The Niger Documents: A Primer
The Niger charges continue to be an important key to the story about how we find ourselves in this senseless war. An essential part of Bush getting his war on was by convincing people that America was seriously threatened by Iraq and thus we had to go to war. Yet, even before the formal war started, it was known that the evidence was suspect. And as Representative Henry Waxman noted on March 17, 2003, the American public was owed an explanation from the Bush administration on how they got the Nuclear threat by Iraq so wrong.
Bush's excuse for forcing the country into a war with Iraq was completely dependent on making the case that Saddam was an imminent threat, and only the charge that Saddam was actively building a nuclear weapons program was sufficient to make that threat tangible. So it was a real problem for the Bush administration that their excuse for war was falling apart even before the invasion started. (I was going to say, before the first bombs dropped, but now we know that the first bombs in this war started falling in 2002 as part of a concerted plan to push Saddam into a reaction that would provide an excuse for war.)
There were two essential pieces to making the nuclear threat real: the charge that Saddam was attempting to acquire the materials to create a nuclear weapons program (the Niger [Africa] charge), and the charge that Saddam was acquiring high tech systems that could be used in a nuclear program (the aluminum tubes charge). Both charges were highly disputed before the war started by the Intelligence Community. "...I realised it must be that same piece of garbage we discredited some months earlier," [Greg Theilmann] said. This meant that the Bush administration had to work overtime to convince people that Saddam was a danger that had to be dealt with now.
One problem the Bush adminstration had in creating the excuse for war was that there wasn't any reliable evidence that Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear program. And because they had been forced by the British to go through the UN (in order to justify the war) they needed even more stringent justification to make their case than the neocons originally had planned for. Because the Blair government felt bound by international agreements on what constituted legal reasons for going to war, they needed justifications that were seen as legal by the international community. The Bush administration had already opted out of the international agreements of what cases justified war, but they were shackled by the British needs to at least pretend that they had an adequate excuse to invade Iraq. But, Saddam didn't take the bait and it was up to Bush and Blair to validate that they had adequate reason to invade. This was why the charges that Saddam was trying to acquire nuclear materials that could be used in nuclear weapons was important.
Today, the most diehard Bush supporters still believe that there was proof that Saddam was trying to reconstitute a nuclear program. Yet, as eRiposte has shown, despite the Bush and Blair governments trying to make this case, no credible evidence has ever been found to support this claim.
So what about those Niger documents? Didn't they show Saddam was trying to purchase uranium? In a word, no. Here is a primer on the Niger documents.
Seymour Hersh first reported in March 2003 about why the Niger uranium charge was so dubious:
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.
And he reported on the fact that the CIA had not seen the crude forged "Niger" documents until February just before they were handed over to the IAEA. [Ed: We now know that the CIA got those documents in October according to the SSCI.]
Asked to respond, Harlow, the C.I.A. spokesman, said that the agency had not obtained the actual documents until early this year, after the President's State of the Union speech and after the congressional briefings, and therefore had been unable to evaluate them in a timely manner. Harlow refused to respond to questions about the role of Britain's MI6. Harlow's statement does not, of course, explain why the agency left the job of exposing the embarrassing forgery to the I.A.E.A. It puts the C.I.A. in an unfortunate position: it is, essentially, copping a plea of incompetence.
So, how did the CIA get conned? And why so much confusion, even today? Well, first of all, there were three phases for the Niger memoranda in question.
The first mention came up in October 15, 2001, as a report that Niger was planning to sell several tons of uranium to Iraq. As the Senate Intelligence Report said, it didn't have much detail and so wasn't given too much credence.
At the time, all IC analysts interviewed by Committee staff considered this initial report to be very limited and lacking needed detail. CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and Department of Energy (DOE) analysts considered the reporting to be "possible" while the Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) regarded the report as "highly suspect," primarily because INR analysts did not believe that Niger would be likely to engage in such a transaction and did not believe Niger would be able to transfer uranium to Iraq because a French consortium maintained control of the Nigerien uranium industry. (pg 36)
The second report surfaced in early February 2002 and had considerably more detail, including the charge that Iraq and Niger had concluded a deal in 2000 that Niger would sell Iraq 500 metric tons of uranium a year. This was the report that made people, including the VP to sit up and take notice. It was the report that sent Joe Wilson to Niger to investigate the possibility that this charge was true. But even before the first meeting with former Ambassador Wilson was held, the State Department's INR analyst believed that sending Wilson would be redundant because the charge was preposterous on its face.
The INR analyst's meeting notes and electronic mail (e-mail) from other participants indicate that the INR explained its skepticism that the alleged uranium contract could possibly be carried out due to the fact that it would be very difficult to hide such a large shipment of yellocake and because "the French appear to have control of the uranium mining, milling and transport process, and would seem to have little interest in selling uranium to the Iraqis." The notes also indicate that INR believed that the embassy in Niger had good contacts and would be able to get to the truth on the uranium issue, suggesting that a visit from the former ambassador would be redundant. (pg 38)
This is exactly what the IAEA pointed out to Seymour Hersh over a year later. And it is what was pointed out yet again in June 2004, the following year when there was further disinformation put out that the Niger was shipping uranium to not just Iraq, but also North Korea and China. The fact that logistically it would have been impossible for significant tonnage of uranium to be shipped from Niger without having transactions of that size discovered was just ignored. Somewhere along the line, looking at the data with a skeptic's eye had been totally suppressed.
Yet, this report even with its considerable detail was not real evidence as there was no documentary evidence that backed it up and which could be examined for its provenance. This was why the CIA sent Joe Wilson to Niger - because they wanted to see if there was some substance behind the charge. When he came back with is answer that this report could not be real, the lack of evidence was still a problem for the Bush administration.
The Bush administration still needed to have some real documents that could be used to help convince the world that Saddam truly was a threat. Enter the crude forgeries.
The badly forged Niger documents were the physical copy of the report that sent Wilson to Niger and they did nothing except obfuscate the truth. There are several operative theories about why they surfaced in September 2002. One theory was that a "friendly service" rushed to provide the Bush administration some evidence - that these documents were not the source of the earlier report, but freshly minted to buttress the charge. The spies had been obviously trolling for anything that could be used to back up the claim and so along comes an enterprising person who wanted to claim the 15,000 Euros that was the reward for providing a set of documents. And then there was the theory is that someone in the CIA, by then very unhappy at having the Niger charges come back again and again like the living dead, had had these obviously false documents created in order to embarrass the Bush White House. [Ed: As eRiposte showed, this theory, first reported by Seymour Hersh, must be wrong because the report used to send Joe Wilson to Iraq was based on the forged documents.]
These documents surfaced on October 11, 2002 and as soon as they were sent to the State Department, the INR nuclear analyst made it clear to the Intelligence Community, that they looked very suspect.
Immediately after receiving the documents, the INR Iraq nuclear analyst e-mailed IC colleagues offering to provide the documents at a previously planned meeting of the Nuclear Interdiction Action Group (NIAG) the following day. The analyst, apparently already suspicious of the validity of the documents noted in his e-mail, "you'll note that it bears a funky Emb. of Niger stamp (to make it look official, I guess)."
The INR Iraq nuclear analyst told Committee staff that the thing that stood out immediately about the documents was that a companion document - a document included with the Niger documents that did not relate to uranium - mentioned some type of military compaign against major world powers. The members of the alleged military campaign included both Iraq and Iran, and was, according to the documents, being orchestrated through the Nigerien Embassy in Rome, which struck the analyst as "completely implausible." Because the stamp on this document matched the stamp on the uranium document, the analyst thought that all of the documents were likely suspect. (pg 58)
When the US published the Iraq fact sheet on December 19, 2002, and used the Niger charge to say Saddam had not come clean, the IAEA demanded that they turn over all the evidence they had to back their claims. After delaying for weeks, the Bush administration finally turned over the Niger documents just days before the war started. When the documents were shown to be crude forgeries, the IAEA asked what other evidence the US and Britain had to back the claim made in the fact sheet.
The IAEA asked the U.S. and Britain if they had any other evidence backing the claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium. The answer was no.
In the State of the Union address Bush said it was the British that had proof of the claim. Yet, the Brits never provided any evidence backing that assertion either.
IAEA officials never saw Britain's so-called genuine evidence, despite the fact that UN member countries were expected to provide all relevant intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction to the UN inspection teams.
And it is clear that the British Intelligence service thought the evidence was poor as well.
The Hutton inquiry investigated the creation of the Sept 2002 "sexed-up dossier" extensively. They found that Alastair Campbell, Blair's spin doctor, suggested a number of edits to "sharpen" the dossier which was being written by the Joint Intelligence Services (JIC). As reported at that time, the JIC refused to accept the edits proposed by Campbell in regards to the nuclear weapons charges because the intelligence was not solid.
But Mr Campbell's suggestions were turned down in a number of other areas. For instance, a request for the executive summary to list the allegation Iraq had imported aluminum tubes for its nuclear programme was rejected as there was no firm intelligence this was the case.
In another passage, he questioned why the report said that Iraq had "sought" to require uranium rather than had done so.
The JIC again insisted intelligence reports did not substantiate such a conclusive allegation.
The JIC was clear that the rumors of an Niger sale of uranium to Iraq was very shaky. And the minutes (aka the DSM) from the Prime Minister's top secret conference of July 23, 2002 were explicit in the belief that there wasn't sufficient evidence to back the claim that Saddam was a danger:
Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.
The only "proof" that Niger was conspiring to sell uranium to Saddam were some rumors and reports that that never would have passed the sniff test if the adminstration hadn't been so anxious to "fix" the intelligence. It seems cold comfort to know we have definitive proof that this is so today after more than 2 years of an illegal war costing the lives of
1768 1996 US soldiers, thousands of more soldiers who are severely injured, the lives of countless Iraqis and billions of tax payer dollars. It has been an expensive lesson to learn that one must distrust the motives of our leaders who believe they create reality.
Updated: October 23, 2005. Clarified that the orginal Niger documents that sent Joe Wilson to Niger were the same as the forged documents that were finally turned over to the US in October 2003. (Thanks to eRiposte's thorough and compelling argument that showed this must be true.)