News and opinions on situation in Iraq
2003 Spinning the Tubes
How Australian intelligence was seized upon on by the CIA, spun and gilded, then presented to the world as the best evidence that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation


Investigative TV journalism at its best

LIZ JACKSON, REPORTER: On 23 May 2001, a container load of thousands of aluminium tubes left this factory in southern China. It travelled on a slow barge to Hong Kong, en route to Iraq. The CIA was watching its progress, as was Australian intelligence.

GARRY CORDUKES, DIRECTOR, INTERNATIONAL ALUMINIUM SUPPLY: We had feelings that perhaps phone calls were being intercepted, etc, but that's…that's hearsay, and we don't know.

LIZ JACKSON: Four Corners has tracked down a number of the players, and tonight we can reveal how one small gem of Australian-sourced intelligence was seized on by the CIA, spun and gilded, and then presented by the leaders of the world as their best evidence that Saddam Hussein was starting to build a bomb.

GREG THIELMANN, SENIOR INTEL OFFICER, STATE DEPT, 2000-02: Most of this was very sensitive and classified, and that which I can remember I really should not talk about in detail. Suffice it to say that Australia had a role.

ANDREW WILKIE, OFFICE OF NATIONAL ASSESSMENTS, 2001-03: And people were quite pleased with themselves, and quite rightly, because they'd played a very important role in what, at that stage, was only…one of only two pieces of intelligence to back up the claim that Saddam was trying to reconstitute a nuclear program. It was…it was a gem.

LIZ JACKSON: Tonight, we follow the trail of that small gem to tell the bigger story of how intelligence was hyped to sell the world the war.

Back in late 2001, a small group of agents from the CIA flew into Canberra. This stop was part of a worldwide tour the Central Intelligence Agency was making to the allies with whom they share intelligence – Canada, Britain and Australia – as part of the so-called 'four eyes' agreement. This time, they had a specific mission – to persuade Australia's intelligence agencies and, in turn, our political leaders, that they had the proof in their bags that Saddam Hussein was reconstructing his nuclear weapons program. They headed for ASIO headquarters to make their presentation. Gathered around the conference table were representatives from the intelligence agencies – ASIO and ASIS, and the less familiar acronyms, DIO and ONA. It's the ONA or Office of National Assessments that provides their analysis of intelligence direct to the prime minister of the day. The contents of the bag came as no surprise to the Australian intelligence officers. Most had never seen or touched these aluminium tubes, but they knew all about them. It was a piece of ASIS intelligence that enabled the CIA to seize the shipment of tubes from China at the dock in Jordan, before it reached Iraq.

ANDREW WILKIE: It was a very, very rare opportunity to be a big player in the main global issue, and the issue that was of most importance in London and Washington. You know, we were pretty proud of it at the time.

LIZ JACKSON: Greg Thielmann was privy to the raw intelligence being collected on Iraq's nuclear ambitions. He was the director of a unit responsible for producing intelligence assessments on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction for his boss, Colin Powell.

GREG THIELMANN: Interdicting the aluminium tubes was extremely important for the intelligence community's ability to assess the destination of the aluminium tubes, the nature of…of the procurements and to what purpose it was going to be directed.

LIZ JACKSON: The CIA made what's been described as a compelling presentation. The tubes, they said, were destined to become the rotors in a gas centrifuge program to create enriched uranium. Iraq has natural uranium, but needs to enrich it or import it enriched if they're going to make a bomb. We understand the CIA acknowledged there was another possible use for the tubes – as artillery rocket casings, but argued that the specifications sought by Iraq were far greater than they'd need for rockets. As someone put it, it would be like putting a Ferrari engine into a Mini Minor. It was an argument that was principally promoted by one man in the CIA – a man who's been dubbed 'Joe T'.

GREG THIELMANN: I don't know technically whether he'd be considered a senior intelligence official or a mid-level official, but he was someone who had been active in this issue for a long time, and…and knowledgeable about what the evidence was.

LIZ JACKSON: David Albright is a former weapons inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency. He's an expert on Iraq's past attempts to kick-start a nuclear program. He knows agent Joe T's identity, but won't reveal it.

DAVID ALBRIGHT, PRESIDENT, INSTITUTE FOR SCIENCE AND INT'L SECURITY: He's not undercover. I mean, there's no law protects his identity but, you know, it's just a good idea. Um…but the…he would've been looking at these kind of things, and I think, you know, my understanding, certainly my model, is that he saw this export to Jordan and then on to Iraq and thought, “My God, I've got a smoking gun.”

LIZ JACKSON: As the CIA told it, the seizure in Jordan went like this. A carload of agents drove down to the docks in the Jordanian port of Aqaba. Just inside the gates were crates of the tubes, which had just arrived from China. There were two Iraqi men hanging around, waiting for the shipment to be cleared. When the CIA and the Jordanian secret police pulled up, the Iraqis made some quick calls on their mobile phones. The CIA told them to clear out, and took possession of the tubes.

GREG THIELMANN: At that point, I had no reason to disagree with the presumption that seemed to be out there in the intelligence community that these aluminium tubes were bound for the nuclear weapons program. Um…it's not, certainly, a sure thing, by any means, but I think all of us assumed that Saddam Hussein had maintained his interest in the…in pursuing nuclear weapons, even though the UN inspectors had pretty thoroughly dismantled his…his project in the 1990s. And we obviously had very high antennas for any kind of information that would suggest that he was resuming, rejuvenating, reconstructing his…his nuclear weapons program.

LIZ JACKSON: The shipping notice showed that the tubes were headed to a Jordanian front company – AT&C. Such companies were well known as conduits to Iraq. What we can also reveal is the Australian connection. The company that made the aluminium tubes has an Australian-based subsidiary – Kam Kiu Propriety Limited. Four of its directors are based in Melbourne. But the main man involved in getting the tubes on their way to Iraq was a director of an associated company, International Aluminium Supply – Sydneysider Garry Cordukes. His company picked up the order from a website.

GARRY CORDUKES: Keep in mind this was from a Jordanian company, not an Iraqi company, and perhaps it was our naiveté, but we…our understanding was that Jordan was an ally of the US and Australia, and we obviously didn't see that there'd be any problem with it.

LIZ JACKSON: The way Garry Cordukes tells it is that two days after the shipment of the tubes left this factory in China, his Chinese bosses told him they'd had a call from the Chinese Government.

GARRY CORDUKES: I'm giving you what was told to me and that was that the US Government was prepared to take whatever action necessary to prevent the shipment reaching Jordan.

LIZ JACKSON: The call was alarming, but not completely unexpected. Garry Cordukes had already been contacted by an Australian defence official before the shipment left. The official questioned him about the tubes and asked him to bring some samples over from China.

GARRY CORDUKES: I was met at Sydney airport by a gentleman holding a sign with my name on, and I handed over the tube, and that was the end of that. But, obviously, by this stage, we were quite nervous about the situation.

LIZ JACKSON: He says he knew by then that Iraq was maybe involved, and something seemed up with his phone.

GARRY CORDUKES: Certainly, after we…we had the first contacts from the Australian Government, you know, there were some strange things happening with telephones. But I'm not prepared to state that they were or weren't. I don't know.

LIZ JACKSON: Garry Cordukes told us he never heard from the Australians again. The shipment was allowed to leave for Jordan, and what's even more extraordinary, no attempt was ever made to charge Garry Cordukes for what our intelligence agencies were told was facilitating the fulfilment of Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions. It raises the question – did we really believe what we were told by the CIA back in 2001?

ANDREW WILKIE: There were…there were wildly differing opinions from, “There's no way they were going to be used in a gas centrifuge for a range of reasons,” through to, “Oh, almost certainly they were going to be used in a gas centrifuge.”

LIZ JACKSON: The wildly differing opinions in Australia reflected well the emerging debate around the world, with Joe T at the CIA as the main man who pushed the centrifuge case, supported by his boss, CIA director George Tenet.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: They were the driving force. No one else agreed with them that had any technical qualifications, as far as I can tell. I mean, I don't know of anybody.

LIZ JACKSON: And within the CIA, one individual?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: One individual was clearly the spark plug. I mean there…others were drawn in. I mean, he finally convinced Tenet, apparently, but in the… And he probably never talked to Tenet. I mean, it's a big place. But, yeah, it was our…my understanding it was one individual who drove this.

GREG THIELMANN: He was certainly, uh…appeared persuaded of his case. Uh…there was no doubt in his mind of what his…of what our conclusions should be.

LIZ JACKSON: Back in July 2001, just after the tubes were seized, Joe T. flew to Vienna. This is the home of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Their job was to keep a watching brief on any moves Iraq might make to reconstitute their nuclear program. The IAEA had already examined the tubes – they'd flown to Jordan to get some. Their experts had early doubts that they were for centrifuges, but realised the danger that some people might jump to this conclusion.

JACQUES BAUTE, IRAQ NUCLEAR VERIFICATION OFFICE, IAEA: We were, as technical body, very worried that people might get an idea that these tubes could only be for centrifuge application, when actually from what we knew, from their characteristic, it was clear that they were dual-use items, and further conclusions needed far more work before being expressed.

LIZ JACKSON: Joe T made his presentation.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: The view in Vienna in the summer of 2001 was “Maybe this guy has a clever idea, but he really is just grabbing at almost straws to prove his case, and when he's debunked in one model, he then shifts it and tries to make his information fit another centrifuge model.” And yet whenever you confronted him with the facts or the weaknesses in argument, he always came back with the same answer – “It's only for centrifuges.”

JACQUES BAUTE: Our level of contribution is to bring facts – the fact that the facts we bring on the table are taken into account or ignored goes beyond our capabilities.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: There's another part of this story which is troubling – is that when this CIA person went back, he said the IAEA agreed with him. And, in fact, they spent a long time telling this guy he's wrong, and that they don't agree with him. Now…

LIZ JACKSON: He went back to the CIA and told his CIA bosses, “The IAEA agree with me”?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: That's right.

LIZ JACKSON: By this time, Joe T was meeting opposition back home as well. The US Department of Energy had most of the experts in uranium enrichment, and they were sceptical about this being the end use of the tubes. Around the time Joe T was in Vienna, they had sought the opinion of America's most prestigious centrifuge expert – Professor Houston G. Wood III. Professor Wood is based at the University of Virginia, three hours drive south of Washington, DC. It was here that the United States had, until 1985, its own fully functioning gas centrifuge on-site – Professor Wood's pride and joy. If anyone cared to get the final word on tubes, rotors, gas centrifuges and uranium enrichment, this was the man to ask.

PROF. HOUSTON WOOD, CENTRIFUGE EXPERT, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: My conclusion was that these do not look like devices that could be used for centrifuges. It would be highly unlikely that this could be a centrifuge rotor.

LIZ JACKSON: The walls of the tubes were too thick. Every one of the 60,000 tubes would need to be shaved down.

PROF. HOUSTON WOOD: These were on the order of 3mm thickness, so much more material than you would want to have in a high-speed rotor.

LIZ JACKSON: Their mass was too great.

PROF. HOUSTON WOOD: You want the mass to be as small as possible so you can contain this high-speed rotating device.

LIZ JACKSON: And they would create leakage.

PROF. HOUSTON WOOD: The gas would just be leaking out of the rotor. And you'd have to have pumps to continually pump that. Scientifically, these tubes do not fit the mould of gas centrifuges – you know, period.

LIZ JACKSON: Professor Wood filed his report, and the months went by. Come the middle of 2002, more than a year after the tubes had been seized, the debate had fallen off the radar screen of the intelligence agencies.

GREG THIELMANN: And at that time, we had a very strong feeling that there was a growing consensus within not only the US intelligence community, but also among our close allies with whom we shared a lot of the results. And the consensus was that this was not bound for the nuclear weapons program.

LIZ JACKSON: And those close allies would include Australia?

GREG THIELMANN: That's right.

LIZ JACKSON: But in August, the political climate changed. As Americans moved into autumn, their political leaders started preparing the public for war with Iraq.

US VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.

LIZ JACKSON: The pivotal speech was Vice President Cheney's address to the war veterans on August 26th, raising the nuclear spectre.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: If you want to stir up a war, then nuclear's always the flagship. Everybody in the Middle East has chemical or biological weapons, and they're not decisive. And so it's really always the difference between some concern and a lot of concern – if you can pin a nuclear weapons program or pin…even worse, show that the country's close to nuclear weapons.

LIZ JACKSON: And how important do you think the tubes were, the aluminium tubes were, in making that case?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: I think they were at the core.

LIZ JACKSON: Two weeks after Cheney's speech, the Bush administration leaked the story of the aluminium tubes to the New York Times. It was front-page news. Anonymous officials were quoted saying there was new information that Iraq had embarked on a worldwide hunt for material to make an atomic bomb, and that the specifications of the aluminium tubes had persuaded American intelligence experts that the tubes were for Iraq's nuclear program. Administration officials warned, “The first sign of a 'smoking gun'…may be a mushroom cloud.” There was no mention of any debate or dissension about the tubes at all.

PROF. HOUSTON WOOD: My first thought was, “This must be some new tubes”, you know. And then…and then when I realised that these were the tubes that I had been looking at a year before, I was just…I was…I was just shocked. I couldn't believe that, you know, here we were, saying that these tubes were, you know, the same tubes that I'd come to the conclusion a year before were not valid for centrifuges, and here they're saying they are. So, er…that was a real surprise.

LIZ JACKSON: Later on the same day that the New York Times published, Condoleezza Rice went on CNN.

DR CONDOLEEZZA RICE, US NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: There have been shipments of high-quality aluminium tubes that are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs.

LIZ JACKSON: And a phrase began to echo.

DR CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

LIZ JACKSON: Later that night, Dick Cheney was on NBC.

US VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: 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.

REPORTER: Aluminium tubes?

US VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Specifically, aluminium tubes. The story in the New York Times…

LIZ JACKSON: The following day, Australia picked up on the story.

REPORTER: We heard from the US Vice President, Dick Cheney, and he confirmed a report in the New York Times that Saddam Hussein has been attempting to get equipment to enrich uranium.

JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER OF AUSTRALIA: Well, look, I can't answer that. It's material that's come out in the United States. But I do know this – that it, if accurate, confirms the intelligence that we have been given to the effect that Iraq has not abandoned her aspiration for nuclear capacity. There's no doubt, on the evidence, on the intelligence material available to us, that not only does Iraq possess chemical and biological weapons, but Iraq also has not abandoned her nuclear aspirations. And the question of how far she is from achieving that aspiration I can't tell you, and perhaps nobody can. But nothing can alter the fact that she is seeking it.

LIZ JACKSON (To Greg Thielmann): Would that have been your understanding of the Australian intelligence community's understanding of the issue?

GREG THIELMANN: I can't comment on to what extent this was fully subscribed to within the Australian intelligence community. I do know that the Australians knew about the dissenting positions of the Intelligence Bureau, the State Department and the Department of Energy.

LIZ JACKSON: And would certainly have known that by September 2002?


LIZ JACKSON: If they did know, they didn't mention it.

ALEXANDER DOWNER, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Australian intelligence agencies believe there's evidence of a pattern of acquisition of equipment that could be used in a uranium enrichment program. Iraq's attempted acquisition of very specific types of aluminium tubes may be part of that pattern.

LIZ JACKSON: The Prime Minister has since put out a press release in which he has said that, yes, “Australian intelligence agencies were aware of the debate about the purpose of the tubes”. “I made,” he continues, “no reference to aluminium tubes in my statement to Parliament of February 4th or subsequently.” This leaves unexplained the statements the September before by both the PM and Alexander Downer. On September 12, President Bush addressed the United Nations General Assembly to put the case for war.

US PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Today, Iraq continues to withhold important information about its nuclear program.

LIZ JACKSON: The centrepiece of the nuclear case against Iraq was the tubes.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Iraq has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminium 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.

GREG THIELMANN: What was improper and, I thought, very deceptive was implying, as President Bush did when he first mentioned it, that there was no other explanation for the aluminium tube procurements other than the pursuit of nuclear weapons. When he…when he used his language, there was nothing in it that suggested there was enormous controversy inside the intelligence community on what the purpose of these tubes was.

LIZ JACKSON: By now, David Albright was receiving desperate off-the-record phones calls from people who were privy to classified intelligence.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Yeah, yeah, to tell us that there's a problem with the government assessments or government statements about these aluminium tubes. So it's…it was quite a…quite a…quite a…just a dismaying experience. And I don't like being out there alone. We tend to operate more in the…you know, we're not that…

LIZ JACKSON: These were people who wanted to let you know that there was more of a debate, people from…

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Mm-hm, within the…I don't want to say any more. This could get quite ugly. But, yeah, no, people who were deep in the debate. No one would question that.

LIZ JACKSON: Large sections of the media ran the story just as the White House wanted. The BBC's highly acclaimed Panorama program broadcast it around the world…using former weapons inspector David Kay, now CIA adviser, who gave credibility to the nuclear alarm.

BBC REPORTER: In the 14 last months, several shipments, a total of 1,000 aluminium centrifuge tubes, have been intercepted by intelligence agencies before they actually reached Iraq.

DAVID KAY, CIA, IRAQ SURVEY GROUP: I've seen one of them. The centrifuge tubes look like they're of the design, which is German-derived, that the Iraqis acquired some time in the 1980s and developed. They're for enriching uranium – that is, taking natural uranium up to the level that makes it useful for a weapon.

GREG THIELMANN: With regard to the press coverage, this was a source of frustration as a member of the intelligence community at the time but all the people in my office were professional enough to know that our job was not to straighten out the press on these issues. It was all classified and we were not authorised to do that. So our frustration from within the government was that the…the leadership of the country was not…was not being totally honest with…with the people on an important issue.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Now, this is a war, in a sense, over the truth, so I started producing studies… I mean, there was one covered in the Washington Post in late September, early October, and we started hammering away at this, but it…we felt we could never catch up, that the administration had gotten such an advantage by going public with a distorted story that we couldn't correct it. And, in fact, who are we to correct it?

LIZ JACKSON: British intelligence, however, was less impressed by the threat posed by the tubes. The following exchange of confidential memos is revealing. In the lead-up to the release of the so-called Blair dossier, Tony Blair's spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, asks John Scarlett, the head of Joint Intelligence, to highlight in the executive summary that 60,000 tubes had been sought. Scarlett replies that in fact they're toning down the reference to the tubes because, as the dossier puts it, “there is no definitive intelligence” that they were “destined for a nuclear programme”.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: But then if you look at Blair's speech to Parliament, it isn't said that way. I just looked this up. He adds the aluminium tubes on at the end of a list of things and takes out the statement there's no…nothing linking these tubes to a nuclear case.

TONY BLAIR, UK PRIME MINISTER: We know Saddam has attempted covertly to acquire 60,000 or more specialised aluminium tubes, which are subject to strict controls due to their potential use in the construction of gas centrifuges.

LIZ JACKSON: In the countdown to war, the aluminium tubes remained in the political spotlight and the fight between the US intelligence agencies was now on in earnest. Joe T and the CIA hadn't budged an inch.

GREG THIELMANN: There was no change, no apparent change, in the position of the CIA. They were unfazed by all the contrary evidence, which surprised me greatly.

LIZ JACKSON: The CIA had been told by Congress to prepare a national intelligence estimate of the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction before Congress would approve the decision to go to war. All intelligence agencies contributed to the assessment, but the CIA controlled the numbers. Despite the dissenting view of the State Department and the Department of Energy experts, the CIA used their numbers to outvote them and conclude “most agencies believed there was compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort.”

DAVID ALBRIGHT: In terms of numbers, the CIA is the elephant in the tent. I mean, just in terms of numbers. Um, you… It's a small group, finally, of experts on…on this issue, so to say 'most' is…is a meaningless statement if you mean people because once Bush weighs in, “These tubes are for centrifuges,” a good portion of the CIA, whether they know anything about it or not, are gonna say, “Yeah, yeah – these tubes are for centrifuges.”

GREG THIELMANN: The senior officials, the administration, the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Vice President…gave every appearance of not being interested in getting to the bottom of evidence. They seemed to be interested in acquiring whatever titbits of evidence they could get that would buttress their predispositions or the point of view they already had. I've dubbed this 'faith-based intelligence'.

LIZ JACKSON: Former CIA chief James Woolsey prefers to call it 'connecting the dots'.

JAMES WOOLSEY, DIRECTOR, CIA 1993-95: In cases like the lead-up to the war in Iraq, it's the job of the intelligence community not just to take refuge in exactly what they see and say, “We don't see anything else,” or, “We don't know anything else exists,” but rather to connect the dots.

LIZ JACKSON: James Woolsey was one of a cluster of intelligence and policy consultants who were brought into the Pentagon in the wake of September 11. Most of them worked on the fifth floor, home of the expanded Iraq desk called, for diplomatic reasons, the Office of Special Plans, established in August 2002. Their boss was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.

DOUGLAS FEITH, UNDERSECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR POLICY: We knew that we didn't know everything and we knew that we were relying, as policymakers have to, on intelligence, and we knew that intelligence is not perfect. But one cannot, because intelligence is not perfect, be paralysed and take no action in the face of what seems to be a serious danger and a serious threat to international peace and stability.

LIZ JACKSON: The Office of Special Plans has become the focal point of deeper allegations of the kind that surfaced in the story of the tubes, that here imperfect intelligence was glossed up and filtered so that it would confirm what the Bush Administration already believed – that Saddam was a serious danger and threat to international peace and stability. It's a line of criticism that Douglas Feith has been batting off for months.

DOUGLAS FEITH: You know, with all due respect to that whole line of inquiry, the people in the US Government are serious people and they have important responsibilities and they want good information, as good as possible, on which to base their…their policy, and, so, this…this entire line of inquiry that suggests that we're asking to corrupt the information is just really, uh…I think, the…the, you know, the results of some overheated minds interested in conspiracy-mongering.

JAMES WOOLSEY: I think it's people who were opposed to the war who don't really want to admit that the general thrust of their criticisms would be to say, “We should have left Saddam in power,” and that it's alright to leave in power someone who murders hundreds of thousands of people. And so they, I think, try to put this off on alleging that there was some sort of untoward pressure put on intelligence agencies.

GREG THIELMANN: This administration made very clear what it wanted from its intelligence community. It wanted a case to be built and not so much it wanted the American people to become more sophisticated and knowledgeable about what was going on this issue.

LIZ JACKSON: But Greg Thielmann felt it was different in Colin Powell's State Department, home of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the INR.

GREG THIELMANN: We got no such impressions from the Secretary of State. We provided our assessment to him and he seemed to want from us our best judgments, but in terms of other agencies and the signals from the White House, I certainly got that very strong impression.

LIZ JACKSON: The INR had strongly dissenting views from the CIA. And their dissent is prominently noted in the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002. This was sent up to Colin Powell. They concluded that the aluminium tubes were not intended for Iraq's nuclear weapons program. After months of independent work, they also assessed that claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa were highly dubious. This was a year before the Niger documents on which these claims were based were revealed to be bogus. Greg Thielmann says INR passed the doubts about the Africa claims on to Australia's Office of National Assessments in the early part of 2002.

GREG THIELMANN: They would have…they would have known in the, uh…spring of 2002 that information, that…that we were dubious about the information. I mean, we had…we had pretty good contacts and sharing with…with representatives of ONA, so I…

LIZ JACKSON: You would have been meeting them, what, on a weekly basis?

GREG THIELMANN: Yeah. I don't want to get into all the details about our means, but, uh…regular…regular meetings.

ANDREW WILKIE: I recall clearly that there was…that there was doubt about the Niger claims during 2002.

LIZ JACKSON: The reason dates matter is that our Office of National Assessment have issued a statement saying they told the Australian Government in December 2002 that Iraq was, apparently, trying to buy uranium. They say they only became aware in January of the following year of the State Department's doubts.

(To Greg Thielmann) They're saying that they didn't become aware that the Niger claims were highly dubious until January 2003.

GREG THIELMANN: That's when every…everyone in the world knew that they were dubious. And if…if, uh…the Australian Government were saying that that's…that that's when the CIA kind of acknowledged to them, that would be one thing and that's certainly possible. But…but they knew before that that there were…that there were those who…who doubted that view inside.

LIZ JACKSON: On February 4, 2003, the Prime Minister outlined in Parliament the reason Australian troops had been predeployed to the Gulf. He included the intelligence which he sourced from Britain that…

PRIME MINISTER JOHN HOWARD: Iraq continues to work on developing nuclear weapons. Uranium has been sought from Africa that has no civil nuclear application in Iraq.

LIZ JACKSON: ONA cleared the speech before John Howard gave it and have subsequently stated that they did not tell him there was US intelligence that the claim was highly dubious. The following day, Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the UN Security Council. This address was promoted as laying out to the world the best intelligence case to date about the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

COLIN POWELL, US SECRETARY OF STATE, IN NEWSREEL: What I can share with you, when combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling. What you will see…

LIZ JACKSON: Colin Powell did not mention the uranium from Africa.

GREG THIELMANN: And to me, that was a very conspicuous non-barking dog. I mean, Secretary Powell went on and on with enormous detail about the whole case against Iraq and he mentioned nothing about uranium from Niger. Well, that told me at the time that Powell never differed from the assessment that we had made to him about this particular story.

COLIN POWELL IN NEWSREEL: Let me turn now to nuclear weapons. We have no indication that Saddam Hussein has ever…

LIZ JACKSON: Without the uranium purchases, Colin Powell now had to rest the nuclear case first and foremost on the aluminium tubes.

COLIN POWELL IN NEWSREEL: I am no expert on centrifuge tubes, but just as an old army trooper, I can tell you a couple of things. First, it strikes me as quite odd that these tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that far exceeds US requirements for comparable rockets. Maybe the Iraqis just manufacture their conventional weapons to a higher standard than we do, but I don't think so.

LIZ JACKSON: The case that the tubes were over specified for rockets was the argument promoted by Joe T from the CIA. It was directly against the advice Powell's own intelligence unit had given him.

GREG THIELMANN: That was exactly the opposite of what we were advising and what we believed. And I still can't explain why he did that. It certainly was effective. It made it seem to the public like here's…here's a…a soldier, someone who knows artillery tubes, and, uh, pointing out that US…US artillery rockets do not use this kind of high-strength aluminium. Well, we also knew in the intelligence community that the Iraqis were using a reverse design of an Italian rocket that used exactly that kind of aluminium.

COLIN POWELL IN NEWSREEL: People will continue to debate this issue.

LIZ JACKSON (To David Albright): So Powell's speech must have been a personal triumph for Joe.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Oh, I'm sure. Because Powell had to push away his own people.

COLIN POWELL IN NEWSREEL: Most US experts think they are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

LIZ JACKSON: Colin Powell did acknowledge that there were experts who didn't agree with the nuclear case, but dismissed them as a minority view.

COLIN POWELL IN NEWSREEL: Other experts and the Iraqis themselves argue that they are really to produce the rocket bodies for a conventional weapon, a multiple rocket-launcher.

PROF. HOUSTON WOOD: That really was like a slap in the face. And I think that my friends in the Department of Energy felt, uh, shocked by that. Uh, it was… Because the way the phrasing was, it said, “the Iraqis and other experts”. And that just, you know… We were thrown in the same camp as the Iraqis. We were trying to argue with the Iraqis. And that…that was hurtful when he said it in that way.

LIZ JACKSON: As if you were disloyal?

PROF. HOUSTON WOOD: Exactly. That's what it sounded like to me.

GREG THIELMANN: I…I thought this was a low point in Secretary Powell's long and distinguished career. I…I regard him as someone who is both an effective Secretary of State in terms of the way he ran the building and someone who is savvy about…particularly about the political-military issues that we reported on. And, uh, I know that he was in a delicate position because he serves the President of the United States and the President had made very clear what he wanted to convince the world of.

LIZ JACKSON: Four weeks later, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei delivered the report of the International Atomic Energy Agency to the UN Security Council. It was the result of three months of inspections and investigations on the ground in Iraq. The report concluded that it was highly unlikely the aluminium tubes were for centrifuges.

DR MOHAMED ELBARADEI, DIRECTOR GENERAL, IAEA: Extensive field investigation and document analysis have failed to uncover any evidence that Iraq intended to use these 81mm tubes for any project other than the reverse engineering of rockets.

LIZ JACKSON: On the claim that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from Niger, their finding was dramatic. They revealed that the claim was baseless.

DR MOHAMED ELBARADEI: These documents, which form the basis for the reports of recent uranium transaction between Iraq and Niger, are in fact not authentic.

LIZ JACKSON: Their overall conclusion was simple – they had found nothing that substantiated claims of a nuclear threat.

DR MOHAMED ELBARADEI: After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapon program in Iraq.

LIZ JACKSON: But the IAEA was well aware that, by now, it was a countdown to war. No one who mattered was listening.

JACQUES BAUTE: Nobody listened, because actually, within the council, the member states were speaking to each other. They were no longer taking us into consideration.

LIZ JACKSON: Two weeks later, the war began. No weapons of mass destruction were used. It's now five months since the war was declared to be over. A huge new team of weapons inspectors, not directed by the United Nations, but led by a CIA adviser, have been combing Iraq. The head of this Iraq Survey Group is David Kay. Earlier this month, he released his interim report. Kay's report emphasises the finding of possible sites for weapons development and programs. But the bottom line is blunt – no weapons of mass destruction have been found.

DAVID KAY IN NEWSREEL: We have not found at this point actual weapons.

GREG THIELMANN: I have to think the administration is publicly embarrassed that they haven't found anything. I mean, I think that they have to privately be shocked by that.

DOUGLAS FEITH: Well, what…what we said was that the best information available to us was that they had the…these weapons. At one time, they did have these weapons. And, uh, exactly…

LIZ JACKSON: But not now.

DOUGLAS FEITH: Well, we don't know yet because the Iraq Survey Group hasn't finished its work.

LIZ JACKSON (To James Woolsey): Does it make folk like yourself feel that you overstated the threat?

JAMES WOOLSEY: No, I don't think so. First of all, it's an interim report and David wanted another nine months or so to complete it. Secondly, I've been saying for some time that the actual amounts that we found may be rather small.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: There's no reason…there's no willingness to say, “I'm wrong.” I mean, you have to… You have to take a two-by-four to these people basically to get them…to sort of knock them down and admit they were wrong.

LIZ JACKSON: The Iraq Survey Group specifically found no evidence of steps to build a nuclear weapon or produce fissile materials.

EXTRACT FROM IRAQ SURVEY GROUP REPORT: “We have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook…steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material.”

LIZ JACKSON: So what about the aluminium tubes, the ones David Kay himself told the BBC were evidence of a large-scale centrifuge program to enrich uranium for weapons? He was wrong. Or as he prefers to put it – “The evidence does not tie any activity directly to centrifuge research or development.”

(c)2004 ABC

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