Monday :: Feb 20, 2006

Uranium from Africa: The "Secret" History of 2001 - Part 1: "200 tons" of uranium


by eriposte

Last week I started a series (Introduction, Part 1) whose goal is examine 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?" As I started to put together the answers to that question, it became clear to me that there are so many interlinked and important facts yet to be revealed on the matter of the uranium from Africa hoax and the Niger forgeries, that publishing all of that information in sequence may not be the best thing to do. In other words, my original plan was to complete one series and then begin the next (and so on) - but this risks delaying the publication of important information that must come out sooner rather than later (so that there is at least a minuscule possibility of influencing the re-opened FBI investigation of the Niger forgeries and the dormant SSCI Phase II investigation).

So, I am starting a second series in parallel with the one I began last week. The goal of this series, as the title suggests, is to expand on an interesting development that I had briefly mentioned last week: that contrary to the impression left by the SSCI Report that the CIA heard the first uranium allegation linking Niger and Iraq only on October 15, 2001, there are at least two recent news reports providing convincing evidence that the CIA had heard rumors of a uranium transaction involving an African country (likely Niger) and possibly Iraq as early as Spring/Summer 2001. There is very limited information on the Spring/Summer 2001 uranium rumors, but what little information exists is already somewhat revealing and suggests new avenues of investigation for journalists. For now, my posts in this series will raise some questions for further examination. I hope some investigative journalists deem this important enough to follow-up on - and if they do, that will possibly help bring more clarity to how this hoax was engineered and by whom. (As always, emphasis in quoted extracts is mine, unless otherwise specified).

In this part, I briefly discuss the strange story of "200 tons" (of uranium).

This amount was not specifically mentioned in the article by La Repubblica's Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D'Avanzo (translated into English by de Gondi at European Tribune). However, it was mentioned in the recent article in the Los Angeles Times by Bob Drogin and Tom Hamburger:

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.
[Continued below the fold]
"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."

Hardly.
...
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.

Given that most discussions to-date on the alleged Niger-Iraq uranium link refer to the "500 tons" specified in the forged Niger documents, I was intrigued by the mention of a different number - "200 tons" in the rumors of Spring/Summer 2001. I wondered whether this new number might be traceable to some actual transaction that Iraq may have had with Niger in the 1980s - because, after all, the forgers of the Niger dossier used a lot of information from the (late) 1980s to cook up the dossier.

As it turns out, I was right. As the Iraq Survey Group report points out in its "Table 1 - Declared Iraqi International Uranium Purchases", Iraq purchased 200 tons ("199.9") of "yellowcake" from Niger - apparently in early 1981. The ISG report says the relevant "time-frame" was 8 Feb 1981 and 18 March 1981 (was this a reference to a purchase or delivery in two-phases?).

It also turns out that this number was being bandied about by the Bush and Blair administrations after the whole uranium hoax started to come crashing down with Joseph Wilson's op-ed. For example, here is a quote from an article in The Independent (U.K.) in one of Steve's older posts at TLC:

Mr Blair said yesterday the intelligence services were standing by their allegation that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium, despite a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in March dismissing the claims as based on crude forgeries. Questioned on the Niger affair by the Commons Liaison Committee, Mr Blair said the claims were based on multiple sources and did not rely on the forged documents obtained by the IAEA.

He said: "There was an historic link between Niger and Iraq. In the 1980s Iraq purchased somewhere in the region of 200 tons of uranium from Niger. The evidence that we had that the Iraqi government had gone back to try to purchase further amounts of uranium from Niger did not come from these so-called forged documents. They came from separate intelligence."

Stephen Hadley was also talking about this number:
We also knew that he had uranium oxide, about 550 tons, in inventory in the country, and that he had obtained about 200 tons of that, roughly, from Niger. So this is the context in which people see this language and report about seeking quantities of uranium in Africa. It is not an odd fact. It is, in fact, in the context that makes the report very plausible.
Hadley's remark on why the "500 tons" claim (in the Niger forgeries) was considered "plausible" is particularly interesting. For one, it prompts the question as to whether there were any forged documents (or hoaxes from "human intelligence" - HUMINT - sources) circulating in the Spring/Summer 2001 that referred to "200 tons" of Nigerien uranium being part of some recent transaction with Iraq. After all, this would have been a fairly logical starting point for crude forgers because Iraq had previously purchased this exact amount in early 1981. In fact, if any enterprising journalist can get his or her hands on any letters or communications between Niger and Iraq relating to the 1981 purchase (which can be compared to the forgeries), that might prove highly useful to advance the learning on this story.

The "200 tons" claim also begs the question as to whether the "500 tons" claim in the Niger forgeries represented a second revision of the original "200 tons" claim, perhaps after some "feedback" had been received that it looked too suspiciously similar to Iraq's previous 1981 purchase(s). Moreover, as readers may recall, the "500 tons" claim referred to an alleged shipment in "two phases" (250 tons each). Was the "two phases" phrase in the Niger forgeries carried over from the 1981 deal? This would be important to verify.

Additionally, it is also interesting that (as Stephen Hadley - and the NIE for that matter - pointed out), Iraq had 550 tons of uranium under IAEA seal. So, it does raise the question of whether the "500 tons" claim was concocted to make it seem close to - but not exactly the same as - the amount that Iraq had under IAEA seal (which Iraq could not access without the world becoming aware of it).

All in all, the appearance of the "200 tons" claim in the Spring or Summer 2001 period opens up a whole new avenue for investigation. So, let me summarize some preliminary questions raised by this interesting LA Times article by Drogin and Hamburger:

1.1 What were the specific details of the reporting that the CIA received, and from whom, which mentioned the "200 tons" or uranium?

1.2 When exactly did the CIA hear this reporting (date/month)?

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

1.4 Why was this reporting not mentioned in the Senate (SSCI) Report?

1.5 Were there any forged documents (or hoaxes from "human intelligence" - HUMINT - sources) circulating in the Spring/Summer 2001 that referred to "200 tons" of Nigerien uranium being part of some recent transaction with Iraq? (If any enterprising journalist can get his or her hands on any letters or communications between Niger and Iraq relating to the 1981 purchase (which can be compared to the forgeries), that might prove highly useful to advance the learning on this story.)

1.6 Was the "500 tons" claim in the Niger forgeries a second revision of the original "200 tons" claim?

1.7 The "500 tons" claim referred to an alleged shipment in "two phases" (250 tons each). Was the "two phases" phrase in the Niger forgeries carried over from the 1981 deal? This would be important to verify.

1.8 Was the "500 tons" claim concocted to make it seem close to - but not exactly the same as - the amount (550 tons) that Iraq already had under IAEA seal (which Iraq could not access without the world becoming aware of it)?

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