Iraq’s Nuke Threat Little More Than Myth

Of all the constantly changing reasons for war on Iraq that have emanated from the White House since last summer, there has been only one that ever sounded compelling: the prospect of an atomic bomb wielded by Saddam Hussein. None of the other weapons said to be in the possession of the Baghdad dictator poses an imminent threat to the United States. A nuclear device might.

Biological and chemical weapons are frightening as well as illegal. Missiles and warheads sound scary. Shadowy links to terrorism raise the specter of Sept. 11. Yet as knowledgeable experts would explain, if they could get anyone to listen, Iraq lacks the capacity and the motive to attack us with chemical or biological weapons.

Iraq’s missiles and its highly publicized “drone” aircraft can scarcely reach Kuwait City, let alone New York or Washington-and by the time this reaches newsstands, nearly all of its Al Samoud missiles are likely to have been destroyed. Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons, assuming that they actually exist in significant amounts, would be very difficult to disperse in an effective urban assault. And Iraq’s alleged connections with the Al Qaeda terrorists, suddenly of grave concern to the Secretary of State, were not even worth mentioning in his department’s comprehensive annual report on global terrorism.

But if Saddam possesses a nuclear weapon-or could someday build a nuclear weapon-then he would be almost as dangerous as Kim Jong Il (who probably has one or two atomic bombs and the ballistic missiles to deliver them). If he got a nuclear weapon, Saddam could threaten Israel, or smuggle it into the United States. That’s why hawkish pundits and politicians, including President George W. Bush, emphasize the potential Iraqi bomb as their favorite casus belli . (Or they did until the other night, when Mr. Bush conspicuously omitted the subject from his press conference.)

Uttered last September by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the best line has been repeated ominously many times since: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Mr. Bush warned last fall that, according to our intelligence sources, “Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear-weapons program …. Satellite photographs reveal that Iraq is rebuilding facilities at sites that have been part of its nuclear program in the past. Iraq has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes and other equipment needed for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. We don’t know whether or not he has a nuclear weapon. He recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, according to the British government …. And he is moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon.”

After three months of inspections by the United Nations-underwritten by the threat of military force-we now know that those warnings were grossly exaggerated. Iraq has not reconstituted the extensive nuclear-weapons program dismantled during the previous round of U.N. inspections. The facilities in the U.S. satellite photographs are still in shambles, and aren’t being used for any illegal purpose. The aluminum tubes were unusable for uranium enrichment. And the documents that show Saddam tried to buy uranium from Africa, which were cited by the President in his State of the Union address? Oh, they were forged.

Those classified papers, provided by Britain’s MI6 and then intensively reviewed by the C.I.A., were brandished as proof that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from Niger in 1999. Officials from both countries denied any such deal, and the U.N.’s independent experts confirmed their denials, finding that the documents had been crudely faked. (Another published description was “transparently obvious.”)

The revelation of that fraud marked the second severe embarrassment to Anglo-American intelligence in a single month. The first occurred within days after Mr. Powell’s presentation to the U.N. Security Council, when the British were forced to admit that their analysts had plagiarized some of the material cited by America’s chief diplomat from a California graduate student.

So far, spokesmen for the U.S. and British governments have not tried to deny that the uranium documents were bogus. Asked about the fake papers by Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press , Mr. Powell replied blandly: “If that information is inaccurate, fine.”

With all due respect to the Secretary, the appropriate word isn’t “inaccurate”-and it isn’t “fine,” either. It is horrific to contemplate that someone would fabricate a document to foment a war likely to kill thousands. It is humiliating to think that American intelligence services cannot distinguish a fake of that kind-or, worse still, would consciously pass along such a fake to an international authority. It is troubling to realize that the quality of information used by the President as he prepares for war may be no better than that.

And it is impossible not to wonder what other lies and myths are being spread to justify this war.