THE IRAQI NUCLEAR BOMB PROGRAM….Josh Marshall reminds me today to link to this very interesting analysis by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post today. You should read the whole thing carefully, since you have to pay attention to really follow the argument, but the gist of it is that evidence for Saddam Hussein’s nuclear programs kept dwindling away last year as the various allegations were checked out. By the time George Bush gave his State of the Union address, the African uranium and the aluminum tubes were all that were left, so despite the fact that both pieces of evidence were highly questionable, they stayed in the speech.

Pincus’ timeline is provocative, but it also piqued my curiosity: even if the specific evidence in the State of the Union speech was dubious, what was the general prewar assessment of Saddam’s nuclear bomb program? Should George Bush have been talking about it at all?

So I pulled my copy of The Threatening Storm off the shelf and reread the section on nuclear weapons (pp. 173-175). It’s unequivocal: writing in late 2002, Kenneth Pollack says there is a “consensus” that Iraq has an active nuclear program; it employs as many as 14,000 workers; experts “unanimously” agree that Iraq is working to enrich uranium; and Iraq might be able to build a bomb as early as 2004.

But unlike chemical and biological weapons, which might yet be found, a nuclear program is too big to hide. If we haven’t found it by now, it just doesn’t exist, and that means that something that was “unanimously” agreed upon in late 2002 has turned out to be flatly wrong.

By the end of January, with UN inspectors roaming freely around Iraq, the evidence for a nuclear program was dwindling fast. For some reason, though, Bush’s advisors felt that chemical and biological weapons weren’t enough for his State of the Union speech, so they seized on what little was left in order to keep the threat of nuclear bombs alive. That’s bad enough, but even worse is how the collective intelligence agencies of the world misjudged what was happening in Iraq so badly. This isn’t a small point of interpretation, it’s a case of absolute certainty about a massive technical and industrial program that turned out to be complete fiction.

How did that happen?