Treasongate: Uranium from Africa in a Nutshell
[This post was updated with additional information on 12/25/05 and 1/1/06]
I've spent a considerable amount of time in the preceding months combing through the innards of the U.S. Senate (SSCI) Report [htm, pdf] and British Taylor and Butler reports and other published articles, reports and analyses on the Bush State of the Union claim about Saddam Hussein having sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. I had summarized most of my findings here. What I had not done was to provide an Occam's Razor explanation of the mechanics of the uranium claim in simple terms - namely, how the claim was originally made and why it was retracted (by the CIA) or retained (by the British) once the bogus nature of the forged Niger documents was publicly revealed. I have been meaning to do this for some time now - so here goes. [NOTE: All use of bold/italics/underline in this post is mine, unless otherwise stated].
To understand this explanation, there are a couple of facts that we have to recall up front:
- Bush's SOTU claim was always about Niger, and Niger alone - and not about any other favorite African-country-of-the-day for Joseph Wilson's critics. I have demonstrated this in multiple ways previously (see here, here, here and here).
- Even though they may not have known it at the time of Wilson's trip to Niger, the CIA's Niger intel was based on claims in the forged Niger documents (which surfaced publicly well after Wilson's trip). There are, again, multiple ways to prove this (see here). [One fairly straightforward way to see why this was the case is to note how the CIA reacted to the IAEA's debunking of the forged Niger documents. As the Senate Report points out, the CIA said in response that they learnt "that the Iraq-Niger uranium deal was based on false documents earlier this spring", and then abandoned the uranium from Africa claim completely. They wouldn't have done so if they had independent evidence for the uranium claim from a second set of documents. That said, this is not the only argument providing evidence for the fact that the CIA's Niger intel was based on the forged Niger documents, as I have explained before].
With that starting point, here's what I deduce, based on my analysis (presented previously) of all the evidence.
Once you strip away the obfuscations, misleading statements, and bamboozling in the Senate and British Reports, there are/were essentially two pieces of relevant evidence relating to the uranium from Africa (Niger) claim:
- An allegation that a trip by Iraq's Wissam Al-Zahawi to Niger in 1999 had to do with seeking uranium [or with kicking off an attempt to "recently" seek uranium] (let's call this Allegation A)
- An allegation that Iraq had signed a contract to purchase large quantities of uranium from Niger (Allegation B)
Allegation A (Saddam "sought" uranium) was based on essentially two sources, if you will:
- Source A1: Independent reports of Al-Zahawi's trip (with no credible evidence that it had anything to do with uranium)
- Source A2: Intel reports based on the forged Niger documents, linking Al-Zahawi's trip to an attempt to seek uranium
Allegation B (Saddam "bought" uranium) was based on one source:
- Source B: Intel reports based on the forged Niger documents
The CIA knew no later than sometime in Sep 2002, and likely by early August 2002 (or earlier), that the uranium claim was not credible and that sources A2 and B were therefore not trustworthy. Additionally, when the Niger documents were revealed as forgeries, it meant that Source A2 and Source B got completely discredited. What remained was Source A1. The CIA knew that Source A1 was not credible evidence of Iraq seeking uranium (also see the IAEA rebuttal captured in the Butler Report) - so they completely abandoned the uranium claim. The British must have known this as well, but persisted with Allegation A with no credible evidence (using a deliberately misleading justification in the Butler Report); in other words, they decided to keep making an unproven (false) assertion. Partly, this was to save face because their White Paper had already made the uranium from Africa claim; but it is also quite likely that they stuck by their claim to provide the last bit of support to Bush in the aftermath of Joseph Wilson's op-ed and the Bush administration's retraction of the SOTU uranium claim in July 2003, shortly before the expose of Valerie Plame's CIA identity. [Note that while the position of the CIA's seniormost officials (and CIA's NESA) was fairly unambiguous - namely that the uranium claim was basically junk - some individuals at WINPAC continued to peddle this claim for months afterward. That aspect is discussed in a separate post.]
Now, those who have not carefully studied the reports and other evidence may have arrived at a different conclusion. But my summary reflects the simplest and most logical explanation of the facts. In the following I provide links to some of the evidence supporting the explanation above.
Source A1: Independent reports of Al-Zahawi's trip (with no credible evidence that it had anything to do with uranium)
The fact that there were independent reports about Al-Zahawi's trip becomes obvious if you read the Senate (SSCI) report's description of the second intel report relating to Niger that the CIA received in early 2002 (emphasis mine):
Several analysts interview by Committee staff also pointed out that information in the second intelligence report matched [redacted] reporting from 1999 which showed that an Algerian businessman, Baraka, was arranging a trip for the Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican, Wissam al-Zahawi, to visit Niger and other African countries in early February 1999. [page 38]
Note that the mention of "matched [redacted] reporting from 1999" does not indicate that the [redacted] 1999 reporting showed any evidence of Iraq seeking uranium. The fact that this 1999 trip had nothing to do with uranium was well known and I have discussed this at length in a previous post (more on this in Section III.B below). The CIA was relying on the second intel report to make the connection between this 1999 trip and uranium.
*Let me emphasize that Wissam Al-Zahawie's trip was well known to Western intelligence agencies prior to the SISMI reports to the CIA starting in Fall 2001. Even the Nigeriens communicated information regarding this trip to the Italians. As this Washington Post article by Dana Priest and Karen DeYoung notes:
The apparent genesis of the letters, or at least the U.S. and British willingness to believe in them, was a 1999 tour of African countries, including Niger, by Iraq's ambassador to Italy, noted at the time by a number of Western intelligence agencies. At some later point, a U.N. official recently told reporters, a Niger diplomat turned the letters over to Italian intelligence, which provided summaries of the information to Washington and London.
*Let me also emphasize here that Wissam Al-Zahawie, during his 1999 trip to Africa, visited not just Niger but also Burkina Faso, Benin and Congo-Brazzaville, none of which are/were uranium producers.
Source A2: Intel reports based on the forged Niger documents, linking Zahawi's trip to an attempt to seek uranium
A reading of the SSCI Report's description of the second Niger intel report and an analysis of the forged Niger documents makes it clear that the intel (based on the forged Niger documents) made the first, deliberate (false) link between Al-Zahawi's visit to Niger (among other states) and uranium. As reader Pat Conway speculated:
The second FIS report is the first to implicate Iraqi ambassador Wissam al-Zahawie in the uranium deal. (Robb-Silberman p. 76) Doc 2 also ties Zahawie to the deal, whereas Docs 3, 4 and 5 don’t mention him. I think Doc 2 was forged so the FIS could ‘name-drop’ Zahawie into the second report and clue the CIA to the pre-existing intelligence on Zahawie’s 1999 Niger trip.
Having analyzed the nitty-gritty details of the Senate and British reports, I think Conway's suggestion has considerable merit.
II. Allegation B: Iraq signed a contract to purchase large quantities of uranium from Niger
Source B: Intel reports based on the forged Niger documents
III. Aftermath of unmasking of Niger forgeries
The CIA knew no later than sometime in Sep 2002, and likely by early August 2002 or earlier, that the uranium claim was not credible and that sources A2 and B were therefore not trustworthy. Additionally, once the Niger forgeries were exposed, the CIA could no longer keep up even a feeble pretense of the possibility of Saddam having sought uranium from Niger (Africa).
I have discussed this earlier - here, for example. A little over a month after Bush's SOTU claim, the IAEA exposed the Niger documents as forgeries. What did the CIA have to say then? Here's the Senate Report:
On February 27, 2003, the CIA responded to a letter from Senator Carl Levin, dated January 29, 2003, which asked the CIA to detail "what the U.S. IC knows about Saddam Hussein seeking significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The CIA's response was almost identical to the U.S. Government points passed to the IAEA/INVO in early February, saying "[redacted] of reporting suggest Iraq had attempted to acquire uranium from Niger." The response says the CIA believes the government of Niger's assurances that it did not contract with Iraq but says, "nonetheless, we question, [redacted], whether Baghdad may have been probing Niger for access to yellowcake in the 1999 time frame." The CIA's response made no mention of any concerns about the validity of the documents and left out the sentence, "we cannot confirm these reports and have questions regarding some specific claims," that had been included in the U.S. Government IAEA/INVO points. [page 69]
On June 17, 2003, nearly five months after the President delivered the State of the Union address, the CIA produced a memorandum for the DCI which said, "since learning that the Iraq-Niger uranium deal was based on false documents earlier this spring, we no longer believe that there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad." This memorandum was not distributed outside the CIA and the Committee has not been provided with any intelligence products in which the CIA published its corrected assessment on Iraq's pursuit of uranium from Niger outside of the agency. [page 71]
The CIA reacted to the expose of the Niger forgeries by completely abandoning the uranium from Africa claim.
We learn two things from this.
First, Source A2 and Source B had gotten completely discredited. If the CIA had some independent source that made claims similar to those in the forged Niger documents, there would been no reason for them to abandon the uranium claim just because the forged Niger documents were shown to be bogus. Additionally, the CIA made a specific comment that they learnt "that the Iraq-Niger uranium deal was based on false documents earlier this spring." Both of these acts constituted a direct admission that the basis of their intel on Niger was the forged Niger documents alone.
Second, Source A1 was not considered credible by the CIA. This should not be surprising because Source A1 never specifically linked Al-Zahawi to uranium (as I discussed in Section I above). If it had, the CIA would not have needed the second intel report in Feb 2002 (linking Al-Zahawi to uranium; Source A2) to make this case, and would not have abandoned the uranium from Africa claim altogether when the Niger documents were shown to be bogus.
When the Niger documents were revealed to be bogus, the British abandoned one part of their (Niger uranium) claim. This becomes obvious from a review of the Taylor Report - discussed here.
However, unlike the CIA, the British held on to the unproven assertion about Al-Zahawi's trip having something to do with uranium. This aspect of their claim was buttressed with deliberately misleading and false statements by the British (previously discussed here). For example, one of the many reasons why the British claim was clearly false was the following.
The Butler Report's conclusions state (emphasis mine):
503. From our examination of the intelligence and other material on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa, we have concluded that:
a. It is accepted by all parties that Iraqi officials visited Niger in 1999.
b. The British Government had intelligence from several different sources indicating that this visit was for the purpose of acquiring uranium. Since uranium constitutes almost three-quarters of Niger’s exports, the intelligence was credible.
The last sentence is deliberately misleading. The reference to Niger's exports conveniently excluded Iraq's exports (oil/petroleum products) which could easily have been a justification for Iraq-Niger contacts.
Indeed, the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) which also examined the "uranium from Africa" claim (and found it baseless) said:
Regarding specific allegations of uranium pursuits from Niger, Ja’far claims that after 1998 Iraq had only two contacts with Niamey—neither of which involved uranium. Ja’far acknowledged that Iraq’s Ambassador to the Holy See traveled to Niamey to invite the President of Niger to visit Iraq. He indicated that Baghdad hoped that the Nigerian President would agree to the visit as he had visited Libya despite sanctions being levied on Tripoli. Former Iraqi Ambassador to the Holy See Wissam Zahawie has publicly provided a similar account.
- 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 [eRiposte emphasis]. 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.
- ISG recovered a copy of a crude oil contract dated 26 June 2001 that, although unsigned, appears to support this arrangement.
The point of my reproducing the ISG extract is that warmongers and Wilson-bashers made a habit of claiming that buying uranium would have been Iraq's only commercial interest with Niger, even though it was obvious that the real interest could have been to sell oil products to Niger.
More importantly, as mentioned in the above extract, the possibility of oil exports was not the only reason to doubt the British claim. Iraq had made it clear that the 1999 visit was intended to try and weaken the U.N. sanctions by urging other countries to visit Iraq (see here for example). The fact that Iraq was trying for a long time to break the back of the U.N. sanctions was well known and should not have been a "surprise" to anyone (other than, say, the 101st Fighting Keyboarders). Indeed, the fact that Wissam Al-Zahawie, during his 1999 trip to Africa, visited not just Niger but also Burkina Faso, Benin and Congo-Brazzaville, none of which are uranium producers, should have provided additional evidence for the case that his trip to Africa could easily have been for other reasons. By intentionally ignoring this, the Butler Report demonstrated a deliberate intent to mislead the British public.
That's not all. The British claims about their "sources" and "evidence" for linking the Al-Zahawi visit to uranium had more contradictions and holes than Swiss cheese - as described in detail here and here. Let me highlight some of the key points.
(i) Firstly, the British Government was lying to the public about the source and credibility of the Niger intelligence (the Feb 1999 visit), as manifest in their self-contradictory claims.
- Did the intelligence come from multiple sources? No. As discussed here and here, it came from a single source.
- Did the intelligence come from the British themselves or foreign sources? The British Government made self-contradictory claims on this, and then asserted incredulously that, the sources were foreign and therefore, further information about the alleged evidence could not be shared.
- Did the "foreign sources" share the intel with the IAEA? Tony Blair lied by claiming that they did not, considering the alleged evidence was in fact shared with the IAEA.
- Did the CIA communicate its lack of confidence in the credibility of the intel to the British before the British White Paper was published in September 2002? Yes, even though the British Government tried to mislead the public by suggesting there were no challenges to the credibility of their intel (prior to the IAEA review).
All in all, if the intelligence was clean and credible, there should have been no reason for all these contradictory, deceptive or false claims.
(ii) Secondly, the IAEA had debunked the British claim as well as the supporting intelligence sourced to one or more countries by the British (the same intel that they claimed they could not reveal) - see below.
(iii) Thirdly, the IAEA's comments in 2004 indicated that all the Niger intelligence cited by the British (and their anonymous foreign sources) ultimately relied on the same forged Niger documents, despite the British denials. As British Labor MP Lynn Jones noted in her report:
4.48. ....On 25 May 2004, Mark Gwozdecky, Spokesperson and Director Division of Public Information (MTPI) of the IAEA responded as follows:
I can confirm to you that we have received information from a number of member states regarding the allegation that Iraq sought to acquire uranium from Niger. However, we have learned nothing which would cause us to change the conclusion we reported to the United Nations Security Council on March 7, 2003 with regards to the documents assessed to be forgeries and have not received any information that would appear to be based on anything other than those documents.
In other words, Source A1 provided no credible evidence that Al-Zahawi's trip had anything to do with uranium. That was a mere assertion and required the use of the forged Niger documents to make the link to uranium.
All of this points to one inescapable conclusion.
Like the CIA, the British must have known that Al-Zahawi's visit to Niger had nothing to do with uranium. Yet, they persisted with Allegation A with no credible evidence, partly to save face because their White Paper had already made the claim; it is also highly likely that they stuck by their claim to provide the last vestiges of support to Bush in the aftermath of Joseph Wilson's op-ed and the Bush administration's retraction of Bush's SOTU uranium claim. This latter reason was one that I recently pointed out in comments, to a post by Emptywheel at The Next Hurrah on Tony Blair's visit to the US in mid-July 2003.
IV. APPENDIX: Joseph Wilson's trip and Iraq's "seeking" uranium from Niger
I hope to be able to say more about this in a future post, but some of you may have been left with the misimpression that Joseph Wilson's trip provided evidence for the position that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. This is not the case. I have discussed the reasons why here and here.