In the run-up to the March 2003 war, Rice said in a television interview in 2002 that the Iraqi president was trying to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes to rebuild his nuclear weapons program. The tubes, she said, were “really only suited for nuclear weapons programs.”
On Sunday, Rice acknowledged she was aware of a debate among U.S. intelligence agencies about whether those tubes were intended for nuclear weapons. The State Department, she said, had raised concerns, but she said there was other evidence that could not be ignored.
“The intelligence community assessment as a whole was that these (tubes) were likely and certainly suitable for, and likely for, his nuclear weapons program,” Rice told ABC’s “This Week.” She said the director of the CIA at the time, George Tenet, believed that the tubes were for centrifuge parts.
“When you are faced with an assessment that Saddam Hussein is reconstituting his nuclear weapons program, that he has by the end of the decade the probability of having a nuclear weapons … the tendency is always not to want to underestimate these programs,” Rice said.
A New York Times story Sunday quoted four CIA officials and a senior administration official as saying that Rice and her staff had been told in 2001 that Energy Department experts believed the tubes were probably intended for small artillery rockets — and not nuclear weapons.
Rice said she learned of objections by the Energy Department only after making her 2002 comments.
During a CNN interview in 2002, Rice said the tubes were “really only suited for nuclear weapons programs.” In bolstering the administration’s argument of the threat the nation faced, she added: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
Somehow, I found her explanations to be less than convincing. So I decided to call her up and ask her a simple question, just as a test:
Q: Ms. Rice, thank you for taking my call and agreeing to this brief interview.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, it’s an honor to be interviewed by you, Mr. Cronkite, and please call me Condi.
Q: OK, Condi. Now tell me, how many fingers do you have on your right hand?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Thirty-seven.