Giving nukes to terrorists

By Gordon Prather

House Majority Leader Dick Armey has just had an epiphany. Until last week, he believed that Saddam Hussein posed no threat to us. He judged Saddam to be a “snake in a hole.” As long as Saddam stayed in his hole, Armey argued that we ought to leave him alone.

Now, post-epiphany, Armey believes Saddam has – or soon will have – nukes, which he will likely give to terrorists, who will then likely use them against us.

What happened to Armey last week?

Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had asked Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet to update the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” programs and make it available to Congress before President Bush was authorized to invade and occupy Iraq.

Chairman Graham was particularly interested in knowing what connection – if any – there might be between Iraq’s WMD programs and terrorist activities. Graham assigns his highest priority to the war against terrorism, as do most of you soccer-moms.

Tenet provided that update to Congress last week. Did Tenet reveal for the first time top secret evidence to Congress, linking Saddam to terrorist activity, causing Armey to reverse his previous position on Saddam?

Far from it. At Chairman Graham’s request, Tenet has now provided an unclassified summary of his congressional testimony and of the updated NIE on Iraqi WMD. So we know that what Armey was told was supportive of his original “snake in a hole” assessment, and could not – therefore – have been the basis for his epiphany.

    Since inspections ended in 1998, Iraq has maintained its chemical weapons effort, energized its missile program, and invested more heavily in biological weapons; most analysts assess Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.

“Reconstituting” is probably the wrong word. The multibillion-dollar Iraqi electromagnetic isotope separation (EMIS) process never worked properly, and might never have produced significant quantities of highly-enriched uranium.

Hence, the NIE implicitly assumes that Iraq has abandoned the EMIS process, and is now pursuing a first-generation gas centrifuge uranium enrichment program.

    Iraq’s aggressive attempts to obtain proscribed high-strength aluminum tubes are of significant concern. Based on tubes of the size Iraq is trying to acquire, a few tens of thousands of centrifuges would be capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a couple of weapons per year.

Now, on the basis of sworn testimony of German engineers who built laboratory-scale gas centrifuges for the Iraqis prior to the Gulf War, the Iraqis would not have been capable – without considerable outside technical assistance – of producing thousands of similar centrifuges, or connecting them together in the necessary cascades. Scientists and engineers who assisted the Iraqis prior to the Gulf War – when Iraq was not subject to much scrutiny – would not be willing or able to assist them now. Some of them are still in prison.

Furthermore, the Iraqis had not acquired or developed several key components for an “implosion” nuke device, and the nuke device design, itself, was untested. The “weaponizing” of the Iraqi nuke device was, of course, never even begun.

    How quickly Iraq will obtain its first nuclear weapon depends on when it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material. If Baghdad acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material from abroad, it could make a nuclear weapon within a year. Without such material from abroad, Iraq probably would not be able to make a weapon until the last half of the decade.

So, for Iraq to be the threat to us that Armey now judges Iraq to be, Saddam will first have to beg, borrow or steal a few hundred pounds of weapons-grade uranium, make a few nuke devices, give them to terrorists, and teach them how to arm, fuse and fire them. The terrorists would transport the nuke device and the trained technicians to the U.S., there to await the signal from Osama bin Laden.

However, the NIE argued that if the U.S. did not invade Iraq – with the intention of deposing Saddam Hussein – Saddam would not take “the extreme step” of assisting terrorists attack the United States with WMD.

What about Saddam himself? Mightn’t he smuggle an Iraqi nuke device or two – once he has got them – into the U.S. to deter a U.S. invasion of Iraq? Well, that sort of deterrence only works if Saddam can plausibly claim that he has already done that. Tenet judges that Saddam cannot plausibly make that claim for a least a year or two.

So much for Armey’s epiphany.