I finally finished reading Sunday’s 15 page investigative report from the NY Times, probing the history of the administration’s claims that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear weapons program. Here is what I learned:

First a short history of public statements from the administration about Iraq’s nuclear threat:

What I didn’t know, and what boggles the mind, is that the entire case for the argument that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear weapons program was largely based on only two pieces of evidence: (a) the forged Niger documents, and (b) the aluminum tubes. The Times piece focuses entirely on the story of the suppressed controversy over the tubes and who knew what when. They are restricted in their investigations regarding what the administration knew, since the 9/11 Commission did not investigate that question (as the result of a bipartisan agreement to delay such an investigation till after the election).

Much of the article is devoted to making it clear that, from very early on, the idea that the tubes were being purchased to enrich uranium was widely discredited. The idea originated with a CIA nuclear expert named Joe, but experts at the Energy Department soon made very strong arguments proving Joe wrong:

I won’t go into the details of why the tubes were inappropriate — the article discusses it at length. The politically relevant question is why this dissenting evidence was suppressed, whether the administration pressured the intelligence community to do so, and what members of the administration knew when they made the statements listed above.

One of the big problems is that the CIA is practically the only intelligence agency that the White House actually gets its intelligence information from. They write the Presidential Daily briefs, and the CIA director is the president’s principal intelligence adviser.” Between April 2001 and September 2003, the CIA wrote 15 reports on the tubes, and supposedly not one of them informed senior policy makers of the Energy Department’s dissent.” (The CIA claims otherwise.) However, they can’t have suppressed dissenting views that well, since in July 2002 the Australian intelligence service was aware of the debate.

The article makes a strong case that the administration’s decision to invade Iraq short-circuited some of the procedures that would have eventually helped to clarify the nature of the debate, such as the intervention of the Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee (JAEIC, pronounced jake”) which was called off in August 2002. In August the administration was already pushing for war, and the president went to Congress to get the authority he needed.

The Energy Department was also silenced around this time.

on Sept. 13, the day the [NY Times] article appeared, the Energy Department sent a directive forbidding employees from discussing the subject with reporters.

The Energy Department, in a written statement, said that it was completely appropriate” to remind employees of the need to protect nuclear secrets and that it had made no effort to quash dissent.”

The CIA also silenced members of Congress from speaking about dissenting opinions:

One senior C.I.A. official recalled cautioning members of Congress in a closed session not to speak publicly about the possibility that the tubes were for rockets. If people start talking about that and the Iraqis see that people are saying rocket bodies, that will automatically become their explanation whenever anyone goes to Iraq,” the official said in an interview.

Then came the new National Intelligence Estimate.

On Oct. 2, nine days before the Senate vote on the war resolution, the new National Intelligence Estimate was delivered to the Intelligence Committee. The most significant change from past estimates dealt with nuclear weapons; the new one agreed with Mr. Cheney that Iraq was in aggressive pursuit of the atomic bomb.

Asked when Mr. Cheney became aware of the disagreements over the tubes, Mr. Kellems, his spokesman, said, The vice president knew about the debate at about the time of the National Intelligence Estimate.”

Today, the Intelligence Committee’s report makes clear, that 93-page estimate stands as one of the most flawed documents in the history of American intelligence. The committee concluded unanimously that most of the major findings in the estimate were wrong, unfounded or overblown.

This was especially true of the nuclear section.

At the end of 2002 UN inspections resumed, and their findings quickly put to rest any lingering doubts that the tubes were being used for rockets, rather than producing uranium.

The C.I.A. theory was in trouble, and senior members of the Bush administration seemed to know it.

Also that January, White House officials who were helping to draft what would become Secretary Powell’s speech to the Security Council sent word to the intelligence community that they believed the nuclear case was weak,” the Senate report said. In an interview, a senior administration official said it was widely understood all along at the White House that the evidence of a nuclear threat was piecemeal and weaker than that for other unconventional arms.

But rather than withdraw the nuclear card — a step that could have undermined United States credibility just as tens of thousands of troops were being airlifted to the region — the White House cast about for new arguments and evidence to support it.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked the intelligence agencies for more evidence beyond the tubes to bolster the nuclear case. Winpac analysts redoubled efforts to prove that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from Africa. When rocket engineers at the Defense Department were approached by the C.I.A. and asked to compare the Iraqi tubes with American ones, the engineers said the tubes were perfectly usable for rockets.” The agency analysts did not appear pleased. One rocket engineer complained to Senate investigators that the analysts had an agenda” and were trying to bias us” into agreeing that the Iraqi tubes were not fit for rockets. In interviews, agency officials denied any such effort.

Finally, when Powell was preparing his speech to the UN, Intelligence analysts at the State Department waged a quiet battle against much of the proposed language on tubes.”

The Intelligence Committee said some drafts prepared for Mr. Powell contained language on the tubes that was patently incorrect. The C.I.A. wanted Mr. Powell to say, for example, that Iraq’s specifications for roundness were so exacting that the tubes would be rejected as defective if I rolled one under my hand on this table, because the mere pressure of my hand would deform it.”

… A year before, they had sent Mr. Powell a report explaining why they believed the tubes were more likely for rockets. The National Intelligence Estimate included their dissent — that they saw no compelling evidence of a comprehensive effort to revive a nuclear weapons program. Now, in the days before the Security Council speech, they sent the secretary detailed memos warning him away from a long list of assertions in the drafts, the intelligence committee found. The language on the tubes, they said, contained egregious errors” and highly misleading” claims. Changes were made, language softened. The line about the mere pressure of my hand” was removed.

For those of us who were sure we were being lied to from day one, none of this is news. What is shocking is how strong the case for the dissent was (you’ll have to read the article for the technical details), and how effectively that dissent was marginalized in the rush to war. In other words, there never was any plausible evidence that Saddam was going to restart his nuclear program any time soon (even if he wanted to), and yet a few tantalizing pieces of evidence were blown out of proportion to make the case for war.