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
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
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
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
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
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
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.