Monday :: Jul 25, 2005

Uranium from Africa and the Senate (SSCI) Report: Part 3A-2 (The Joseph Wilson trip)

by eriposte

[This was originally posted on 7/25/05 and updated on 10/24/05]

This is a continuing series focusing on the findings on the "uranium from Africa" issue in the whitewash Senate Report - the report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). [Previous parts: Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 3A-1].

This part analyzes in detail the intelligence findings of Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger. What is particularly interesting is the amount of pure spin in the Senate report - just on Wilson's intelligence findings; spin that took the reported information and presented it in a form that ignored the real facts in order to suit those who had a pre-existing bias against Wilson's trip. It is this spin that was later used to falsely attack Wilson and defend Bush (and I'm not talking about the trivia about who sent him and who didn't - I'm talking about the interpretation of the intelligence he brought back, which was rated "good" by the CIA). [Note that all bold/highlighted text is my emphasis; all page numbers refer to the Senate report].

3A-2. The intelligence report based on the visit of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger in Feb/Mar 2002

1. Summary

2. Analysis

(a) The "June 1999" Mayaki meeting with a "businessman" and the interpretation of "expanding commercial relations" as having to do with "uranium"

(b) The undated Mayaki meeting with an "Iraqi delegation" that "visited Niger" and his "steering" the conversation away from "trade" issues

(c) The statements of other Nigerien officials

3. Conclusions

1. Summary

In response to Vice President Cheney's request for more information after the first two uncorroborated reports surfaced (from the same foreign intelligence service) on an alleged Iraq-Niger uranium transaction in 2000 (Part 3A-1), the CIA's Counterproliferation Division (CPD) took the decision to contact Joe Wilson, and after some discussions decided to send him to Niger to see if he could shed some light on the allegations. Wilson arrived in Niger on 2/26/02. Shortly prior to his arrival, the U.S. Embassy in Niamey sent out a cable informing U.S. intelligence about the results of a meeting held previously with Niger's President Mamadou Tandja and Foreign Minister Aichatou Mindaoudou, by the U.S. Ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick and the Deputy Commander of European Command, General Carlton Fulford. In that meeting, the Americans were assured by the Nigerien President that "Niger's goal was to keep its uranium 'in safe hands'."

Wilson's report, which the CIA's DO assigned a grade of "good" [page 46] (something that is rarely mentioned during the incessant Wilson-bashing) supposedly did not change minds within U.S. intelligence (which is quite inexplicable, as I will demonstrate in this post). Although Wilson dismissed the possibility of there having been anything going on between Iraq and Niger on uranium, and INR continued to remain skeptical of the Niger uranium reports (one analyst felt that Wilson's report corroborated INR's position), CIA and DIA analysts "said that when they saw the intelligence report they did not believe that it supplied much new information and did not think that it clarified the story on the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium deal." [page 46] Because of that they apparently did not brief the Vice President on it, even though the report was "widely distributed in routine channels" [page 43]. The same analysts also expressed to the Senate Committee the view that they found "it interesting that the former Nigerien Prime Minister said an Iraqi delegation had visited Niger for what he believed was to discuss uranium sales." [page 46]

Let's take a closer look at what that last sentence refers to:

The intelligence report indicated that former Nigerien Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki was unaware of any contracts that had been signed between Niger and any rogue states for the sale of yellowcake while he was Prime Minister (1997-1999) or Foreign Minister (1996-1997). Mayaki said that if there had been any such contract during his tenure, he would have been aware of it. Mayaki said, however, that in June 1999, [redacted] businessman, approached him and insisted that Mayaki meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss "expanding commercial relations" between Niger and Iraq. The intelligence report said that Mayaki interpreted "expanding commercial relations" to mean that the delegation wanted to discuss uranium yellowcake sales. The intelligence report also said that "although the meeting took place, Mayaki let the matter drop due to the UN sanctions on Iraq." [page 43]

More on this strange story from Mayaki:

The intelligence report also said that Niger's former Minister for Energy and Mines, [redacted] Mai Manga, stated that there were no sales outside of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) channels since the mid-1980s. He knew of no contracts signed between Niger and any rogue states for the sale of uranium. He said that an Iranian delegation was interested in purchasing 400 tons of yellowcake from Niger in 1998, but said that no contract was ever signed with Iran. Mai Manga also described how the French mining consortium controls Nigerien uranium mining and keeps the uranium very tightly controlled from the time it is mined until the time it is loaded onto ships in Benin for transport overseas. Mai Manga believed it would be difficult, if not impossible, to arrange a special shipment of uranium to a pariah state given these controls.

...The former ambassador [Wilson] said that Mayaki did meet with the Iraqi delegation but never discussed what was meant by "expanding commercial relations." The former ambassador said that because Mayaki was wary of discussing any trade issues with a country under United Nations (UN) sanctions, he made a successful effort to steer the conversation away from a discussion of trade with the Iraqi delegation. [page 44]

Later, the Senate Report says:

The reports officer...said he judged that the most important fact in the report was that the Nigerien officials admitted that the Iraqi delegation had traveled there in 1999, and that the Nigerien Prime Minister believed the Iraqis were interested in purchasing uranium, because this provided some confirmation of foreign government service reporting. [page 46]

2. Analysis

There is a significant amount of information is the passages I have highlighted or reproduced above. It's a pity then, that groups other than INR took away an understanding that was contradictory to the plain facts in Mr. Wilson's reporting, as I discuss below. Let's address each piece of information in turn.

(a) The "June 1999" Mayaki meeting with a "businessman" and the interpretation of "expanding commercial relations" as having to do with "uranium"

This "June 1999" meeting is rather interesting and its implications are discussed further in section (b) below. For the moment, let us assume that Mayaki did meet a certain businessman in June 1999 and let us assume that the businessman insisted that "Mayaki meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss "expanding commercial relations" between Niger and Iraq", which Mayaki somehow interpreted as an overture to discuss uranium.

There are two fundamental problems with taking this statement at face value.

Firstly, one is attributing to Mayaki the ability to mind-read a certain businessman. The businessman never uttered the word uranium - so it is laughable to simply assume that Mayaki was accurate in his belief (also known as guesswork) about what this businessman was thinking or hinting.

Secondly, why should the term "expanding commercial relations" only refer to the sale of uranium from Niger to Iraq? Could it not have anything to do with the sale of petroleum products from Iraq to Niger, considering Iraq was/is one of the world's top oil suppliers? Don't think that's plausible? Well, you better tell the Iraq Survey Group they are full of crap then! After all, here is something ISG said in their report (which found zero evidence of any attempts by Iraq to seek uranium from Africa since 1991):

As part of its investigation, ISG sought information from prominent figures such as [Iraq's] Ja’far Diya’ Ja’far—the head of the pre-1991 nuclear weapons program.

  • Ja’far claims a second contact between Iraq and Niger occurred when a Nigerian minister visited Baghdad around 2001 to request assistance in obtaining petroleum products to alleviate Niger’s economic problems. During the negotiations for this contract, the Nigerians did not offer any kind of payment or other quid pro quo, including offering to provide Iraq with uranium ore, other than cash in exchange for petroleum.

So, let's not get carried away by loose words which said nothing about uranium and can be easily interpreted in benign ways.

(b) The undated Mayaki meeting with an "Iraqi delegation" that "visited Niger" and his "steering" the conversation away from "trade" issues

Of everything in this report, the one that is most odd is the mention of Mayaki having met with an Iraqi delegation in Niger sometime on or after June 1999.

To understand why, let's take a step back and note that there were two publicly known meetings between Iraqis and Nigeriens in 1999.

The first meeting was the one in February 1999 as Dr Z has pointed out at Daily Kos - and this is the one where Iraq's Wissam Al-Zahawie visited a number of African countries for the sole purpose of inviting them to visit Iraq to try to weaken the U.N. sanctions regime. As I discussed in Part 3A-1, the Zahawie visit never had anything to do with uranium and the IAEA also noted that before the start of the Iraq war.

The second meeting was one that was held in July 1999 - and it was NOT in Niger. Again, as Dr Z has pointed out, this was a visit that was specifically footnoted even in the whitewashed Butler Report, as follows [page 122]:

[The early 1999] visit was separate from the Iraqi-Nigerien discussions, in the margins of the mid-1999 Organization of African Unity meeting in Algiers, attested to by Ambassador Wilson in his book "The Politics of Truth"..."

In other words, even the Butler Report did not consider the July 1999 Iraq-Niger meeting at an African summit to be indicative of an Iraqi attempt to purchase uranium.

Dr Z has additional notes on this second meeting:

The Nigerian PM Mayaki did not meet an Iraqi delegation or a trade mission, but met with the then Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf (known post-2001 as the Iraqi Information minister, a.k.a. "Comical Ali" or "Baghdad Bob").

There was a summit of the Organization of African Unity in Algiers from Jul 12 to Jul 14, 1999. Niger's PM Mayaki was there as Niger was a member, along with 52 other African country-members; the Secretary General of the UN was also attending. This was the 35th Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity.

Iraqi's FM was there as an observer. He did not only meet with the Niger's PM. He also met with the Secretary General in the afternoon of July 13, as well as, for example, with the FM of Egypt on July 10 or 11, as can be seen from this cached page

The meeting did not discuss uranium or trade.

Dates are very important here and so are locations. Did Mayaki say he met with the "Iraqi delegation" in June 1999? Or did he only meet the mysterious "businessman" in June 1999 and the Iraqi delegation at some other time? The Senate Report is not clear on this. UPDATE 10/25/05: However, in an email interview, Ambassador Joseph Wilson clarified to me that Mayaki did not meet an Iraqi delegation in Niger after June 1999, and he only met an Iraqi delegation in Algiers in July 1999 - a meeting that even the British did not consider to have anything to do with uranium.

So, let's recap. Mayaki met an Iraqi delegation in Algiers in July 1999, but there is no evidence of any Iraqi delegation ever having visited Niger in June 1999 or at any other time (later in 1999). Mayaki himself, categorically denied that he ever met an Iraqi delegation in Niger in 1999. As the BBC reported in 2004, shortly after the Senate Report was released (link thanks to Dr Z):

Mr Mayaki denies allegations in the Senate report that he admitted meeting a delegation from Iraq in 1999.

The report says that he expected to discuss uranium with the Iraqi delegation but managed to steer the conversation in another direction.

But Mr Mayaki now says he has no recollection of such a meeting, while he was in government from 1999-2001.

"I think this could be easily verified by the Western intelligence services and by the authorities in Niger," he said.

Clearly, the Senate Report's treatment of this complexity is extremely and unsurprisingly poor. It's not clear if they intentionally left it vague to make things sound more mysterious and suspicious than they really were. But, let's cut to the chase.

Let's assume that, hypothetically, Mayaki even met some secret (after all there's no public record of it) Iraqi delegation in Niger, sometime on or after June 1999 - a trade delegation (to discuss "commercial relations") that never raised the issue of trade or uranium even once. Let's assume that "he made a successful effort to steer the conversation away from a discussion of trade with the Iraqi delegation". To believe this bizarre story one would need to posit all of the following:

  • Iraq somehow spent a lot of money sending a delegation secretly all the way to Niger to make an attempt to purchase uranium or to "trade"
  • Once they arrived in Niger, they mysteriously never brought up the topic of trade or uranium, something they ostensible came all the way to "seek"
  • Mayaki holds a mysterious power over an entire Iraqi delegation, i.e. he is so persuasive, that a secret delegation which was there to discuss trade is quite happy to not discuss any trade and returns secretly back to Iraq
  • The Iraqis, who are daring enough to want to violate U.N. sanctions by trying to secretly approach Niger for a trade/uranium deal, are so afraid to even bring up the word trade or uranium on a trip intended solely to talk about it ("commercial relations")

Does anyone really consider this to be an even remotely plausible scenario? On any planet? (Other than on the pages, of say, the Editorial of the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, National Review Online or on the web pages of their masters, the Republican National Committee?)

Put another way, only in the Orwellian world of George W. Bush and his neocons would a delegation that came all the way at great cost and secrecy to discuss trade/uranium, return back to their home country without even bringing up the matter of "trade" let alone "uranium", simply because their host had the gift of steering conversations to topics (other than "trade") that the delegation never came there to discuss.

This is no reflection on Joseph Wilson since he was only the conveyor of the information, but this story from Mayaki simply does not make any sense at any level (perhaps he misspoke to Wilson and corrected himself 2 years later). It has so many holes that one could pick with 10 minutes of Google and 2 minutes of common sense that I find it implausible that the CIA or DIA took this as validating the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. Hell, if this is all it takes to be a CIA or DIA agent, I think I qualify with more than flying colors (and it's a job I would probably like - researching clues to bring bad guys to justice - except under the Bush neocons).

So, when we see this claim in the Senate Report:

The reports officer...said he judged that the most important fact in the report was that the Nigerien officials admitted that the Iraqi delegation had traveled there in 1999, and that the Nigerien Prime Minister believed the Iraqis were interested in purchasing uranium, because this provided some confirmation of foreign government service reporting. [page 46]

...this claim makes completely no sense whatsoever and had nothing to do with reality. The reality was as follows:

  • No Iraqi delegation ever visited Niger in the June or July 1999 timeframe (or any time after that) - so the claim that a delegation visited Niger at that time to discuss uranium sales was simply wrong
  • An Iraqi delegation did meet a Nigerien delegation in Algiers in July 1999 and this meeting was considered to have nothing to do with uranium by the British (per their Butler Report)
  • The only time an Iraqi delegation traveled to Niger in 1999 was in Feb 1999, when Iraq's Wissam Al-Zahawie visited a number of African countries for the sole purpose of inviting them to visit Iraq to try to weaken the U.N. sanctions regime. As I have discussed earlier, the Zahawie visit never had anything to do with uranium - the IAEA noted that before the start of the Iraq war, the CIA knew this was the case, and the Iraq Survey Group confirmed this.
  • Even if the fantastic fable about an alleged "trade" delegation visiting Niger in June or July 1999 was true, a simple analysis of the story makes it obvious that it is impossibly illogical and clearly not credible.

(c) The statements of other Nigerien officials

The most startling part of the assumption that Wilson's report somehow validated the uranium claim, based on the fantastic Mayaki story, is that if Mayaki - a former Nigerien official himself - is trustworthy, then why was every other Nigerien that Wilson met not trustworthy? Why would one discard the views of the many Nigerien officials, including the other former Minister Mai Manga, who not only admitted an Iranian attempt to purchase uranium from Niger (which explains how Iraq was a greater threat in Bush's world) but stated clearly that there was nothing to the Iraq-Niger claims? That the French had total control of the mines, that the mines were secure, that there had been no attempts by Iraq to purchase uranium, let alone purchases.

In fact, is it not astounding that a series of events, some possibly realistic, some implausible, in which not a single Iraqi is shown to have even uttered the word "uranium" are somehow considered as supportive of the premise that Iraq was seeking significant quantities of uranium from Africa?

Just unbelievable.

[Well, actually, it's not really unbelievable. After all, one would surely make the most counter-intuitive and implausible conclusions in the world when they fit the fake picture that one wants to convey to Americans that Iraq was "seeking significant quantities of uranium from Africa". Some call it Cheney's Razor].

3. Conclusions

As I have shown quite clearly in my discussion above, Joe Wilson's trip made it very clear that there wasn't a shred of evidence to support the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger or to support the even more aggressive claim that Iraq had already signed a deal to purchase vast quantities of uranium. The whitewash Senate report and the GOP can spin his findings till the mythical WMDs are found in Tikrit or north, south, east or west thereof, but it doesn't change the obvious facts. It is therefore not surprising that Mr. Wilson may have interpreted the results of his trip, correctly, as having debunked or supported the debunking of the claim that Iraq was seeking or had bought uranium from Niger (Africa).

It is no surprise that the only agency that got it right more often than the others - INR - felt that Wilson's findings supported its position that that reports of Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium from Africa were "highly suspect". By now, multiple pieces of information had made it clear that these reports were highly dubious and almost certainly without any basis:

  • the fact that the mines in Niger were controlled by a very securely run French consortium
  • the reports to the CIA from the U.S. Ambassador to Niger
  • the fact that the February 1999 visit of an Iraqi envoy to Niger (as part of a broader visit to various African countries) had nothing to do with uranium [which the CIA knew]
  • the fact that the July 1999 meeting between Iraq and Niger at Algiers had nothing to do with uranium [which the British knew]
  • the fact that (mythical) discussions relating to "commercial relations" could have involved oil products (among other things) rather than uranium - and the word "uranium" was never mentioned in this alleged discussion
  • the fact that the narrative about the Nigerien official Mayaki meeting with an Iraqi delegation sometime after June 1999 never occurred
  • the fact that even if the Mayaki-Iraq meeting had occurred, the narrative about Mayaki "steering" discussions away from "trade" ("uranium") defied even threadbare logic and totally lacked any credibility (not to mention that, once again, the Iraqis never raised the topic of "uranium" even if one believed this fable)
  • the fact that there was not a single corroborated report found by Joseph Wilson that any Iraqi had ever uttered the word "uranium" to any Nigerien official (or vice versa) in recent times (i.e., years)
  • the fact that there was not a single corroborated document (in recent years) found by Joseph Wilson, relating to Iraq *and* Niger, that even mentioned uranium (seeking or buying)
  • the complete lack of corroboration of the original Niger uranium reports (which alleged that the Feb 1999 visit of Al-Zahawie had to do with seeking uranium - something that no Nigerien official claimed, and which alleged that a sale had been concluded by Niger with Iraq to sell massive quantities of uranium)
  • the fact that Iraq already had massive tonnages of uranium oxide on their own soil (under IAEA safeguards that could easily be broken if Saddam really wanted to get rid of UN oversight altogether)
  • the assurances of very senior Nigerien officials who were keenly aware of U.N. sanctions against Iraq and how helping Iraq violate it would have financial - and other - consequences for them, especially after 9/11
  • the assurance of a senior Nigerien official who even admitted that Iran had recently sought uranium from Niger, but was certain that Iraq had not (this becomes even more significant since the words of a different Nigerien official -Mayaki - that seemed to support the Iraq uranium claim were being trusted, even though Mayaki's statements did not support that claim at all, as I have discussed)

Thus, the only conclusion that one could have rationally reached after Wilson's visit to Niger was that the case for Iraq having sought uranium from Africa/Niger was far far worse (unless one is a Feith-based neocon).

That's the backdrop against which we will take up the crucial third intel report from the same foreign intelligence service (FIS-A) that sent the U.S. the first two reports. That is where one begins to see what really happened.

P.S. I know I keep referring to the whitewash Senate report. I think the series so far has amply demonstrated why my characterization of the Senate report is more than valid. The rest of the series will only prove it some more. But I should add one more point.

People will claim that "Democrats co-wrote the SSCI report". Well, yes, but a bunch of Democrats voted to go to war too, including the 2004 Vice-Presidential candidate who was an SSCI member. I like Mr. Edwards, but he was wrong on the war and when you're dead set on a certain course, it makes it a lot more difficult to critique your own actions and that of others who helped you in the process. So, the Democrats may not have intentionally whitewashed the report like the Republicans did and do, but they may not have been critical enough of the whitewashing that occurred.

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