ALUMINUM TUBES….It’s not as if there’s really any doubt about this anymore, but the Washington Post has a pretty definitive story today about the nonexistence of Iraq’s nuclear weapons programs:

Although Hussein did not relinquish his nuclear ambitions or technical records, investigators said, it is now clear he had no active program to build a weapon, produce its key materials or obtain the technology he needed for either.

Among the closely held internal judgments of the Iraq Survey Group, overseen by David Kay as special representative of CIA Director George J. Tenet, are that Iraq’s nuclear weapons scientists did no significant arms-related work after 1991, that facilities with suspicious new construction proved benign, and that equipment of potential use to a nuclear program remained under seal or in civilian industrial use.

(“Closely held” indeed. There’s an awful lot information that’s being closely held by the Bush administration these days, isn’t there?)

What’s more important than whether we know now that Saddam had no nuclear program, however, is whether we knew this back in February when Colin Powell was addressing the UN about the infamous aluminum tubes. These were supposedly for use in reconstituting the work of Mahdi Obeidi, chief of the pre-1991 centrifuge program to enrich uranium, a program that we were intimately familar with. Here’s what the Post says:

The physics of a centrifuge would not permit a simple substitution of aluminum tubes for the maraging steel and carbon fiber designs used by Obeidi. The tubes in Obeidi’s design were also specified at 145mm in diameter; the aluminum tubes measured 81mm.

….Tim McCarthy, an experienced U.N. inspector who returned to Iraq late last month to join Kay’s team, said in an interview before departing that the Iraqi rocket program based on 81mm tubes had been known to Western analysts “well before 1996.” McCarthy said inspectors gave the tubes “maybe three minutes out of 100 hours” of attention because they did not appear to be important.

[Australian Brig. Gen. Stephen] Meekin said the Nasr 81 rocket “appeared in a public arms show in 1999” at which Iraqi munitions were displayed for sale. Such sales would have been illegal under U.N. Security Council sanctions, but hardly secret. Meekin said trade magazines covered the show.

Trade magazines covered the show. That’s some good intel work there, guys.

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry over stuff like this, but it’s worth pointing out that in this case it appears to have been the CIA that was pushing the aluminum tube story, not White House hawks.

So was our poor prewar intelligence mostly due to CIA incompetence or to White House pressure to fit facts to preconceived theories? That’s how the intelligence battle is usually portrayed these days, but it’s the wrong way to look at it. Why can’t it be both?

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