The timing was a thing of pure political beauty. President George W. Bush was only a few days away from speaking to the United Nations’ General Assembly about Iraq’s renewed efforts to acquire banned weaponry. And, in a month, the president was going to Congress to seek a resolution approving of a war against Iraq. A Sunday morning story, September 8, 2002, in the New York Times made the U.N. speech and the congressional debate much easier for the White House.
Under the headline, “Threats and Responses: The Iraqis; U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” a 3603 word story by Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller detailed the administration’s case against Saddam Hussein related to weapons of mass destruction. America was about to be scared. Citing “administration officials,” “Iraqi defectors,” and “intelligence sources,” Gordon and Miller wrote that Iraq had attempted to buy the type of aluminum tubes needed for the construction of a gas centrifuge to develop nuclear materials.
“In the last 14 months,” they reported, “Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.”
According to the newspaper’s report, the specifications, including diameter and thickness, had persuaded American officials that the tubes were meant for Iraq’s nuclear program. The duo ticked up the national pulse rate with the news that, “Iraqi defectors who once worked for the nuclear weapons establishment have told American officials that acquiring nuclear arms is again a top Iraqi priority.”
If, however, what Gordon and Miller’s sources had told them was true, and the shipment of tubes had been intercepted in “recent months,” a contradictory opinion on the tubes might have saved them from relentless criticisms, and spared America unnecessary angst. It might have also helped to stop a war.
“I had no reason to believe what I reported at the time was inaccurate,” Judy Miller said during an extensive interview with me in 2003. “I believed the intelligence information I had at the time. I sure didn’t believe they were making it up. This was a learning process. You constantly have to ask the question, ‘What do you know at the time you are writing it?’ We tried really hard to get more information and we vetted information very, very carefully.”
The claims in the Times’ story, however, were not able to be independently corroborated at the time of publication. Miller and Gordon wrote that officials told them that, “the aluminum tubes were intended as casing for rotors in centrifuges, which are one means of producing highly enriched uranium.”
While senior administration officials insisted to the two journalists that the specifications of the tubes, length, thickness, and number, indicated they were destined for use in a gas centrifuge, those specifications were not included in the story the pair filed for the paper. The Times reported that the sensitivity of the intelligence kept the officials from divulging where the tubes came from, or where they were intercepted.
The truth about the scary tubes wasn’t easy to access. But it was available. Correspondent Judy Miller said she and Michael Gordon made numerous calls in an attempt to get differing opinions on the tubes from the intelligence community prior to publishing their original report.
But no one was willing to talk.
“We made many, many calls,” Miller explained. “All of these intelligence analysts and operatives said the same thing, ‘We are not having this conversation.’ Someone had ordered them not to talk. This [story] was a hot one, and they weren’t going to talk about it. Nobody was willing to speak until after we published the first piece on the tubes.”
According to a story in the Washington Post, published almost a year later, the senior administration officials speaking to Gordon and Miller appeared to be talking about a shipment of 3,000 aluminum tubes intercepted in Jordan, bound for Iraq. In July 2001, exactly fourteen months before the Times printed its front page exclusive, a CIA operative, working with Australian intelligence, discovered the tubes going to Baghdad from China. Even though the timing of the delivery coincided with the fact that Iraq had depleted its supply of rocket body tubes, the operative set about trying to convince analysts the tubes were part of an Iraqi scheme to build a gas centrifuge.
The Post’s Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus wrote that missile assembly lines in Iraq had thousands of crated rocket motors and fins awaiting arrival of the tubes at the Nasser factory north of Baghdad. But that information was not reported in newspapers until long after American citizens had been convinced the tubes proved Saddam Hussein was chasing a bomb.
During the late summer of 2002, however, when journalists were first learning of the aluminum tubes, Gellman had trouble finding someone to disagree with the administration. Contradicting science on the purpose of the tubes was gathered between the fall of 2002 and the spring of the war. Throughout the course of this work, government scientists refused to speak with journalists.
“The scientists who disagreed with the White House were effectively silenced,” Gellman said. “The intelligence types were told to keep their mouths shut all the way up to the end. I heard from a lot of people that they weren’t authorized to talk and they weren’t going to, even though there was strong disagreement with the White House over what these tubes were for.”
Judy Miller, who broke the story, encountered the same politically enforced silence within the government. She does not appear to have looked very hard outside of the government.
“We tried to get other intell types to talk,” Miller added. “I went all over looking for data. The White House knew we had been working on this for weeks. And remember what it was like at that time. The drums of war were already beating. But the White House manipulating the New York Times is just bullshit. The timing was ours, not theirs. But they may have worked with it. I mean, if you were the administration, wouldn’t you have used that tubes story for your cause?”
That is exactly what happened. Knowing that the war effort required coordinated information and messaging, Bush chief of staff Andrew Card organized the White House Iraq Group in August. The strategists on that team included the president’s senior political advisor, Karl Rove, who had sharpened his media manipulation skills during the Texas gubernatorial terms of George Bush, and a tough presidential campaign. Karen Hughes, communications counselor and Bush confidante, and Mary Matalin, Republican media expert, also worked with National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby. Stephen J. Hadley, deputy to Secretary Rice, was also a part of the assembled big thinkers.
Convinced that the war’s promotional effort required a constant message campaign, the White House Iraq Group (WHIG)coordinated with senior staffers in Tony Blair’s administration in the United Kingdom, and was in constant contact with U.S. military officers in Kuwait, who were conducting briefings each day during America’s morning network newscasts. The aggressive approach drove the daily news cycles and editorial content of the media. Rove and Hughes, two of the best practitioners there have ever been at “gaming” the media, guided the WHIG. The president’s two closest advisors, Hughes and Rove are masters of an evolutionarily new version of media relations, which they practically invented. The method pitches political interpretation as fact, even in governmental, nonpolitical environments.
And they were all so confident of their skills; the WHIG members chose to let Americans know what was coming. Two days before the New York Times’ story on the tubes of terror, Andy Card was quoted in the paper, explaining why talk of Iraq and the war had diminished during the summer months.
“From a marketing point of view,” he explained. “You don’t introduce new products in August.”
Sunday morning, though, the product was delivered on the front page of the nation’s most influential newspaper, and the story carried the White House’s message of fear, invoking the image of a mushroom cloud over America. The long article offered no voices of dissent on administration claims that Iraq had accelerated its pace of nuclear development. The journalistic coup, however, was by White
House design, and not just a failure of the Times’ writers. The WHIG had sent out word to the government intelligence and scientific communities that no one was to dispute administration claims about the aluminum tubes.
The lie was, however, in danger of being revealed. The White House was in a hurry to give the story some validity because, in the intelligence community, the allegations about the tubes had already been discredited, if not publicly. When journalists finally spoke with scientists about the discovery, they were certain to learn the administration’s charges about Saddam Hussein and the aluminum tubes were, either uninformed, or blatant lies.
To create the beginnings of war hysteria and nuclear phobia, the White House Iraq Group had planned to immediately execute a tactic that created a media echo chamber. The same Sunday morning that the tubes story was splattered on the front page of the Times, the Bush administration dispatched the vice president, the national security advisor, and the secretary of state, to elevate the buzz on the network talk shows. A false story had been planted, was given credibility by a leading publication, and then the people who benefited from the one-sided information appeared on national television to corroborate the value of their bad evidence.
On NBC’s Meet the Press with Tim Russert, Vice President Dick Cheney warned Americans that Hussein was taking all the steps necessary to end up with a nuclear warhead, and he made it sound as if the question of the aluminum tubes was not subject to verification by science.
“And what we’ve seen recently that has raised our level of concern to the current state of unrest, if you will, if I can put it in those terms,” Cheney told Russert. “Is that he now is trying, through his illicit procurement network, to acquire the equipment he needs to be able to enrich uranium to make the bombs.”
“Aluminum tubes?” the moderator asked, having read the Sunday Times.
“Specifically, aluminum tubes,” the vice president explained. “There’s a story in the New York Times this morning, this is, I don’t, and I want to attribute the Times. I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it’s now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge. And the centrifuge is required to take low-grade uranium and enhance it into highly enriched uranium, which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.”
Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, who cannot hide his discomfort when nuclear explosions are mentioned, went on Fox News and mentioned “specialized aluminum tubing,” and referred to the Times’ piece with the words, “We saw in reporting . . .”
The strongest assertions were on CNN’s Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, where National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice insisted that the tubes were “only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs,” and she argued that Hussein was “actively pursuing a nuclear weapon.” Almost astonishingly, Rice parroted words the reporters had used in their story in the Times, raising immediate suspicion she was one of the unidentified sources of the story.
“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” she said.
The smoking gun to prove that these tubes were not for use in a gas centrifuge was likely an Internet address. According to Newsweek magazine, Iraq’s purchase order for the aluminum tubes was posted on the Web. The White House surely did not think Hussein wanted the United States to get advance notice he was working on a nuclear bomb. Clearly, a vast intelligence network was not essential for the Bush administration to learn about the tubes. Hussein had put the information on the Internet.
Regardless, a frenzy of follow-up stories covered front pages of newspapers and filled the broadcast and cable news shows for days.
In some cases, reporters did not even bother with attribution for claims about the tubes. Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, in her nationally broadcast story the next day, flatly stated, “They were the kind of tubes only used in a centrifuge to make nuclear fuel.” Her colleague, White House correspondent Norah O’Donnell had already called the tube news, “An alarming disclosure.” By the time President Bush stood before the United Nations’ General Assembly later that week, the aluminum tubes had slipped into the national collective consciousness as indisputable proof Saddam Hussein had his finger on a nuclear trigger.
There were several resources in a position to discredit the Bush administration’s allegations about Iraq’s aluminum tubes after the original story had broken in the Times. Andrea Mitchell must have failed to order her producer to make a call to the International Atomic Energy Agency; had she done so, she was likely to have been told the specifications of the aluminum tubes meant they were going to be used in rocket production. An Italian rocket, the Medusa 81, used body tubes that matched down to the fraction of a millimeter those being pushed by the White House as proof of a nuclear weapons’ gas centrifuge under construction in Iraq. All of the dimensions and the type of alloy were precisely the same as those needed for Iraq to create copies of the Medusa 81. Further, U.S. analysts in Iraq had taken a photo of one of the tubes, which appeared to be identical to those intercepted. The logo of the Italian manufacturer of Medusa was on the side, and, clearly visible, was a label: “81mm rocket.”
When he spoke before the United Nations, however, Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to deflect the idea that the tubes were meant for rocket production. He argued several batches of tubes had been intercepted and that they showed a “progression to higher and higher levels of specification, including in the latest batch an anodized coating on extremely smooth inner and outer surfaces.”
“Why,” Powell wondered, “would they continue refining the specifications, go to all that trouble for something that, if it was a rocket, would soon be blown into shrapnel when it went off?”
Unwittingly, the secretary of state had confirmed that the tubes were not for a gas centrifuge, though neither journalists nor the wider world happened to notice. Anodized coating helps aluminum resist corrosion, and rusted rocket bodies had ruined most of Iraq’s previous arsenal. More specifically, according to scientists later quoted by the Washington Post, the anodized coating had to be removed for the tubes to be used in a gas centrifuge. What the White House also knew from intelligence reports, but refused to share with the American public, was that Iraq had two blueprints for a gas enrichment centrifuge. Those plans had been stolen somewhere in Europe, and required a hard steel alloy, not aluminum, for the rotors.
The specs for the other stolen design listed carbon fiber rotors. In fact, aluminum rotors had not been used in centrifuge construction since the 1950s, and the shipment being touted as evidence of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions were too long, the walls excessively thick, and the tube diameters too narrow.
These conclusions had all been reached by scientists after the details of the intercepted tube shipment had been circulated through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a year earlier. Their unanimous findings were supported by Houston G. Wood, III, who founded the Oak Ridge centrifuge physics department. Considered to be the world’s expert on the subject matter, Wood said, “It would have been extremely difficult to make these tubes into centrifuges. It stretches the imagination to come up with a way. I do not know any real centrifuge experts that feel differently.”
Wood’s scientific conclusion, and those of his colleagues, was known to the White House almost a year before the story about the tubes appeared in the New York Times. The White House Iraq Group, however, had managed to suppress dissenting opinions within the government’s scientific community to the point that none were available when Miller and Gordon were making calls for their initial report. Not surprisingly, either, no one bothered to include Wood’s opinion in the National Intelligence Estimate, being prepared for the White House as the tubes story was playing out in the media.
Eventually, in front of the United Nations, Colin Powell included the esteemed scientist Wood in the same category with the Iraqis.
“Most U.S. experts,” Powell said, “think they [tubes] are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Other experts, and the Iraqis themselves, say the tubes were really for rockets.”
Powell, whose reputation for integrity was unparalleled in Washington, was either easily hoodwinked by government bureaucracies, or he simply lied. The vast majority of scientists with expertise in the development of nuclear material disagreed with the White House about the tubes.
In the Post, Wood described Powell’s statement as a “personal slam at everybody in the DOE.” [Department of Energy]
“I’ve been grouped with the Iraqis, is what it amounts to,” he said. “I just felt that the wording of that was probably intentional, but it was also not very kind. It did not recognize that dissent can exist.”
The Institute for Science and International Security was busily dissenting, regardless. Based in Washington, the organization had prepared a report analyzing the White House’s allegations related to Iraq’s nuclear potential. The lengthy treatise, written by nuclear physicist David Allbright, an Iraqi arms inspector during the 1990s, concluded the Bush administration’s claims about the aluminum tubes were without merit. Allbright, who had been a member of a team sent to Iraq by the International Atomic Energy Agency, interviewed a number of researchers and analysts for his October 9, 2002, report.
The findings showed that the anodized coating of Saddam’s tubes was the surest sign that they were not designed for use as parts in a gas centrifuge. The coating had to be machined off before they were installed in any kind of uranium separator. Allbright had also spoken with scientists at Oak Ridge’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in California, who strongly disagreed with the White House’s analysis of the tubes, and they told Allbright they had been ordered by the Bush administration to keep quiet.
“This is the problem with reporting on the intelligence community,” Judy Miller said. “You can only write what you know. And if no one else will give you contradicting information, you try to give your readers a sense of where the information is coming from that you are using. The naysayers on that [the tubes] story did not come out of the closet until afterwards.”
London’s authoritative International Institute for Strategic Studies, though, also issued a report about the same time as Allbright’s organization. The data was counter to the paranoia the White House Iraq Group was selling to the public.
“Iraq does not possess facilities to produce fissile material in sufficient amounts for nuclear weapons. It would require several years and extensive foreign assistance to build such fissile material production facilities,” the report stated.
The absolute refutation of the aluminum tubes story was already more than a year old when Michael Gordon and Judith Miller broke the aluminum tubes story in the Times. Apparently, though, they were unable to immediately find opinions divergent from the “administration sources” and “intelligence analysts,” whose frightening assessments of the tubes meant that, if we did not act, there were certain to be “mushroom clouds” in America. Presumably, the reporters contacted non-governmental organizations in Washington that monitor nuclear weapons issues, as well as government agencies.
Miller and Gordon, who were later accused of being used by the administration, found themselves in a tough spot. Over the course of several weeks, they had been developing sources that had told them the tubes were a part of an attempt by Hussein to build a uranium enrichment facility. But they did not come up with sources to refute that allegation. Ethically, were they supposed to not report this information if they were unable to find a different scientific opinion? The most brutal criticisms came from people who argued the two simply did not try hard enough to find other perspectives.
When I asked Judy Miller if she had contacted any of the nongovernmental organizations about scientific data on the aluminum tubes, she demurred.
“I’m not about to discuss whom we called,” she wrote in an August 2003 e-mail. “That would get into sources, the protection of which is sacrosanct as far as I’m concerned.”
But Washington was supposedly filled with people who knew those aluminum tubes had nothing to do with nuclear proliferation. One of them was Greg Thielmann. He was retiring as the head of the State Department’s Office of Strategic Proliferation and Military Affairs. According to Thielmann, “The most knowledgeable people in the U.S. government believed that this was not the kind of aluminum that the Iraqis would have been seeking to use in centrifuges for uranium enrichment.”
Drama-driven, oh-my-God journalism, had, however, taken root, and fear was selling newspapers and cranking up television newscast ratings. By the end of the week, the President was before the United Nations’ General Assembly, adding White House authority to the fable that the confiscated tubes were for making nuclear fuel.
“Iraq,” he told the world, “has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon. Should Iraq acquire fissile material, it would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year.”
Reporters covering the president’s trip were given what was labeled as a “fact sheet,” detailing claims made in the president’s speech. In it, White House analysts said Saddam Hussein was trying to make chemical weapons, biological agents, and was pursuing a nuclear program.
Less than a week from their story that had launched the aluminum tube hysteria, Judith Miller and Michael Gordon were once more reporting what they were told by the Bush administration. In a piece about a third as long as their previous Sunday expose, they did finally acknowledge that there was a debate about the purpose of the aluminum tubes. Unfortunately, the reporters did not include anyone in their story who disagreed with the White House’s version of reality.
A “senior administration official” told them that it was a “minority view” among intelligence experts that Iraq had acquired the aluminum tubes to construct a multiple launch rocket system. Karl Rove, who has always insisted on being referred to as “a senior administration official,” and his White House Iraq Group were running so fast that the truth did not begin to get real traction until December.
Bob Simon of CBS’s 60 Minutes interviewed David Allbright, the weapons inspector whose findings had strongly contradicted the president’s charges against Iraq. According to a transcript of the interview,Allbright indicated there was almost no support for the administration’s suspicions of the tubes as parts of a potential centrifuge.
“People who understood gas centrifuges,” Allbright told Simon, “Almost uniformly felt that these tubes were not specific to gas centrifuge use.”
“It seems that what you’re suggesting,” the correspondent said, “Is that the administration’s leak to the New York Times, regarding aluminum tubes, was misleading?”
“Oh, I think it was. I think it was very misleading.”
Judith Miller vehemently denied she was a recipient of a White House leak.
“We worked our asses off to get that story,” she said. “No one leaked anything to us. I reported what I knew at the time. I wish I were omniscient. I wish I were God, and had all the information I had needed. But I’m not God, and I don’t know. All I can rely on is what people tell me. That’s all any investigative reporter can do. And if you find out that it’s not true, you go back and you write that. And I did that. You just keep chipping away on an assertion until you find out what stands up.”
Of course, that’s not the way journalism really works. Otherwise, reporters could easily be replaced with stenographers and people to read and publish e-mail news releases. Actually, if Miller had spoken to one of the various scientific organizations when she wrote the first story, including the leading groups in her own country, she would have learned there was almost no chance the tubes were going into a centrifuge. Her list of interview subjects needed to include contradictory voices and opinions on the uses of the aluminum tubes. There was certainly plenty of them out there.
There remains the confounding matter of a journalist’s obligation to report. Presented with authoritative sources making claims that an enemy dictator is trying to build a uranium gas centrifuge to make a nuclear weapon, the journalist is compelled to deliver that information to the public. In a story of this nature, are the assertions may be too significant to be withheld until a skeptical source can be developed? This reasoning often creates misleading impressions. If a reporter writes only what they know at the time and that data comes only from a source with one perspective, a reader or viewer can readily conclude they have just experienced fact. A refutation, in the form of a follow-up story, often does not receive the same prominence or promotion, and that results in the original report having greater veracity. Either way, in the case of the aluminum tubes story, it was too late. The story was alive, and it was never completely retracted or repudiated by the prominent newspaper that had initially put it in front of the American public.
Miller and Gordon’s inability to find a divergent opinion in a city full of political minds, scientists, and think tanks, has remained a perplexing mystery among their colleagues. But the words of war had been written. And more were coming; equally flawed, potentially lies.
The White House had mixed up journalists’ ambitions with misleading intelligence and brewed up a myth that yielded a powerful national belief in its illusion. A political Sasquatch, the aluminum tubes story was the first to begin banging the drums of conflict. The truth, finally, was tortured until it was no longer recognizable.
And the sons and daughters of America were sent marching off to war wearing the boots of a well-told lie.