July 8, 2008
The 550 Tons of Yellowcake
For years, the media and Democrats have sold the public an understanding that Gerorge W. Bush fabricated a story that Saddam Hussein had a WMD program in order to justify invading Iraq, which invasion then becomes "based on a lie."
About 550 metric tons of yellowcake concentrated uranium were recently shipped out of Iraq. It had been part of Saddam Hussein's nuclear program. That much was recently reported by the Associated Press . I wrote an article for American Thinker that commented on that story the day it appeared.
That yellowcake stockpile pre-dated 1991, and had been under the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency "safeguard" from then until 2003. That was mentioned in the AP article and I mentioned it in the update to my article the day it was published. In fact, American Thinker contributors Douglas Hanson and Rick Moran had written about that yellowcake stockpile years ago here, here and here. Douglas Hanson reported four years ago:
"Professor Norman Dombey, professor of theoretical physics at the University of Sussex, England, has confirmed that Saddam Hussein had more than enough yellowcake uranium to make over 100 nuclear weapons."
The recent AP story was not news with respect to the existence of this stockpile in Iraq to those who follow such things closely. But I'm sure many readers had never been aware of this large stockpile of yellowcake in Iraq at all. This new AP story, and perhaps my article, helped get that information out. As Investor's Business Daily more recently put it , "Seems to us this should be big news," but "the mainstream media find it inconveniently contradicts the story they have been telling you for years."
Also, this new story reminded even those aware of its existence of what a huge and dangerous stockpile it was. First, it took 37 military flights to ship it from Baghdad to Diego Garcia. Even when not processed into nuclear weapons, it was dangerous in its own right, being radioactive. It could also be used in other methods of spreading radiation short of full nuclear bombs. The AP story explained the logistical nightmare of simply transporting it. It also cited the fear of it falling into the hands of insurgents. That is how dangerous it was when we were in control of it.
However, some readers have noted its "old news" aspect. One wrote the American Thinker as follows.
"Of course there was lots of yellow cake in Iraq . Those news orgs you so dislike reported five years ago on how tons of it was just sitting out in the open in Tawaitha. It was so accessible that the locals were looting the site. Most of the articles at that time were critical of the lack of security from U.S. troops for the former nuclear development site. Please note the word former...it's pretty important since former was the word you could use in 2000 as well. Anyway, that isn't news. Neither is the fact that Saddam had delivery mechanisms. However, he did not have an active nuclear weapons program, unless one means the capacity to deliver one or two dirty bombs (which the yellow cake couldn't be used for, btw, because it is basically an inert compound). But even dirty bombs aren't a particularly scary threat, since you or I or anyone else could buy materials for dirty bombs at Home Depot. But Saddam just didn't have the resources to do anything more than that due to IAEA inspections and other international efforts. In fact, he didn't have any technology or raw materials dating anytime after 1991. He was technologically impotent. Which means the UN's efforts, so belittled by the Bush administration in the ramp-up to invasion (as well as by revisionist neocon historians...?) had worked exactly as intended. So the "American Thinker" article is really a great example of precisely the distorted sort of ranting that it tries to claim is nobly contrary to popular sentiment but somehow true. But it's not true. It's simply bizarre."
I believe the dirty bomb scenario is irrelevant here. Saddam could have had an active program without having anything in production or deliverable at all. A weapon program is not a weapon; it is a program -- it means the potential for future weapons. This distinction seems to get lost way too often.
I also believe it is way too naive to think being under IAEA safeguard really means "safe". First, Saddam continually defied the IAEA as it was; that was a reason for multiple UN resolutions to sanction him. Second, the IAEA got what little respect it did from Saddam because the U.S. was backing it up with about 150,000 troops on the ready nearby. Third, Saddam was using oil-for-food money to bribe away the sanctions and inspection regime (see the Duelfer Report). Fourth, why didn't the IAEA make Saddam get rid of it? In short, the IAEA was no guarantee that Saddam would keep his hands off that stockpile in the near future, or that he was keeping away from it even then.
But a question remains: Was Saddam's nuclear weapon program active at the time of our invasion in 2003? As IBD puts it, this yellowcake stockpile "more or less proves Saddam in 2003 had a program on hold for building WMD and that he planned to boot it up again soon."
Is a program that is "on hold" not an "active" program? Does it matter? After all, a "program" is not currently deliverable WMD; it is the potential of future WMD. In turn, a program "on hold" just pushes the date of deliverable WMD a little more into the future. How tightly do you want to time defending yourself against incoming WMD? (To many critics, there just never seems to be a good time. From the time WMD are in development to the time nuclear missiles are inbound, these critics just can't seem to find an appropriate window of opportunity to defend against them.)
But let me get back to the question of whether Saddam had an active nuclear program in 2003, in the strong sense of the word "active". The recent AP story on the shipment of the stockpile to Canada does not let us conclude anything one way or the other on that. But that does not mean that Saddam did not have an active WMD program in 2003. Nor does it mean the 550 tons of yellowcake were "safe", even if under UN "safeguard". Nor does it mean we had nothing to worry about from Saddam regarding WMD in 2003. It simply means, as it always did, that in 2003 Saddam was sitting on enough yellowcake to make more than 100 nuclear weapons.
While some read the Duelfer Report as conclusive and definitive (meaning no nuclear program in 2003, period), read its "findings" closely. Duelfer states that "Iraq's ability to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program progressively decayed" after 1991, and the "ISG found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program."
A "decayed" ability does not mean non-existent. Finding "no evidence" does not mean no existence. And why would an effort need to be "concerted?" (Always beware of adjectives in executive summaries.) Duelfer also reports "Iraq took steps to conceal key elements of its program." In the nuclear section of the Duelfer report, the word "looted" is found 28 times, as in "U.S. military forces found Al-Athir abandoned and heavily looted. ISG visited and found no evidence of uranium conversion activities."
I do not think it "bizarre" that the Saddam regime, one that had once had WMD programs and deployable chemical weapons (which are WMD), a government that had defied UN inspectors multiple times, and one that "took steps to conceal" its WMD programs, might just clear out evidence of its programs -- those areas that were "looted" -- once it was likely they would fall into the hands of the U.S. Coalition. As I have said before , Eliot Ness also found "no evidence" in Al Capone's hotel room.
Frankly, I don't know for sure what is true. Saddam might have had ready-to-go WMD, but they were hidden or taken to another country by the time our CIA inspectors showed up in Iraq. (Duelfer says "we cannot express a firm view on the possibility that WMD elements were relocated out of Iraq prior to the war.") Saddam might have had active programs, but they were concealed at the time, with the evidence destroyed ("looted") by March 2003. Or maybe he really did put all his programs on hiatus by 2003. But even Charles Duelfer concluded that Saddam had every intention of getting back into the WMD business as soon as he could end the sanctions regime, which he was busy doing with oil-for-food bribes.
I think it neither illogical nor bizarre to think Saddam had WMD or WMD programs in 2003. I still believe he did, in a "preponderance of the evidence" sense. And I believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he would have been back in the WMD business by now, if not by 2004, had we not invaded.
That he sat on 550 metric tons of yellowcake under UN "safeguard" is about as comforting to me as knowing the convicted child rapist next door has a case of duct tape (dual use, by the way) that the police check up on every week.
Randall Hoven's writings may be read here.