CBS News correspondent Bob Simon is against a war on Iraq. He has said so publicly, and on 60 Minutes recently, he resorted to some of the same Madison Avenue tricks to promote his views that he accuses the Bush administration of using to sell the American people on such a war. Like Madison Avenue, Simon claimed President Bush is not above “hyping” his product, a war on Saddam Hussein, and issuing “misleading statements” about the character of the threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But it was Simon who relied on misleading statements and clever editing to distort the content of the administration’s case against Iraq.
He grudgingly acknowledged Saddam’s possession of chemical and biological weapons, but focused his skepticism on the administration’s claim that Iraq is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. He failed to note that United Nations inspectors concluded years ago that Iraq has a workable nuclear warhead design and lacks only fissile material to fulfill Saddam’s nuclear dreams.
Nor does he remind viewers that United Nations inspectors were “surprised” by what they found inside Iraq’s nuclear program after the 1991 Gulf War. American assessments, influenced mostly by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, had badly underestimated Iraq’s nuclear progress up to that time. Worse yet, it was not until 1995 that inspectors learned about an Iraqi crash program to build one nuclear warhead as quickly as possible. Known as Project 601, initiated after the Kuwaiti invasion, the Iraqis sought to produce enough enriched uranium for one bomb within two or three months. Under questioning, Iraqi scientists later claimed that they couldn’t have actually assembled a bomb until late 1992. Last week, Saddam’s scientific advisor seemed to confirm this, saying that Iraq had stopped just short of final assembly.
But Simon dismisses administration concerns about Iraq’s continuing efforts to acquire nuclear weapons as “hype.” He ran clips of President Bush citing a UN report that concluded that the Iraqis were six months away from developing a nuclear weapon. He then cut to a Washington “expert,” whom he said is a physicist and former weapons inspector, who claimed no knowledge of such a report. But the Bush film clip is the only source Simon cites for the “six month” estimate and clearly Bush, speaking extemporaneously, bungled the UN’s account of Project 601. Big deal. The real point is that the Iraqis got very close and then managed to conceal Project 601 from UN inspectors for nearly four years.
Simon topped this distortion by seriously misrepresenting U.S. and British evaluations of Iraqi efforts to procure 60,000 plus high-strength aluminum tubes. Most experts believe that the tubes were intended for Iraq’s gas-centrifuge enriched-uranium program. There are outriders to that judgment (there usually are), but published intelligence estimates have faithfully reflected their dissent. There was no trace of this in Simon’s report. Instead, he pointed to a September New York Times article that quoted “anonymous administration officials” saying, according to Simon, that the tubes could “only” be used to make these enrichment centrifuges. The article contains no such statement. Nor does an Intelligence Community estimate released in October 2002. Or a British assessment, released earlier this summer. He ignored these, but did run a clip of Condoleezza Rice saying that the tubes were “only really suited” for nuclear gas-centrifuges.
What do these assessments really conclude? The U.S. said that the tubes are on export control lists, could potentially be used in a nuclear gas-centrifuge program and concluded, “Most intelligence specialists assess this to be the intended use, but some believe that these tubes are probably intended for conventional weapons programs.” Simon said that the British assessment contradicts this by concluding that “there is no definitive intelligence that it (the shipment of tubes) is destined for a nuclear program.” But he omitted the preceding passage which states that export controls are imposed on the tubes because of their potential application in a centrifuge program. “Definitive intelligence” is very hard to come by, especially given the lengths to which the Iraqis go to conceal their program.
Simon’s Washington expert said that people who understand nuclear gas-centrifuges, even U.S. government experts, almost uniformly believe the tubes are not destined for Saddam’s nuclear program. Or at least those experts he has been talking to…whomever they might be. They both then agree that the administration’s statements are “misleading.”
What is misleading, even dishonest, is the way Simon permitted his anti-war bias to color this story. There is no dispute among real experts that Saddam continues his program to develop nuclear weapons. Why wait around while he gets closer than he already is? Maybe Simon needs a refresher on Iraqi jails to take Saddam Hussein seriously again.