WASHINGTON – The official who represented the Energy Department at a key prewar intelligence meeting on Iraq’s alleged new nuclear-weapons program was a human resources manager with no intelligence experience, and was easily swayed by Bush administration hawks, say department insiders.
Though Energy disputed a critical piece of evidence – that Baghdad sought aluminum tubing to make nuclear materials – it nonetheless agreed with the White House’s conclusion that Baghdad was reconstituting a nuclear-weapons program. The State Department, in contrast, dissented on both counts.
The conclusion formed the cornerstone of last fall’s 90-page Top Secret intelligence report used to justify preemptive war on Iraq.
The Energy official who attended the September meeting at CIA headquarters to debate the draft of the report was ill-prepared to argue the technical merits of the case against the White House’s position made by Energy’s nuclear-weapons research labs, sources say.
It turns out the official, Thomas Ryder, is a long-time human resources bureaucrat who lacks experience in the intelligence business.
At the time of the report, called the National Intelligence Estimate, he was only filling in as acting director of Energy’s intelligence office. The position was left vacant by Lawrence Sanchez, who was director during the Clinton administration.
“Unfortunately, they were in a transition period, and the guy that was sitting at the table is not an intel guy. He’s an HR guy,” said an Energy source. “And they just left this guy in there.”
Though Ryder is said to be close to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, he did not get the permanent spot, which was recently filled by former CIA official John Russack.
“Ryder is not an intelligence guy by any stretch of the imagination. He had no intel background whatsoever,” another department source said. “He worked on all the personnel stuff – paperwork for promotions, hiring contractors, stuff like that.”
Ryder, now working in another department, declined comment.
Sources familiar with the NIE meeting say Ryder was not a strong advocate for the position held by many lab engineers and physicists, some former inspectors in Iraq, that not only were the aluminum tubes more likely intended for conventional artillery rockets, but that Baghdad was not in fact reconstituting a nuclear weapons program.
The reigning expert opinion on the tubes came from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, sources tell WorldNetDaily.
They say there was a debate about the aluminum tubes allegation at the Langley meeting, but that Ryder didn’t make a strong overall presentation for the labs.
“Time comes for the Iraq NIE, and instead of being hard-charging and proactive and pulling everybody together, he just didn’t know what to do,” one source said. “He wasn’t a strong advocate. He just didn’t have the background. He didn’t have the gravitas.”
State’s intelligence arm, INR, ended up writing the dissenting opinion in the report.
“Ryder didn’t have the expertise to say, ‘We’re going to take the footnote,'” he said. “He just let someone else take the risk.”
Here’s what State asserted in the NIE: “Iraq’s efforts to acquire aluminum tubes is central to the argument that Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, but INR is not persuaded that the tubes in question are intended for use as centrifuge rotors.”
It added that it “accepts the judgment of technical experts at the U.S. Department of Energy who have concluded that the tubes Iraq seeks to acquire are poorly suited for use in gas centrifuges to be used for uranium enrichment.”
State concluded that the evidence Baghdad was rekindling a nuke program was “inadequate” and didn’t “add up to a compelling case.”
The relevant key judgment in the NIE – selectively declassified by the White House to support its case, which has come under fire in the absence of banned weapons discoveries in Iraq – asserts that Iraq was restarting such a program, and cited its “aggressive attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuge rotors.” The section includes a parenthetical sentence that says: “DOE agrees that reconstitution of the nuclear program is under way, but assesses that the tubes probably are not part of the program.”
The inconsistency has puzzled former nuke weapons inspectors.
“It surprised me that they would agree to a statement that there’s a nuclear weapons program being reconstituted, and then undercut the aluminum tube allegation,” said David Albright, a physicist who worked with U.N. inspectors in Iraq in 1996.
He says at the time the NIE was being drafted he talked to centrifuge experts at the labs who strenuously objected to the administration’s claims that the aluminum tubes could not be used for anything but centrifuges. The argument, which was first leaked to the New York Times by the CIA and Pentagon early last September, was subsequently voiced by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in speeches and media interviews.
“None of the labs dissented from the position that these tubes could be used for rockets,” said Albright, director of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
“The administration insisted they can’t be used in rockets, and Iraqis used them in rockets,” he said, adding that the tubes were too thick for gas centrifuges. “It’s just a factual mistake on the part of the CIA and Pentagon, and they don’t want to admit it.”
“We now know, after talking to Iraqi scientists after the war, that these tubes were in fact intended for rockets – and they didn’t have a centrifuge program,” Albright added.
Indeed, it was so moribund that a Baghdad scientist had part of a centrifuge buried under his rose garden for the past 12 years.
Albright says it validates the skepticism that Energy scientists held before the war – a skepticism he says they were forbidden from sharing with the press.
“When I talked to some of the scientists at the labs, there was just this reaction of: ‘We just don’t believe there’s a nuclear weapons program.’ ”
Yet Energy’s representative at the NIE meeting “didn’t make the case,” Albright complained.
He says that it looks as if “most of the people in the room didn’t have a clue about the technical issues.”
The result was a political, not a properly reasoned, decision about Baghdad’s nuclear-bomb ambitions, he says.
He said CIA Director George Tenet, who chaired the meeting, “made up his mind – and who’s going to stand up and fight a Cabinet official?”
The CIA is sticking to its story.
“The CIA’s been playing games because their butt’s on the line and they’re not going to go down easily on these aluminum tubes,” Albright said.
He says it’s the linchpin in the administration’s withering argument that Iraq posed an exigent threat to America, particularly since its companion allegation that Iraq recently sought uranium from Africa has largely been discredited in the wake of its belated admission that supporting documents were discovered to be forgeries.
“On the uranium, they can say, ‘Aw, it’s one piece of information, but the rest holds together,'” Albright said. “But if the aluminum tubes goes down, they’re finished. I mean, that was the centerpiece of their argument that Iraq had reconstituted a nuclear weapons program and posed an imminent threat.”
Energy sources say they regret the labs didn’t have more input at the NIE meeting.
“The sad thing is, this was done with DOE down,” the Energy intelligence source said. “It really wasn’t as strong a player that it should have been.”
“It’s just outrageous,” another department insider lamented. “This was probably the most critical NIE that’s been written in a long time –- and on a nuke issue –- and that’s what you’ve got at the table?”
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