I.A. officials say they still view the tubes as an open question.

By October 2002, intelligence agencies as a whole, including the Energy Department though not the State Department's intelligence arm, agreed that Iraq was resuming its nuclear arms program. That consensus was contained in a then-classified National Intelligence Estimate.

Ms. Rice said the 2002 estimate of nuclear renewal was an assessment "that cannot be ignored." So, she said "a policy maker cannot afford to be wrong on the short side, underestimating the ability of a tyrant like Saddam Hussein."

Members of Ms. Rice's staff told intelligence officials in January 2003 that the case that Iraq had revived its nuclear ambitions "was weak," according to the Senate Intelligence Committee report.

Ms. Rice also defended her 2002 remarks and the decision to go to war on NBC's "Weekend Today" and CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer." In both interviews, Ms. Rice said the "intelligence community as a whole" had backed the theory that the tubes were nuclear related.

On CNN, she said George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence at the time, and "the intelligence community as a whole believed that these were for centrifuge parts."

The October 2002 intelligence estimate said "most agencies" had made an assessment that the attempt to acquire tubes was "compelling evidence" of a nuclear weapons effort. But the Senate Intelligence Committee reported that there was an even split during the Sept. 25, 2002, meeting meant to come up with a coordinated estimate. The Senate report said the Defense Intelligence Agency sided with the C.I.A., while the State Department's intelligence arm backed the Energy Department's judgment that the tubes were probably not nuclear related.

The Senate panel, in a unanimous report and after a one-year inquiry, said the State and Energy departments were correct in 2002.

Ms. Rice's spokesman, Sean McCormack, said her remarks on CNN and ABC resulted from conversations with Mr. Tenet, who is now retired. He said in a statement that he shared "alternate views" about the tubes with the administration after he learned of the debate in September 2002.