Treasongate: Desperately Seeking (or Buying) Uranium
Having just returned from a nice talk by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson at Stanford University - with Dave Johnson of Seeing The Forest (who has a brief write-up on it) - this is perhaps an appropriate time for this post. Wilson has long been trashed for a variety of things and has been called a liar (in fact, a couple of right-wing-kool-aid drinkers were peddling some of the predictable nonsense in the Q&A following Wilson's talk, and Wilson handled it quite well). In my past interview with Mr. Wilson (and in other posts), I made it clear that these criticisms (at least the most prominent ones) are baseless. Unfortunately, Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus have a piece out tonight on Wilson, with a one-sided narrative that highlights Wilson's supposed misstatements without providing the whole facts.
I don't have time to go through a point by point debunking yet again. That's not the objective of this post. But I do want to use this post to bring focus to one point that I have not discussed a whole lot in my series - the issue of Wilson's claims in the context of Saddam Hussein "seeking" v. "purchasing"/"buying" uranium and whether his trip helped debunk one or both claims (the Milbank/Pincus piece, for example, includes the Senate Report spin on the results of his trip). Some readers are also surely aware that Bob Somerby (The Daily Howler) has helped build a small cottage industry around criticizing the media for characterizing Joseph Wilson's debunking as having to do with Saddam Hussein seeking uranium, as opposed to his having bought/purchased uranium, from Niger: here are a couple of his recent posts on this topic. (I see that Kevin Drum has kinda, sorta joined the discussion with this post.) Now, I support critiques of factually inaccurate reporting - so, if the media misreported claims made by individuals, they deserve to be held accountable for it. That said, what are the real facts of the case?
By that, I mean this:
Did Joseph Wilson's trip discredit claims about Saddam seeking uranium or just about Saddam having procured or bought uranium (whether or not Wilson explicitly stated that in his op-ed)?
In asking this question, I want to shift the debate from merely a comparison of specific words used by reporters and by the people they are writing about (e.g., Wilson or Bush) to understanding the facts on the "uranium from Africa" matter and what that says about the words used or not used.
The short answer to my question above is that Wilson's trip did discredit allegations of Saddam seeking uranium and buying uranium from Africa (Niger). Whether or not Wilson actually pointed it out specifically at that time (remember, when he went on his trip and briefed the CIA, the emphasis in the intel reports was that Saddam had purchased uranium, not that he merely sought uranium - as also attested by the wording on the NIE draft several months after Wilson's trip), the facts (not spin, but facts) known by the end of his trip made it very clear that the allegations of Iraq having sought or bought significant quantities of uranium from Africa were not credible at all. This post provides a quick recap of the reasons why.
Let me point out that in making my argument, I am not going to rely on the fact that the CIA admitted that the source for their "sought" and "bought" uranium claims was the same - the intel based on the forged Niger documents (which means that destroying the credibility of one of these possibilities could be argued as discrediting the other). Indeed, the Senate report's glib acceptance of the CIA claim that the documents that they allegedly did not know were fake until March 2003 probably supported only a claim that Saddam sought uranium from Niger, but not that Saddam purchased/bought uranium from Niger - even though those documents include both claims (more prominently the latter) is, as you can imagine, another iceberg tip in the whole uranium from Africa scandal. In this post, I am also going to ignore the fact that the British Government incredulously re-negotiated the interpretation of the exact same intel ("brokered with some difficulty") with their source over a period of days, prior to their publishing their White Paper in September 2002, and changed their claim from "purchased" (bought) to "sought" (ain't that grand!) [as knowledgeable readers know by now, the British claim was also based on intel from the forged Niger documents].
The evidence I cite below is discussed in considerable detail in my post on the intelligence findings from Joseph Wilson's trip - so I refer readers who want to see the detailed proof to that post. Here I am just going to summarize the end results - namely, the facts (not spin, just facts) known at the end of Wilson's trip in the context of allegations that Iraq was seeking or had purchased uranium from Niger.
1. The mines in Niger were controlled by a very securely run French consortium and France had provided solid assurances against the uranium being sold to Iraq.
2. The reports to the CIA from the U.S. Embassy in Niger (in early 2002) indicated that the uranium intel reports were worth exploring further, but that the 4000-ton annual production claimed in the intel exceeded the known capacity of Nigerien mines in 2001, by 1000 tons.
3. The report from General Carlton Fulford (Deputy Commander, European Command) after his meeting with top Nigerien officials indicated that no evidence had been uncovered of any uranium related transactions between Iraq and Niger.
4. The previously known February 1999 visit of an Iraqi envoy (Wissam Al-Zahawi) to Niger - as part of a broader visit to various African countries to invite them to Iraq as a means to fight U.N. sanctions - had nothing to do with uranium (which the CIA knew), except for the allegation introduced by the second piece of Niger intel (based on the forged Niger documents) that this trip had something to with seeking uranium - an allegation that Wilson's trip produced no evidence or support for.
5. An alleged discussion in June 1999 between a former Nigerien PM (Ibrahim Mayaki) and an unknown "businessman" relating to Iraq's alleged interest in "commercial relations" with Niger - which Mayaki apparently interpreted as an overture to discuss "uranium sales". Never mind that the businessman never mentioned the word "uranium", that there was no evidence presented that this businessman was actually talking on behalf of Iraq, and that "commercial relations" could easily have involved Iraq's biggest export - oil products (e.g, see the ISG report).
6. An alleged meeting in Niger between the Nigerien official Mayaki and an Iraqi "trade" delegation, sometime after June 1999, that had never occurred (even Mayaki later denied that this occurred).
7. A meeting did occur between a Nigerien delegation and an Iraqi delegation in July 1999 but not in Niger (as one might assume reading the SSCI Report). Rather it was at the Organization of African Unity meeting in Algiers. This meeting had nothing whatsoever to do with uranium (which the British knew and acknowledged in their Butler Report).
8. Even if the (fictitious) Niger and Iraq-"trade"-delegation meeting had occurred in Niger, the narrative about Mayaki "steering" discussions away from "trade" ("uranium") defied even threadbare logic and totally lacked any credibility. In other words, 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.
9. There was not a single 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).
10. There was not a single document found by Joseph Wilson, relating to Iraq *and* Niger, that even mentioned uranium (seeking or buying).
11. The complete lack of corroboration of the two Niger uranium intel reports that were received by the CIA prior to Joseph Wilson's trip.
Recall that the intel reports alleged that the Feb 1999 visit of Al-Zahawie had to do with seeking uranium - something that no Nigerien official claimed during Wilson's trip and Wilson found no evidence for.
The intel reports also alleged that a sale had been concluded by Niger to sell massive quantities of uranium to Iraq - again, Wilson found no evidence whatsoever for this.
12. 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).
13. U.S. officials in Niger (including Wilson) received repeated assurances from very senior current and former 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
14. The assurance received from another former senior Nigerien official (Mai Manga) that Iran (another "axis-of-evil" member) had recently sought uranium from Niger, but Iraq had most certainly not (this is significant since the words of a different Nigerien official -Mayaki - that seemed to support the Iraq uranium claim were conveniently being trusted by Wilson's critics, even though Mayaki's statements actually did not support that claim at all, as I have discussed above).
To summarize: 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" (or to have mentioned "uranium" in any document) were somehow considered as supportive of the premise that Iraq was recently seeking significant quantities of uranium from Africa?
The bottom line: The most logical conclusion that one should/would have reached after Wilson's visit to Niger was that the case for Iraq having sought or bought uranium from Africa/Niger was essentially untenable based on the existing evidence at that time (unless one is a Feith-based neocon) - and that to make that claim would require leaps of faith unsupported by the facts on the ground. So, to assert (as the Senate Report did) that Wilson's findings supported the Niger uranium claim in the minds of some people was pure, misleading spin.
Message to Wilson's critics including Bob Somerby: While it's OK to spend time parsing words, do take some time away from swallowing spin and cut through the spin in the Senate Report instead to understand the facts.