“President Bush was probably wrong when he asserted in his 2002 State of the Union address that American forces routing guerrillas of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan had found designs for nuclear power plants, one of the three members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said.
The commissioner, Edward McGaffigan Jr., who was appointed to the N.R.C. by President Bill Clinton in 1996, said in interviews last week that he and other members of the commission had scratched their heads when they heard the speech.
The president was ”poorly served by a speechwriter,” Mr. McGaffigan said.
In the 2002 speech, Mr. Bush said of Qaeda terrorists: ”The depth of their hatred is equaled by the madness of the destruction they design. We have found diagrams of American nuclear power plants and public water facilities, detailed instructions for making chemical weapons, surveillance maps of American cities, and thorough descriptions of landmarks in America and throughout the world.”
Mr. Bush’s statement has been repeated often by opponents of nuclear power, who argue that the operation of reactors is too risky when the country is under threat of terrorist attack. The point has also been repeated by members of the House and Senate, and Mr. McGaffigan has raised his contention in closed hearings, people in the hearings have said.
In one telephone interview, Mr. McGaffigan said the commission was deeply interested in any intelligence gathered by the United States on the subject and would like to see details on which plants were portrayed in the designs and what type of plant and which systems in the plants were targeted. But he said that despite repeated questions in the first half of 2002, he had not found anyone who could confirm that such plans were recovered.
Word of his argument has recently emerged among nuclear experts, and Mr. McGaffigan confirmed it in the interviews last week. On Wednesday, he sent a letter outlining his position to Greenpeace, the environmental group, which had written to ask about his position.
His letter said he was ”aware of no evidence” that diagrams of American power plants had been found in Afghanistan.
Richard A. Meserve, who was chairman of the commission at the time of the speech, said in an e-mail message that he was ”uncomfortable commenting on classified information.”
Nils J. Diaz, the current chairman, would not comment.
A spokesman for the National Security Council, Sean McCormack, said that in the days before the speech American intelligence officials had observed ”suspicious downloading by computers in the Middle East” and that diagrams were available on the Web.
Mr. McCormack also said intelligence officials received a tip that an associate of Osama bin Laden had discussed crashing a plane into ”large facilities” like a reactor. He added that ”sources and methods considerations did affect the language used in the speech.”
The term ”sources and methods considerations” indicates caution about describing intelligence findings, to avoid disclosing how the information was gathered.
In the interviews, Mr. McGaffigan said that despite his doubts about whether diagrams were found in Afghanistan, he had no doubt that Al Qaeda was interested in nuclear plants and that it was a reason the commission had changed the security rules for plants five times since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Mr. Meserve, the former chairman, said in his e-mail message that based on intelligence information about Qaeda targets, ”I was very comfortable in putting the nuclear industry at high alert.”
Mr. McCormack, of the National Security Council, in a separate interview, gave a chronology of indications, before and after the State of the Union address, of Al Qaeda’s interest. He said that a Qaeda operative captured in Karachi, Pakistan, had a photograph of a reactor in North Carolina, for example.
A spokeswoman for the commission, Beth Hayden, said Mr. McGaffigan’s letter to Greenpeace had been given to the commission’s office in charge of classification to decide whether it had any classified information.”
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