Bush's Claims about Iraq's Nuclear Program

By Kerr, Paul | Arms Control Today, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Bush's Claims about Iraq's Nuclear Program


Kerr, Paul, Arms Control Today


VICE PRESIDENT DICK Cheney stated three days before U.S.-led coalition forces invaded Iraq this past March that Iraq "has reconstituted nuclear weapons." At the time, however, intelligence and other U.S. officials already disagreed about the evidence behind his statement, and events over the last few months have deepened doubts among the general public and members of Congress.

The international community discovered after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War that Iraq had a much more advanced nuclear weapons program than either the United States or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had suspected. The IAEA was charged with undertaking inspections to ensure that Iraq complied with disarmament requirements mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 687, but the United Nations withdrew the inspectors in December 1998 after Iraq stopped cooperating with them. The agency, however, reported in 1999 that, based on the inspectors' work until that time, there was "no indication that Iraq possesses nuclear weapons or any meaningful amounts of weapon-usable nuclear material, or that Iraq has retained any practical capability (facilities or hardware) for the production of such material."

The IAEA also cautioned that this statement was "not the same as a statement of [the weapons] 'non-existence.'" A 2001 Department of Defense report added that Iraq "still retains sufficient skilled and experienced scientists and engineers as well as weapons design information that could allow it to restart a weapons program."

The absence of inspectors, combined with the remaining uncertainty regarding Iraq's nuclear program, created concern that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. The Security Council adopted Resolution 1441 in November 2002, requiring Iraq to comply fully with its disarmament requirements under relevant Security Council resolutions. Inspections resumed later that month. IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei reported to the Security Council March 7 that the inspectors had "found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq."

The administration's contention that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program has several components. President George W. Bush cited three pieces of evidence in an October 7, 2002, speech that "Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program": meetings between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Iraqi nuclear weapons scientists, Iraq's reconstruction of buildings at sites where its nuclear weapons facilities had previously been located, and Iraq's attempts to obtain components for gas centrifuges that can be used to enrich uranium for use as fissue material in nuclear weapons.

The State Department issued a fact sheet December 19 asserting that Iraq had attempted to obtain uranium from Niger. Bush and other administration officials repeated the claim several times after that.

On February 5, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a presentation about U.S. intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the Security Council. His presentation only mentioned efforts to acquire centrifuge components and Hussein's meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists.

An October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) cites all of these factors in its judgment that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. The NIE states that "most agencies" agreed but includes an alternative view from the State Department's Bureau for Intelligence and Research (INR) stating that "available evidence indicates that Baghdad is pursuing at least a limited effort to maintain and acquire nuclear weapon-related capabilities" but that the evidence is "inadequate" to support the claim that "Iraq is currently pursuing...an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons."

The following chart looks at the administration's public claims about Iraq's suspected nuclear weapons program. -Paul Kerr

NUCLEAR CLAIMS

URANIUM IMPORTS

Bush Administration Claim

The Bush administration claimed that Iraq was attempting to acquire uranium from Niger.

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