The Corner

Yellowcake and Nukes

I didn’t find it very re-assuring when Tenet said last night that the best judgment of the intelligence agencies was that Saddam wouldn’t have a nuke until 2007-2009. I did a quick computation on my fingers and realized 2007 is…now! Also, if Saddam got fissile material from somewhere else it was thought he would have been able to build a weapon within a year. Pages 325-326:

Perhaps the most widely misunderstood section of the NIE dealt with yellowcake, an element that can be enriched to make nuclear weapons-grade uranium. The Estimate included an account of Saddam’s reported attempts to procure yellowcake from the African nation of Niger, taken from a September 2002 paper by the Defense Intelligence Agency. That account, told in a few paragraphs on page twenty-four of the document, was not a major pillar of the NIE. The Estimate noted that Saddam already had access to large amounts of yellowcake in Iraq—550 tons of it, enough to produce as many as 100 nuclear weapons. This yellowcake was supposed to be under seal by international inspectors, but that was at best a flimsy wall of protection.

Although it would looms large in subsequent criticisms of the NIE, the Niger yellowcake was not among the half dozen reasons cited why all agencies, with the exception of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), believed that Iraq was resuming its nuclear weapons program. Even INR wrote in the NIE that it believed Iraq was pursuing “at least a limited effort” to “acquire nuclear weapons related capabilities” and that the evidence indicated “at most a limited reconstitution effort.”  We assessed that Saddam did not have a nuclear weapon and that if he had to make his own fissile material he probably would not be able to do so until 2007 to 2009. However, we indicated in the NIE that we had only moderate confidence in that judgment. We also indicated that INR thought that, although Saddam clearly wanted nuclear weapons, there was inadequate evidence to prove that he had an ongoing integrated and comprehensive program to develop them.

If Saddam could obtain fissile material elsewhere, it would not be hard for the regime to make a weapon within a year. After all, we believed that some terrorist groups could do so if they came into possession of the all-important highly enriched uranium or plutonium.

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: 

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