Back in 2002, I was sure that Iraq didn’t have a nuclear program (and said so) , but the nation’s intelligence agencies ( along with the Administration, Congress, the press and the pundits) thought otherwise. I was right.
How did this happen?
I knew that there were, effectively, only four ways to develop fissionable materials: gaseous diffusion, calutrons, centrifuges and breeder reactors ( the plutonium path). All were technically difficult, expensive, and in many cases had signatures that we would have noticed using our ‘national technical means’, such as spy satellites, aerial reconnaissance, etc.
Gaseous diffusion requires enormous facilities, which were not seen. It also requires knowledge of obscure materials properties and huge electricity usage, also not seen. Scratch gaseous diffusion.
The Iraqis had made a gram or so of enriched material back in 1990 with calutrons, surprising because calutrons are incredibly inefficient ( as Lawrence showed in the Manhattan Project). Couldn’t have been resumed with using vast amount of power, which wasn’t happening – we would have noticed. Also pretty difficult under sanctions – you couldn’t buy the parts anymore from competent countries. Scratch calutrons.
Centrifuges are tough engineering, take a big facility ( for the thousands of centrifuges). Without imports ( or money), Iraq would have had to use their native talents. But the Kurds were in revolt, the Shi’ites had recently revolted. Can’t hire them. The country was half illiterate, and had an average IQ in the 80s – and performed accordingly. In other words, Iraq was not Germany. This was apparently unknown to the intelligence agencies. Scratch the centrifuges.
Breeder reactors leak odd noble gas isotopes. Detectable, but not detected. Scratch breeder reactors and plutonium.
Some loon suggested that the Iraqis had perhaps mastered laser isotope separation – when, at the time, nobody else on Earth had managed to do, in spite of vast efforts involving thousands of physicists in the US, France, and the Soviet Union. This when nobody in Iraq ( or anywhere else in the Moslem world) had invented or discovered anything in seven hundred years.
Parenthetically, North Korea managed a nuclear program, without a lot of outside help or money. But A. Koreans are smart, B. North Korea didn’t have ~80% of the country in rebellion, and C. much of their effort was detected by our ‘national technical means’ – they didn’t manage to keep it invisible. That’s hard.
In order to achieve what the Bush Administration alleged, Iraq would have to create an undetectable-by-the-US Manhattan project, with no money, even though they’re not technically skilled, and with most of the population unusable because disloyal ( and poorly educated morons).
Speaking of: someone once said that doubting the Iraqi capacity to pull off a secret invisible, undetectable nuclear program was racist. Indeed.
Money: oil exports were allowed under the Oil-For-Food program, but those monies could only be spent on approved imports. Approved by the US. We would take our time approving pencils.
It was pretty easy to observe & control their oil exports, with only one port (Basra).
Iraq got a little money from kickbacks and truck smuggling. I estimated around a billion a year ( from press reports) . Barely enough to pay for air conditioning the palaces.
So where and how did the intelligence agencies go wrong?
First, they had to please the boss: I didn’t. They told Bush II what he wanted to hear. Second, on technical issues, very few people in intelligence actually know anything. This was demonstrated again later, when the CIA and DIA concluded that we had found ‘mobile biological labs’ in Iraq. Which were actually vans with portable hydrogen generators – hydrogen for balloons intended to measure high-altitude winds, for increasing the accuracy of artillery. Pinheads.
I’ve heard that the CIA had one guy that knew enough to do the capacity analysis I’ve outlined, and he was working on something else.
There were guys at DOE that knew everything there is to know about the nuclear production cycle, including centrifuges – but they were ignored. The CIA found its own ‘expert’ – a mechanical engineer that had worked on the stable platform for a centrifuge project at Oak Ridge – not the centrifuges themselves. Laid off, he became the CIA’s centrifuge oracle, even though he knew little about the subject.
On technical issues, what do Administration political appointees, Congress, the press, and the pundits know? Nothing. Don’t know much about biology, don’t know much about history. They certainly don’t know jack about the nuclear production cycle.
But maybe the CIA is good at humint? No: arguably worse than any other intelligence agency in history.
Have things gotten any better? No.