Jeffrey LewisIt's Not About the Yellowcake

Jofi Joseph says something simple, sensible and overdue:

The Bush administration’s most blatant misrepresentation of intelligence was its claim that Iraq’s attempts at purchasing thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes was part of an effort to build nuclear centrifuges to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons. In the fall of 2002, the aluminum tube claim was the top administration talking point as President Bush made his case for war to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations. Yellowcake wasn’t really in the picture until well after Congress voted to authorize the use of force. Iraq already possessed considerable amounts of uranium and other materials required to make nuclear bombs, so an additional purchase from Africa wouldn’t make much of a difference. Without the aluminum tubes, however, Iraq could not enrich that uranium to weapons-grade fissile material.

The administration failed to disclose key dissents on this issue from U.S. government officials with great expertise on uranium enrichment programs. Both State Department intelligence analysts and Department of Energy centrifuge experts believed the aluminum tubes were likely intended for Iraq’s conventional artillery rocket program, not for nuclear centrifuges. The tube specifications, they argued, deviated significantly from those required for centrifuge rotors. And if the tubes were for centrifuge enrichment, why didn’t the Iraqis make a more robust effort to conceal their purchase?

Yeah, what he said.

For more backstory, you could do a lot worse than this paper by David Albright.

I am sitting in a greenroom, waiting to go on MSNBC. It isn’t actually green but peach.


  1. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Good luck on your tv appearance (debut?)!

    At the time the claim was being made, it seemed to me that this could be the most convincing part of the case for nuclear work, if it could be proved.

    But it seemed to me that the tubes were awfully short, and it also seemed strange that nothing was being heard from the centrifuge guys at Oak Ridge.

    Then there was an article in the NYT (can’t recall the author, but I think I can guess) that finally pretty much convinced me, although not much was said about opinions from the DOE labs.

    I wonder how many others it convinced.

    And no, I wasn’t blogging at the time, so I don’t have time-stamped evidence that this is what I thought.

  2. BE6-II

    What he said indeed.

    If you like Albrights pre-invasion discussion, be sure to check out his bigger better and even more juicy post-invasion account at
    It lends some credence to wild accusations like these (Which sound a little like what the BBC has reported about the mood within British intelligence) It also mentions Judy Miller less than favourably. This is interesting at a time when it turns out that a when the head of a private propaganda company wants a story published he doesn’t need to go through a long list of journalist to find one who wants a story from a guy who is in “perception management”. He just goes straight to Judy and an Australian guy who has been on his payroll. (

    Also interesting is comparing Albrights account with the accounts of the “gee, no WMD” comities. They more or less agree on the DOE (along with iaea and state dept.) vs CIA and DIA “debate”. However the comity draws a different conclusion from pretty much the same story:
    “Nuclear Weapons Finding 1
    The Intelligence Community’s judgment about Iraq’s nuclear program hinged chiefly on an assessment about Iraq’s intended use for high-strength aluminum tubes it was seeking to procure. Most of the agencies in the Intelligence Community erroneously concluded these tubes were intended for use in centrifuges in a nuclear program rather than in conventional rockets. This error was, at the bottom, the result of poor analytical tradecraft—namely, the failure to do proper technical analysis informed by thorough knowledge of the relevant weapons technology and practices”

    The conclusion just heapons to ignore the whole DOE side of the debate (despite the report documenting the whole thing). It makes it sound like facts where ignored, not people.

  3. Matthew Murphy (History)

    It’s too bad. The people this nation turns to when investigating policy, program and education ideas in the areas of physics are so quickly dismissed by the powers-that-be when their assessments fail to support bellicose ideas.

    This nation has invested trillions of dollars into weapon design. If we can be confident in their ability to forge a superior stick, shouldn’t we also be confident in their ability to assess our adversary?

    p.s. Dr. Lewis, I hope your appearance went well.

  4. quentin B.

    [If you don’t use a real e-mail address, I won’t post your comments. Ed.]

  5. Tom (History) actually touched on the tubes in an article on their website recently.

    According to them:

    “On the matter of the tubes, however, the report noted that there was some dissent within the intelligence community. Members of Congress could have read on page 6 of the report that the Department of Energy “assesses that the tubes are probably not” part of a nuclear program.

    Some news reports have said this caveat was “buried” deeply in the 92-page report, but this is not so. The “Key Judgments” section begins on page 5, and disagreements by the Department of Energy and also the State Department are noted on pages 5,6,8 and 9, in addition to a reference on page 84.”