Tuesday :: Jun 29, 2004

Yellow Cake Allegations


by Mary

Yesterday, the Financial Times had an article saying that the allegations of Niger selling uranium to states seeking to build nuclear weapons seemed to be confirmed. The article said that several European intelligence agencies had information that Niger uranium had been illicitly sold to several countries including North Korea and China.

The British government has said repeatedly it stands by intelligence it gathered and used in its controversial September 2002 dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programmes. It still claims that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger.

But the US intelligence community, officials and politicians, are publicly sceptical, and the public differences between the two allies on the issue have obscured the evidence that lies behind the UK claim.

...The FT has now learnt that three European intelligence services were aware of possible illicit trade in uranium from Niger between 1999 and 2001. Human intelligence gathered in Italy and Africa more than three years before the Iraq war had shown Niger officials referring to possible illicit uranium deals with at least five countries, including Iraq.

This intelligence provided clues about plans by Libya and Iran to develop their undeclared nuclear programmes. Niger officials were also discussing sales to North Korea and China of uranium ore or the "yellow cake" refined from it: the raw materials that can be progressively enriched to make nuclear bombs.

The raw intelligence on the negotiations included indications that Libya was investing in Niger's uranium industry to prop it up at a time when demand had fallen, and that sales to Iraq were just a part of the clandestine export plan. These secret exports would allow countries with undeclared nuclear programmes to build up uranium stockpiles.

...Information gathered in 1999-2001 suggested that the uranium sold illicitly would be extracted from mines in Niger that had been abandoned as uneconomic by the two French-owned mining companies - Cominak and Somair, both of which are owned by the mining giant Cogema - operating in Niger.

"Mines can be abandoned by Cogema when they become unproductive. This doesn't mean that people near the mines can't keep on extracting," a senior European counter-proliferation official said.

Yet, both Josh Marshall and Laura Rosen suggest that this article itself is disinformation. I'd be inclined to go along with them, because I remember what Joe Wilson wrote last July about the Niger lie.

I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.

Given the structure of the consortiums that operated the mines, it would be exceedingly difficult for Niger to transfer uranium to Iraq. Niger's uranium business consists of two mines, Somair and Cominak, which are run by French, Spanish, Japanese, German and Nigerian interests. If the government wanted to remove uranium from a mine, it would have to notify the consortium, which in turn is strictly monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Moreover, because the two mines are closely regulated, quasi-governmental entities, selling uranium would require the approval of the minister of mines, the prime minister and probably the president. In short, there's simply too much oversight over too small an industry for a sale to have transpired.

Furthermore, Seymour Hersh had this to say about the Niger yellow cake:

The large quantity of uranium involved should have been another warning sign. Niger's "yellow cake" comes from two uranium mines controlled by a French company, with its entire output presold to nuclear power companies in France, Japan, and Spain. "Five hundred tons can't be siphoned off without anyone noticing," another I.A.E.A. official told me.

As with anything related to the "intelligence" used to justify this war, one must question its reliability. We know that Chalabi and crew were seeding their "articles" throughout Europe. And we know that Scott Ritter reported that he was asked to plant false stories in papers starting in 1998 in order to gin up a reason to attack Iraq. And as noted in the last link, once people started to use disinformation to make their claims, all intelligence becomes questionable.

[D]uring the 80's one of the objections the professional agents had to the intelligence product of Team B was because they would find reports based on the disinformation that had been planted in the foreign press by the CIA.

The CIA analysts, however, knew the charges were bogus partly because they were based on "black" or false propaganda that the CIA's operations division had been planting in the European media.

Perhaps Niger did have some mines that were unproductive and perhaps it was possible to have large quantities of yellow cake processed from those mines without it being seen by the IAEA, but it seems to be stretching the point quite a bit.

So until Seymour Hersh starts confirming stories about the illicit trade of yellow cake, I recommend reserving judgement on the veracity of these reports.

Mary :: 12:17 AM :: Comments (10) :: Digg It!