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White House 'exaggerated extent of WMD breakthrough'

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

26 March 2004

The White House has been accused of exaggerating the nuclear threat posed by Libya, whose agreement to give up its weapons of mass destruction has been presented by the Bush administration and the British government as a positive consequence of the invasion of Iraq.

The controversy has erupted in the wake of an unusual press briefing last week at the United States government's nuclear research laboratory at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Amid much fanfare, reporters were shown evidence of what officials said were 4,000 uranium centrifuges, handed over by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's government as part of its deal with Britain and the United States to give up its nuclear arms programme.

But David Albright, the head of the Washington-based arms control group the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), has said "that was not true". ISIS has established that the 4,000 figure refers merely to casings of the centrifuges which are needed to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level - not to centrifuges fitted with the precision-tooled rotors that are their most important component.

"We doubt they had more than two which had rotors," said Mr Albright. This in turn means that Libya was "several years" away from making a bomb, rather than very close to possessing one, as the Bush team has implied. "Make no mistake, the Libyan programme was very serious and we're very glad it's stopped," he added. "The problem from our point of view is that the White House, which basically organised the briefing, is so focused on claiming credit that it's willing to exaggerate."

The real concern, said Mr Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, is the origin of the highly sophisticated rotors. "Maybe the Central Intelligence Agency is working on this aspect of it, but that's not what the White House was talking about," he said. It would have taken the Libyans a long time to learn how to make the rotors and other sophisticated components, and they might not have succeeded.

"The bottom line is that what they had was a far cry from a large number of working machines," Mr Albright said.

His assessment is broadly in line with that of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog body.

The issue is equally embarrassing for Tony Blair, who trumpeted his Government's role in Libya's agreement to abandon its WMD programme. Washington even agreed for Mr Blair to announce the deal live on TV before Mr Bush - a clear signal this was a British-led initiative.

The dispute however comes at a delicate moment in Washington. Although election day is still more than seven months away, the presidential campaign is in full swing, and President George Bush has used the disarmament pledge by Libya, long classified as a terrorist state, to justify the 2003 war with Iraq after the embarrassing failure to find a single weapon of mass destruction there.

If ISIS is right, the administration has been behaving over Libya as it behaved over Iraq, overblowing a threat to prove the rightness of its cause.

The invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein was primarily justified by claims about his nuclear ambitions, and the importance of preventing "the smoking gun from being a mushroom cloud". In the event, the two main pieces of "evidence" - the alleged purchases by Iraq of uranium yellowcake in Africa, and its imports of aluminum tubes for uranium centrifuges - were either discredited as fiction or shown to be an exaggeration.

In recent weeks, the UShas increased contacts with Libya but it has not lifted sanctions, let alone made a gesture comparable to Tony Blair's meeting with Colonel Gaddafi yesterday, the first British prime minister to set foot on Libyan soil since Winston Churchill during the Second World War.