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June 2, 2022
Bush's Claims About Iraq's Nuclear Program

Paul Kerr

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 fissile 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.



Uranium Imports
Bush Administration Claim

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

Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium were considered an important step in its suspected nuclear weapons program because Baghdad’s lack of fissile material was one of the most serious constraints on its ability to produce nuclear weapons. Even if Iraq had acquired lightly processed uranium ore from Africa, however, it would still have needed to enrich it to obtain weapons-grade uranium.

Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet said in an August 11 statement that claims regarding uranium importation were not central to the National Intelligence Estimate’s judgments about Iraq’s nuclear program because “Iraq already had significant quantities of uranium.” Iraq had more than two tons of low-enriched uranium under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

The Controversy

Intelligence officials expressed reservations about this claim several times. Tenet told National Security Council staff and White House speechwriters not to include a line about Iraq’s attempts to import uranium from Africa in a speech Bush gave October 7, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said July 22. Additionally, Tenet said July 11 that the CIA expressed “reservations” about the claim to British intelligence in September 2002, and INR characterized claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa as “highly dubious,” according to the October NIE.

The CIA sent former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger in February 2002 to investigate reports about Iraq’s attempts to acquire uranium. Wilson wrote in The New York Times July 6 that “it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had taken place” because Niger’s uranium industry is closely regulated by its government and is controlled by a consortium of foreign companies monitored by the IAEA.

Tenet said July 11 that Wilson also reported to the CIA that a former Nigerien official described a businessman’s attempt to arrange a meeting between the former official and an Iraqi delegation as “an attempt to discuss uranium sales,” but Wilson told Arms Control Today August 18 that the official mentioned uranium as an afterthought.

ElBaradei told the UN Security Council in March that U.S.-supplied documents ostensibly supporting this claim were forged.

Nigerien Prime Minister Hama Amadou denied in an interview with the London Sunday Telegraph that Niger ever discussed uranium with Iraq, according to a July 27 article.

Bush Administration Claim The October NIE claimed that Iraq was attempting to obtain aluminum tubes and magnets for use in a gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program.
The Controversy
Aluminum Tubes

An IAEA investigation concluded that “[t]here is no indication that Iraq has attempted to import aluminum tubes for use in centrifuge enrichment. Moreover, even had Iraq pursued such a plan, it would have encountered practical difficulties in manufacturing centrifuges out of the aluminum tubes in question,” ElBaradei told the Security Council March 7. He added that “field investigation and document analysis have failed to uncover any evidence that Iraq intended to use these…tubes for any project other than the reverse engineering of rockets.” According to the October NIE, both INR and Department of Energy (DOE) centrifuge experts concluded that the tubes were most likely for rockets, although three other intelligence agencies concluded they were for use in centrifuges.

Tenet said August 11 that U.S. military intelligence experts concluded that the tubes were “poor choices for rocket motor bodies,” but Greg Thielmann, former director of INR’s Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Affairs Office, argued in a July 9 press conference that the DOE experts were the most knowledgeable about the subject.


ElBaradei told the Security Council March 7 that there was “no indication to date that Iraq imported magnets for use in a centrifuge enrichment programme.”

Administration officials have also cited an Iraqi scientist’s June 2003 handover of blueprints and components for gas centrifuges that he had hidden on his property as evidence that Iraq had a centrifuge program. The scientist, however, had hidden those components since 1991 and IAEA Iraq Action Team Leader Jacques Baute said the component set is incomplete and the documents appear to contain errors, according to a July 15 Associated Press article.

Bush Administration Claim The administration claimed that Hussein was meeting with top nuclear weapons experts and that Iraq maintained the scientific know-how to produce nuclear weapons.
The Controversy Thielmann said that “there was no solid evidence that indicated Iraq’s top nuclear scientists were rejuvenating Iraq’s nuclear weapons program,” according to a June 20 Associated Press article. IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming added that Iraqi nuclear personnel were “aging…[and] weren’t working collectively.”
Bush Administration Claim Bush said October 7 that Iraq was reconstructing buildings at sites where its nuclear weapons facilities had previously been located.
The Controversy ElBaradei reported March 7 that “[t]here is no indication of resumed nuclear activities in those buildings that were identified through the use of satellite imagery as being reconstructed or newly erected since 1998, nor any indication of nuclear-related prohibited activities at any inspected sites.”