Friday :: Feb 17, 2006

Uranium from Africa: Why did the CIA completely back off from the uranium claim in 2002? - Part 1

by eriposte

This post is the first part of a series (introduced here) that examines the existing reporting and analysis on the uranium from Africa hoax to try to provide an answer to this question:

Why did the CIA, sometime in 2002, completely back off from the claim that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium from Africa?

This post kicks off the discussion by focusing on the earliest known reporting of CIA knowledge of alleged Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa. In this part and subsequent parts, I will discuss key known events related to the above question that occurred prior to October 2002 and which are mentioned in news reports and documents, and then summarize the findings in a concluding post. (As always, all emphasis in quoted extracts is mine, unless otherwise specified).

Spring*/Summer 2001: First rumors of Iraqi attempt to buy uranium from Africa

The Niger chapter in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) Report on pre-war WMD reporting begins with the following sentence:

Reporting on a possible uranium yellowcake [5] sales agreement between Niger and Iraq first came to the attention of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) on October 15, 2001.

This is an interesting sentence - perhaps it was just carefully worded with the phrase "possible uranium yellowcake sales agreement" and with the explicit mention of Niger. I say that because, according to the former head of the French intelligence agency (DGSE), the CIA had already heard of possible Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium from Africa at least a few months before October 15, 2001.

Let's start with a relevant extract from this article by La Repubblica's Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D'Avanzo, translated into English by de Gondi at European Tribune:

The Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) is the French counter-espionage abroad. Alain Chouet was Vice-Director. Today he is enjoying his retirement in the country but - up to the summer 2002 - he was the man who handled the `Nigergate' on behalf of Paris.
Alain Chouet wants to put in the right sequence dates and protagonists. A substantial correction: the `Nigergate' prologue was staged in the summer 2001, before September 11th, at the hands of the CIA.

Early in the summer 2001, the CIA passed us a piece of information both general and alarming. ‘Iraq’ – Langley warned – ‘is apparently trying to purchase uranium from an African country’. The Americans added that they had been put on the alert by a trip, dating back two years, of the Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See to [several] Central-African nations. As standard procedure, the Americans never reveal the source of their information. Washington did not mention Niger but, in more general terms, Africa. The U.S. knew that not a leaf stirs in the African francophone ex-colonies that the French aren’t aware of, especially in the field of counter-proliferation. For that matter, that information, though general, wasn’t just routine for us. From the Gulf War (1991) onwards, France could not afford to be accused of underestimating Saddam Hussein’s rearmament programs. Therefore, when the Americans moved in the summer 2001, I rolled up my sleeves. I instructed my men to get to work in Africa. In Niger, obviously, but also in Namibia (you will soon understand why). The outcome was entirely negative. At the end of August 2001, the alert died down. After the attack against the Towers, between September 2001 and the spring of the following year, that piece of information about the uranium from Niger was once again an indistinct and irrelevant background noise. Then something happened…”

Tom Hamburger et al. of the Los Angeles Times confirmed this story with a former CIA official:

The previously undisclosed exchanges between the U.S. and the French, described in interviews last week by the retired chief [Alain Chouet] of the French counterintelligence service [DGSE] and a former CIA official, came on separate occasions in 2001 and 2002.
Chouet recalled that his agency was contacted by the CIA in the summer of 2001 — shortly before the attacks of Sept. 11 — as intelligence services in Europe and North America became more concerned about chatter from known terrorist sympathizers. CIA officials asked their French counterparts to check that uranium in Niger and elsewhere was secure. The former CIA official confirmed Chouet's account of this exchange.

So, what we learn here is that the CIA contacted at least one foreign intelligence agency, the French DGSE, no later than "early summer" 2001 (and prior to September 11, 2001) to discuss some reporting they became aware of regarding Iraq allegedly seeking uranium from Africa.

*Soon after I posted this, I was alerted to an article just-published in the Los Angeles Times by Bob Drogin and Tom Hamburger, which provides this additional piece of information:

In the spring of 2001, long before Sept. 11 and the American focus on Iraq, the CIA asked its Paris station about rumors that 200 tons of nuclear material had vanished from two French-owned mines in the West African nation of Niger.

"We heard stories this stuff had gone to Iraq, or to Syria, or Libya, or China or North Korea. We heard all kinds of stories," said a now-retired CIA officer.

But the CIA soon concluded that a French-run consortium maintained strict control over stockpiles of uranium ore in Niger, a former French colony, and that none had been illegally diverted.

"Everything was accounted for," the former spy said. "Case closed."

Niger, an impoverished nation on the western edge of the Sahara desert, is the world's third largest producer of uranium. A French-run consortium, Cogema, controls the only two mines and trucks all the ore south to the distant port of Cotonou in neighboring Benin for export to France, Spain and Japan.

French intelligence agencies monitor the trade closely. Thus French officials were concerned when the CIA first asked in 2001 about rumors that 200 tons of lightly refined uranium ore — known as yellowcake — had disappeared. Alain Chouet, who headed the weapons proliferation and terrorism division in France's DGSE spy service, quickly confirmed that the uranium supplies were secure.

Here are some obvious questions raised by these articles:

1.1 What was the specific reporting that prompted the CIA to send out a request for information to DGSE in "early summer" 2001?

1.2 Who told the CIA in summer 2001, or prior to that, about an alleged Iraqi attempt to seek uranium from Africa (or Niger) and when exactly did they inform the CIA?

1.3 What did the CIA's source (or sources) base their allegation on?

1.4 What does Chouet mean by "early summer"? i.e., what was the specific date, or at least, month, when the CIA's communication with the French occurred in summer 2001?

1.5 Why was the CIA's communication with the DGSE in summer 2001, and the reporting received by the CIA on the alleged Iraq-Africa uranium link prior to that communication, not mentioned in the Senate (SSCI) Report?

I urge all journalists following this story to use their contacts to address the above questions because these reports indicate a yet to be identified source (possibly separate from SISMI) that was suggesting to the CIA prior to Fall 2001 that Iraq was likely seeking uranium from Africa. Was this source someone connected to the Niger forgery cabal? We don't know but it is certainly worth finding out. It is paramount that every source that alleged an Iraq-Niger uranium link be tracked down because we know that the allegation was ultimately based on the Niger forgeries.

eriposte :: 6:14 AM :: Comments (14) :: TrackBack (0) :: Digg It!