Monday :: Apr 10, 2006

Uranium from Africa and the Niger forgeries: More on the Alleged French Connection, Part 1


by eriposte

[NOTE: I added an update to this post in Sec. 3.1 soon after it was first posted. This post was last updated on 12/25/06 with additional information.]

Late last year, Michael Smith of the London Times - also known for his Downing Street Memos expose - published an article chronicling what was alleged to be evidence offered by the French to the U.K. supporting the uranium from Niger claim. At the time, I published a fairly detailed response showing why some of the claims cited in that article were deeply flawed. This past weekend, Smith published another article (h/t Raw Story), which discusses both the Niger forgeries, as well as an update on the alleged role of the French in being the source of the mysterious evidence cited (and hidden) by the British Government to justify their uranium claim. Smith also has two blog posts on the recent findings. Much of the information in his article and blog posts is old news, and some of it appears to be spin from the Italians. He does offer one piece of potentially useful information, but his inference as to the significance of that information is unfortunately wrong. Smith covers a lot of ground - and single post will not do justice to it. So I'm going to split the response into two parts. The first part (this post) will focus on Smith's observations regarding the "new" (apostrophe mine) French evidence for the uranium claim. The next part will discuss his reporting and comments on the Niger forgeries. [Note that all emphasis in quoted portions is mine.]

1. Summary

2. The "new" French evidence from 2002 on Iraq seeking uranium from Niger in 1999

3. The "credibility" of the "new" French evidence

3.1 IAEA knowledge

3.2 Authenticity of the "letter"

3.3 U.S./CIA knowledge

4. The alleged letter and the issue of "sought" v. "bought" uranium

5. Miscellaneous observations


1. Summary

In an article published late last year, London Times reporter Michael Smith advanced the claim that the "credible" evidence that the British claimed to have for supporting their "Saddam sought uranium" allegation -- evidence that they supposedly never shared with the U.S. -- came from the French. He also reported that the alleged evidence was intel that the French had received in early 1999 and transmitted to the UK at that time. In my response to that article, among other things, I had pointed out that could not have been the case, especially since that was inconsistent with the observations in two British parliamentary reports, which stated or implied that the new intel was obtained in 2002. Smith's latest article now says the French intel was obtained and sent to the British in 2002, without stating that the claims in the previous article were incorrect.

In Smith's latest article published over the weekend (and his related blog posts), the intel that is now claimed to be the basis of the British uranium claim is "a letter from Wissam Zahawi, the Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican, dated July 6, 2000, specifically talking about obtaining uranium." Smith states that this letter is considered "credible" by the British and French intelligence services, that this is separate from the contents of the forged Niger dossier, and that this letter has not been shared previously with either the IAEA or the U.S. Government (CIA).

In this post (the first of two parts), I point out that contrary to all these claims in Smith's article and blog posts, based on the information from past articles and public statements from the IAEA to-date, the alleged "letter" from Wissam al-Zahawie dated July 6, 2000 was (is):

  • A forgery
  • One of the documents that was reviewed by the IAEA and dismissed as fake
  • Handed over to the IAEA by the U.S. Government as part of the package of forged Niger documents [this last inference may change if the IAEA issues a public statement saying otherwise]

[NOTE added on 4/16/06: The two phrases italicized above were added today to qualify the basis of my inferences. The conditionality associated with these qualifiers are discussed in the body of this post.]

Further, the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium "accord" was dated July 6, 2000 (in three of the forged Niger documents - TLC NIGER DOC 3, 4, 5). So, as De Gondi at European Tribune noted in an email, if Wissam al-Zahawie actually wrote a (fake - clarification added on 4/16/06) letter dated the same day that the (fake) accord was signed, is it not reasonable to expect that that letter would at least mention the "accord" that was signed on that same day? This is important to check because if the "accord" was mentioned in this fake letter, that would certainly mean the letter was discussing an actual, completed uranium sale, not just an attempt to seek uranium from Niger.

I also point out that this may be an opportune time for Smith and other media outlets to look into two of the many issues I have raised in this blog previously:
(a) Was the uranium "accord" itself ever part of the forged Niger dossier or was it forged separately by SISMI to bolster the cooked up uranium claims from the forgeries that they were feedling to the CIA (among others)?
(b) How did the U.S. Government get a copy of the "Wissam al-Zahawie/uranium/July 6, 2000" forgery considering that they did not receive this from Elisabetta Burba? [this inference may change if the IAEA issues a public statement saying they did not receive this document from the U.S. Government]

Smith seems to be trying to be fair in his reporting, but he reveals, on his blog, his pre-conceived notion that Bush's "16 words" were accurate (and that everything else Bush and Blair claimed was inaccurate). As such, his reporting therefore appears to be susceptible to spin or misleading information from his sources aimed at justifying the "16 words". For a person with Smith's talents and connections, I just wish he would stop simply believing the result beforehand ("16 words" was justifiable) and focus his reporting on questioning if that result was really justifiable.


2. The "new" French evidence from 2002 on Iraq seeking uranium from Niger in 1999

Before we discuss the latest evidence reported by Smith, it is useful to review something from his previous article.

In his article last year, Smith claimed that the "credible" evidence that the British had, which they supposedly never shared with the U.S., came from the French. He also reported that the alleged evidence was intel that the French had received in early 1999 and transmitted to the UK at that time. In my response to that article, I had pointed out that could not have been the case, especially since that was inconsistent with the observations in two British parliamentary reports, which stated or implied that the new intel was obtained in 2002. Here is what I said then:

6.1 CLAIM: Information from the French (DGSE) linking the 1999 Al-Zahawi visit to uranium came to the British in 1999 and this was the basis of their Saddam/uranium claim

This is false, because this was contradicted by the British themselves in their own Parliamentary Reports based on sworn testimony. The British said, in the Taylor Parliamentary Report, that the intel for the uranium claim in their Sep 2002 dossier:

...came from two independent sources, one of which was based on documentary evidence. One had reported in June 2002 and the other in September [2002] that the Iraqis had expressed interest in purchasing, as it had done before, uranium from Niger. GCHQ also had some sigint concerning a visit by an Iraqi official to Niger. [emphasis mine]

It is possible that the signals intelligence (sigint) that GCHQ was referring to was the DGSE report in 1999, but the sigint evidently only mentioned the Al-Zahawi trip - not that the trip had to do with uranium. This is consistent with what the CIA's February 2002 intel report mentioned - namely, that there was evidence from 1999 that Al-Zahawi had made a trip to Niger that year. However, the Taylor Report made it abundantly clear that the actual evidence for Saddam Hussein seeking uranium from Africa (Niger) came from reports in June 2002 and September 2002. So, even if there was alleged evidence prior to these dates about an Al-Zahawi/uranium link (e.g., see Butler Report page 122, sec. 493), we can conclude from the Taylor Report that the British did not consider such evidence to be credible enough to support their claim.

There's another aspect to the British claim based on what the Butler Report said (emphasis mine):

495. During 2002, the UK received further intelligence from additional sources which identified the purpose of the visit to Niger as having been to negotiate the purchase of uranium ore, though there was disagreement as to whether a sale had been agreed and uranium shipped. [page 122]

A reasonable interpretation of the term "additional sources" is that any sources reporting prior to 2002 were different from these "additional sources". So, if the British received the uranium intel from the French (DGSE) prior to 2002, then it was not considered credible by them (as inferred from the Taylor Report). On the other hand if the British received the French intel in 2002, then the claim that the DGSE report received in 1999 was the basis of their uranium claim is false.

[NOTE: The Butler Report's statement above masks the deliberate bamboozling by the British Government on the issue of whether Saddam had allegedly attempted to purchase uranium ("sought") or had actually completed a sale with Niger ("bought"). This is a very significant matter that undercut their entire claim, as I've discussed in a previous post.]

At the time, I sent my post to Smith but he did not respond to it. However, it appears that his latest article is clearly written in a manner that accounts for the serious flaw/inconsistency I pointed out - his latest source(s) has(have) provided a new narrative wherein the "additional" evidence obtained by the French is now claimed to have been obtained in 2002, not 1999:

Some time in 2002, however, [the French] obtained another apparently incriminating document, the source said. This was a letter purporting to be from al-Zahawie relating to a visit to Niger in 1999 to discuss the possible supply of uranium. This did not constitute evidence that Niger had agreed to supply yellowcake but it did indicate Saddam was trying to obtain it.

The letter, deemed “credible” by the Butler inquiry into Iraq intelligence, appears to be the evidence that led to Bush’s claim in January 2003 that the British had “learnt that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”.

The French passed copies to MI6 with caveats to protect their source. The British could tell the CIA Iraq had tried to obtain yellowcake from Niger but not about the actual letter.

Let me re-emphasize that this story is a significant change from what Smith reported in his article late last year. In summary, his previous article indicated that the intel from the French about Zahawie's trip was obtained in 1999 - and I shot that down in my post and said that the alleged intel, if it really existed, must have been obtained in 2002. Smith's latest article says the intel was obtained in 2002, without stating that the claims in the previous article were incorrect. Interesting.

The question, obviously, is - what is this "new" intel specifically?

Smith's article says it was a letter from Wissam Al-Zahawie allegedly relating to a 1999 trip to Niger "to discuss...uranium". His article doesn't say when this letter was written, but I immediately guessed that he is likely referring to the infamous letter allegedly written by Wissam Al-Zahawie dated 6 July 2000 - something I have referred to previously as the "Wissam al-Zahawie/uranium/July 6, 2000" forgery (see this follow-up post as well).

As it turns out my guess was right. Smith, in his blog, mentions this explicitly:

The intelligence [the DGSE] continue to defend, and which was described by the Butler report as “credible”, was a letter from Wissam Zahawi, the Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican, dated July 6, 2000, specifically talking about obtaining uranium.


3. The "credibility" of the "new" French evidence

Smith says:

Some time in 2002, however, [the French] obtained another apparently incriminating document, the source said. This was a letter purporting to be from al-Zahawie relating to a visit to Niger in 1999 to discuss the possible supply of uranium. This did not constitute evidence that Niger had agreed to supply yellowcake but it did indicate Saddam was trying to obtain it.

The letter, deemed “credible” by the Butler inquiry into Iraq intelligence, appears to be the evidence that led to Bush’s claim in January 2003 that the British had “learnt that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”.

According to Smith (his blog post) this occurred sometime between March and September 2002:

But by the time the president made his State of the Union address on January 28, 2003, there was a much more substantial link in the chain. We know from the Butler Inquiry that the French told MI6 about the Zahawi letter sometime in 2002 but we can actually pin that down a bit more. It was clearly not available for a report from the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee published in March 2002 but had arrived in time to feature in the now infamous British dossier Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction published in September 2002.

In evaluating the claim advanced in Smith's article, that the Zahawie letter was considered "credible", let's review this claim from the following standpoints.

3.1 IAEA knowledge

3.2 Authenticity of the "letter"

3.3 U.S./CIA knowledge


3.1 IAEA knowledge

Let's recall that the British Government claimed that the mysterious evidence they used to bolster their "Saddam sought uranium" claim was not shared with the IAEA. For example, here is what Tony Blair said:

We have, of course, encouraged all states that have relevant information to pass it to the IAEA in accordance with the provisions of Article 10 of UN Security Council Resolution 1441, and it is disappointing that there remains evidence that has not been made available to them.

Of course, I pointed out last year (using the well-chronicled observations of British Labor MP Lynne Jones) that Blair's claim was false. Among other reasons, his claim was contradicted by the U.K.'s Jack Straw. How interesting it is then that the new "evidence" that Smith claims was considered "credible" by the Butler Report, was very much shared with the IAEA.

I've discussed this before and let me reproduce the relevant section here:

Let me start by quoting [Europena Tribune's] de Gondi's summary:

In an article that appeared in the Independent on August 10th, 2003, Raymond Whitaker interviewed the Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See, Wissam al-Zahawie who had been turned into a key figure in the forgeries, much to his surprise (bold mine):

The inspectors asked in detail what he knew of any contacts between Iraq and Niger and the visits exchanged between officials from both countries. "Then they asked me about the purposes and the details of my own visit and the meeting with the President. They even asked whether he gave me any presents. I said yes: he told me he would like to give me a camel's saddle -- a howdah....

The inspectors finally came around to the subject of documents, said Mr Zahawie, "and asked in particular whether I had signed a letter on 6 July 2000 to Niger concerning uranium. I said absolutely not, and if they had seen such a letter it must surely be a forgery.

"The questioning continued for more than an hour. They even asked about other officials working in the Iraq missions in Rome, and who kept the embassy seal. I explained that I myself kept the seal under lock and that it was used only to stamp official notes with no signature. Notes were only initialed, not signed, while letters were signed but not stamped with the seal. They did not seem to know of this standard procedure observed in all diplomatic correspondence. There was obviously something wrong with the document in their possession if it carried both the seal and a signature."

The retired ambassador was never allowed to see what documents the inspectors had, but learned the next day that the director of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, was deeply disappointed with the results of the interview: "The feeling was that I knew more than I was willing to reveal." He immediately asked for another meeting with the inspectors, at which he rejected suggestions that he was being unhelpful and demanded that they produce the document they held. They refused; he said he could sue them for libel.

"The inspectors told their Iraqi liaison officer that my denials would be better substantiated if they could obtain an original facsimile of my signature. I sent them, the next day, copies of letters that I had written when I was still in Rome. Those letters must have convinced the IAEA team at long last that the document they had was indeed a forgery."

It has since been suggested that after Mr Zahawie left the Vatican in August 2000, someone might have used his official seal in a forgery. Asked about this, he told The Independent on Sunday: "There were no Iraqi diplomats remaining in Rome after I left, so I gave the seal to the accountant of the Sudanese embassy, where the Iraqi interests section was housed, because he had a safe and could lock it up."

Reader FMJ contemporaneously found this in Time magazine:

...al-Zahawie was summoned back to Baghdad for what he had expected would be a request to help Iraq's Foreign Service plan for deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz's planned visit to the Vatican. Instead, upon landing in Baghdad, al-Zahawie was taken to meet with UN weapons inspectors. Five inspectors interviewed him in a 90-minute session, he says.
...
Italy had handed over cables from al-Zahawie to the Niger government announcing the trip, and other documents had pointed to his presence in Niger. But the inspectors were particularly interested in a July 6, 2000, document bearing al-Zahawie's signature, concerning a proposed uranium transaction. The inspectors refused to show him the letter, he says, but al-Zahawie was sure he had never written it.

"If they had such a letter, it had to have been a forgery," he says.

The tell-tale signs of the forgery were quite obvious, he stresses. Diplomatic procedure typically called for official notes between Iraq and other governments to feature a government seal, but they are typically unsigned; correspondence between an ambassador and other dignitaries would be signed but would have no seal. The letter in question had both, the inspectors admitted.

So, what we have here is a document that mentioned a uranium transaction between Niger and Iraq dated July 6, 2000 that Wissam al-Zahawie confirmed to be a forgery.

UPDATE 1: As I was starting to work on Part 2 of this post and went back to Smith's blog posts, I happened to see this note by Smith posted in the comment section of one of his blog posts:

So do I. But I dont have high hopes of getting one! The IAEA had a copy which they will not pass on to anyone because the French who provided it told them not to. MI6 had a copy which they were famously not allowed to pass on to the CIA so they are hardly likely to let us see it. The French of course also had a copy but since they are the ones stopping MI6 and the IAEA from passing it on we're hardly likely to see it. We also know that the IAEA believed it to be genuine and that it was not part of the forged Martino documents because these were not passed to the IAEA until 4 February 2003 whereas the IAEA interviewed Iraqi officials about the Zahawi letter on 20 January 2003, and did not believe their denials. This was revealed by one of those Iraqi officials, Jafar Dhia Jafar, in his book The Assignment.

We also know that the Butler Inquiry deemed it to be credible and confirmed it had nothing to do with the faked documents.

What it says precisely we do not know. But we do have a fair idea of what it says in general terms. We know for instance that it doesnt say that there was a contract between Iraq and Niger, because we can be pretty sure that if it did we would be told that, and we know that it indicates in some way that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium from Niger, not just because that was the interpretation put on it by the DGSE and MI6. It was also clearly the interpretation put on it by the IAEA when they refused to believe Jafar's denials.

Well, these are interesting additional bits of information that I did not notice the first time around. Let's analyze these points.

Smith says:

The IAEA had a copy which they will not pass on to anyone because the French who provided it told them not to...IAEA believed it to be genuine and that it was not part of the forged Martino documents because these were not passed to the IAEA until 4 February 2003 whereas the IAEA interviewed Iraqi officials about the Zahawi letter on 20 January 2003, and did not believe their denials.

This doesn't make sense. The articles from The Independent and Time (above) make it quite clear that this document was a forgery. Further, the IAEA interviewed Wissam Al-Zahawi on or after 10 February 2003, not before 4 February 2003. The Aug 2003 article in The Independent makes this clear:

"On 10 February, I received an urgent call from the Iraqi embassy in Amman, informing me that the Foreign Ministry wanted me back in Baghdad as soon as possible," he said. "I assumed it was connected with the impending visit by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to the Vatican, where he met Pope John Paul — after I left Rome in 2000, I was not replaced. This impression was reinforced when I found Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, whom I knew from my time at the Vatican, on the flight to Baghdad."

Cardinal Etchegaray was acting as the Pope's personal emissary in a vain attempt to persuade Saddam Hussein "to co-operate with the UN on the basis of peace and international law".

But when Mr Zahawie arrived, he discovered it was the UN weapons inspectors who wanted to see him. "They were from the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] — three men and two women. Only two of the men spoke, one was British, the other Canadian; the others did not utter a word. It turned out to be, in fact, more of an interrogation than an 'interview'. No other Iraqi official was present, but I insisted on having the conversation recorded on my own personal cassette recorder."

So, this Wissam Al-Zahawi interview - when the "letter" was discussed - occurred well before the inspectors made their judgement that the documents they got from the U.S. were forged. In fact, as British Labor MP Lynne Jones pointed out:

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.

This is clearly in direct contradiction to what Smith is claiming - that somehow the IAEA believes this fake letter is real and separate from the forged Niger documents.

(P.S. Note that the Time magazine article claims that Wissam Al-Zahawie was summoned to Baghdad in January 2003 - however they do not quote Zahawie on that, unlike the article in the Independent which specifically quotes Zahawie saying he was called on 10 February 2003. Moreover, the fact that this letter is a forgery is clearly not in doubt - as the above passages make clear - including the statement from the IAEA spokesperson who specifically attributed everything they received to be part of (or based on) the forged documents. Note added on 4/16/06: I guess Smith is implying that other Iraqi officials than Zahawi were interviewed about this letter prior to Feb 4, 2003. As I discuss later in this post, there are enough inconsistencies and ambiguities in Smith's narrative that I am not yet convinced by this assertion, but I am open to considering this possibility. That would not however change my inference that the letter itself was a forgery and that it was part of what the IAEA considered when they declared all the uranium "evidence" to be related to or part of the forged Niger dossier. Additionally, it is entirely possible that even if this Zahawi letter was not provided to the IAEA by the U.S., but rather by the French - which would require the IAEA to issue a clarifying statement - the letter could still have been part of the Martino dossier. After all, there is no evidence to-date that the U.S. received every document in the dossier; for example, Burba herself only had 17 pages (or 18) at the time she passed them on the US and she subsequently received additional pages from Martino).

Smith also claims:

We know for instance that [the letter] doesnt say that there was a contract between Iraq and Niger, because we can be pretty sure that if it did we would be told that.

Really? Is Smith really that gullible that he thinks the British Government - which specifically and dubiously altered its white paper drafts to change references that said Saddam purchased uranium to say that he sought uranium (using the exact same "evidence" - also see Dennis Hans on this who may have been the first to catch this travesty) is somehow ethical enough to alert him if this letter mentions a uranium sale? It is incredibly disappointing to see a good reporter fall for such spin. As I explain in Sec. 4, it would indeed be very odd if this (fake) letter does not mention the uranium deal considering it is dated 6 July 2000 - which is the same as that of the fake uranium deal.

[In the meantime, via Josh Marshall, I see that Christopher Hitchens continues to peddle garbage that has been debunked ad infinitum - relating to the reason for Wissam Al-Zahawie's 1999 trip to Niger. He also insults Joseph Wilson in the process by claiming that: "In order to take the Joseph Wilson view of this Baathist ambassadorial initiative, you have to be able to believe that Saddam Hussein's long-term main man on nuclear issues was in Niger to talk about something other than the obvious." Hitchens is of course the proverbial faker, conveniently ignoring that this view "of this Baathist ambassadorial initiative" was actually held by the U.S. Government's Iraq Survey Group and the IAEA. Of course, by some strange powers of observation, Hitchens read Michael Smith's article and concluded it was describing a forgery - quite the opposite of what Smith is trying to say. How people like Hitchens get paid for writing their nonsense is beyond me.

UPDATE 3 on 12/25/06: The Phase II SSCI report on WMDs also confirms the purpose of al-Zahawie's visit unequivocally:

Iraq had two contacts with Niger after 1998, but neither involved the purchase of uranium. The purpose of a visit to Niger by the Iraqi Ambassador to the Vatican, Wissam al-Zahawie, was to invite the president of Niger to visit Iraq. The other visit involved discussions of a Nigerien oil purchase from Iraq.

The Robb-Silberman Commission report observed that:

With respect to the reports that Iraq sought uranium from Niger, ISG interviews with Ja'far Diya Ja'far, the head of Iraq's pre-1991 enrichment programs, indicated that Iraq had only two contacts with the Nigerien government after 1998--neither of which was related to uranium. [114] One such contact was a visit to Niger by the Iraqi Ambassador to the Vatican Wissam Zahawie, the purpose of which Ja'far said was to invite the Nigerien President to visit Iraq (a story told publicly by Zahawie). [115] The second contact was a visit to Iraq by a Nigerien minister to discuss Nigerien purchases of oil from Iraq--with no mention of "any kind of payment, quid pro quo, or offer to provide Iraq with uranium ore, other than cash in exchange for petroleum." [116] The use of the last method of payment is supported by a crude oil contract, dated June 26, 2001, recovered by the ISG. [117]

The ISG found only one offer of uranium to Baghdad since 1991--an offer that Iraq appears to have turned down. [118] The ISG found a document in the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service that reveals that a Ugandan businessman had approached the Iraqi Embassy in Nairobi with an offer to sell uranium, reportedly from the Congo. The Iraqi Embassy in Nairobi, reporting back to Baghdad on the matter on May 20, 2001, indicated that the Embassy told the Ugandan that Iraq did not deal with "these materials" because of the sanctions. [119]

]

UPDATE 2 on 4/16/06: I see that Smith has posted additional comments in response to another commenter's questions. These comments don't change my observations here about the letter being a forgery, but Smith's strong assertions do raise the question of whether the IAEA received one or more forgeries from a source other than the U.S., despite what the IAEA told Rep. Henry Waxman in 2003. Here is the relevant extract from the comment thread of Smith's blog post - the portion "Mick says" is Smith's response to the commenter's question (emphasis mine, as always):

2) The IAEA says they have not received any documents on this matter except from the Americans -- not from the French, not from the British.

[Mick says: When did they say this? Even in March 2003 when they dismissed the documents which actually "pointed to an agreement between Niger and Iraq for the sale of uranium between 1999 and 2001" as not authentic they said they had received a number of such documents "provided by a number of states".

The Americans gave the IAEA the faked documents passed to the US via Martino-Burba on February 4. The IAEA was discussing documents "provided to the IAEA by a certain country on condition they would never be shown to Iraq" with Jafar Dhia Jafar, the chief Iraqi negotiator, on January 20, 2003.]

3) The forgeries the IAEA received from the Americans would have necessitated an interview with Zawahie, not just the letter. It was always well known that there was a real Zawahie trip to Niger in 1999, so the fact that there's a mix of "real" cables mixed in with crude forgeries is not new.

[Mick says: There was an interview with Zahawie, which he has spoken about widely. It took place over two days on February 12 and 13, 2003. He told the IAEA that whatever document they had it must be a forgery. Zahawie admitted that the inspectors didnt believe him. "The feeling was that I knew more than I was willing to reveal," he said. He later claimed that the document concerned had been one of those deemed not authentic by the inspectors. The Zahawi letter was not one of the batch of Martino documents. Nor was it one of those that "point to an agreement". It only showed that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. So it cannot have been one of the documents dismissed by the IAEA, which would have surely said documents suggesting Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger rather than pointing to an actual agreement. The IAEA isn't in the business of getting the specifics of what it says wrong in this area. I suspect that there was a deal between the French and the IAEA that Jacques Baute, the French head of the IAEA's Iraq Nuclear Verification Office would be the only one allowed to see the document in the French offices in the UN. It was Baute who quized Jafar on the Zahawi issue. It is of course possible that he didnt get to take a copy of the actual document away, just read it in the French offices in the UN and took notes of what it said. We know there was a very tight security issue with this particular document which meant it could not be passed to the CIA.]

Smith seems very sure that the IAEA did indeed get this Zahawi forgery (which he considers authentic) from the French Government prior to February 4, 2003. However, there are some inconsistencies in his narrative that make me wonder how credible this information is. For example:

(a) Earlier in the comment thread he said:

The IAEA had a copy which they will not pass on to anyone because the French who provided it told them not to.

Farther down in the comment thread he contradicts this by saying:

I suspect that there was a deal between the French and the IAEA that Jacques Baute, the French head of the IAEA's Iraq Nuclear Verification Office would be the only one allowed to see the document in the French offices in the UN. It was Baute who quized Jafar on the Zahawi issue. It is of course possible that he didnt get to take a copy of the actual document away, just read it in the French offices in the UN and took notes of what it said.

This contradiction is of concern to me, especially considering that the IAEA requested Zahawi to provide samples of his signature (see the quote from the article near the beginning of Sec. 3.1). The IAEA would not have done that unless they had a copy of the alleged Zahawi letter for comparison. In other words, the past evidence indicates the IAEA very much had a copy. Yet, Smith's comments suggest he is not sure - which raises the question of whether the IAEA actually confirmed the other claims he is making in his article and blog posts.

(b) Smith also says:

The Zahawi letter was not one of the batch of Martino documents. Nor was it one of those that "point to an agreement". It only showed that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. So it cannot have been one of the documents dismissed by the IAEA, which would have surely said documents suggesting Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger rather than pointing to an actual agreement.

This is contradictory to his earlier statement in the same comment thread that:

We know for instance that it doesnt say that there was a contract between Iraq and Niger, because we can be pretty sure that if it did we would be told that, and we know that it indicates in some way that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium from Niger, not just because that was the interpretation put on it by the DGSE and MI6. It was also clearly the interpretation put on it by the IAEA when they refused to believe Jafar's denials.

In other words, in his earlier statement he gives the impression that the alleged Zahawi letter did not contain any mention of a uranium sale accord because we "would be told that" if it did (which, as I've discussed above is an incredulous thing for Smith to believe). In his subsequent comment he seems quite confident that it mentions no uranium accord, without any qualifications or reasons why he feels that confident.

(c) There's another problem. Smith says (above) that because this document allegedly only mentions a possible seeking of uranium and not an actual uranium sale, the IAEA's response in March 2003 could not have addressed this document. This is incorrect on several fronts.

First of all, the IAEA asked the U.S. Government for proof of their Dec 2002 uranium claim which also mentioned an attempt to purchase uranium. Here's the U.S. Government claim that triggered the IAEA request:

The Declaration ignores efforts to procure uranium from Niger. Why is the Iraqi regime hiding their uranium procurement?

In other words, the original statement from the U.S. Government suggested both an attempt to purchase uranium as well as an actual procurement. Moreover, subsequent to this Dec 2002 statement, the U.S. Government interestingly changed tack and only talked about attempts to buy uranium. The various claims by senior US officials prior to the Bush 2003 SOTU - and therefore before the IAEA received copies of the forgeries from the U.S. - have been chronicled by several people, e.g., Paul Kerr at the Arms Control Association, Dennis Hans at Common Dreams and Media Matters. Here are some specific quotes.

Condi Rice said this in a NYT op-ed on Jan 23, 2003:

For example, the declaration fails to account for or explain Iraq's efforts to get uranium from abroad.

A publicly released White House report on Jan 23, 2003 said:

The Declaration ignores efforts to procure uranium from abroad.

Paul Wolfowitz's speech on Jan 23, 2003 had this claim:

There is no mention [in the Iraqi declaration] of Iraqi efforts to procure uranium from abroad.

Colin Powell said this in a speech at Davos on Jan 26, 2003:

Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium and the special equipment needed to transform it into material for nuclear weapons?

Then came Bush's SOTU speech which only mentioned, again, an attempt to seek uranium. This makes it obvious that the evidence submitted by the U.S. Government very clearly covered the "seeking" uranium claim. So, there is no reason to assume that the IAEA would only have received documents about a uranium deal, as opposed to also receiving documents relating to the allegation that uranium was just being sought. (In fact, one wonders why, just like in the case of the British, that the US uranium allegation was mysteriously transformed from that relating to a deal to that relating to Iraq only seeking uranium - but that's a discussion for another day).

In any case, all of this makes it very obvious the IAEA must have focused both on attempts to seek uranium as well as a possible uranium deal. In fact, as I mentioned earlier on this page, the IAEA confirmed that officially. As British Labor MP Lynne Jones pointed out:

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.

So, Smith's speculations on this matter are quite inconsistent with the known facts.

(d) Smith also says categorically:

The Zahawi letter was not one of the batch of Martino documents.

How could he know this? Has he seen every document produced by the Niger forgery cabal? Only 18 pages have been made public out of the known 22 pages that Elisabetta Burba received. Has he seen the other 4? Could there have been other documents in the Martino dossier that were not supplied to Burba but provided to others? Without knowing all of this, Smith really has no way to make this conclusion.

All in all, it's not clear how much of Smith's reporting is based on informed speculation and how much is based on actual knowledge of events. I am willing to acknowledge the possibility that the Zahawi document was in the hands of the IAEA prior to Feb 4, 2003, but this needs to be proven (with an IAEA statement). Smith's article and posts are not convincing in this regard especially given the numerous pieces of conflicting information he has provided and the key facts that he has missed. Moreover, even if Smith is correct about the IAEA getting this from the French, it doesn't change the fact that the IAEA obviously considered this a forgery (unless they issue a new statement now!). The IAEA's Mark Gwozdecky's statement above establishes that all the "information" they received from multiple countries did not change their view that all the alleged evidence for Saddam Hussein having sought uranium from Africa was ultimately based on the Niger forgeries.


3.2 Authenticity of the "letter"

If you read through Sec. 3.1, the following point would have been self-evident. Let me try to make the point politely. There is simply no way on earth that DGSE or the British/Butler Report could continue to "defend" this particular letter as "credible", especially after the IAEA specifically effectively confirmed that this letter was a forgery.

You don't have to simply take Wissam al-Zahawi's word for it. After all, in early March 2003, the IAEA declared that all documents they received that purportedly related to the allegation of Iraq seeking uranium from Africa, including this July 6, 2000 "letter", were forged/fake. So, for Smith to report this as having been "credible" evidence that DGSE and the British still stand by is unfortunate, to say the least. If Smith is merely reporting the fact that DGSE and the British stand by this, then it is quite clear that the people in those organizations who are "standing by" this evidence are fundamentally dishonest.

There's more.


3.3 U.S./CIA knowledge

Smith's article also suggests a couple of other things - one, that this "evidence" ("Wissam al-Zahawie/uranium/July 6, 2000" forgery) was not passed on the U.S., and two, that it was in the view of his source(s), something the French obtained that was independent of the forged Niger dossier (he makes the latter claim in his blog post). For example, the article says:

Some time in 2002, however, [the French] obtained another apparently incriminating document, the source said. This was a letter purporting to be from al-Zahawie relating to a visit to Niger in 1999 to discuss the possible supply of uranium. This did not constitute evidence that Niger had agreed to supply yellowcake but it did indicate Saddam was trying to obtain it.
...
The French passed copies to MI6 with caveats to protect their source. The British could tell the CIA Iraq had tried to obtain yellowcake from Niger but not about the actual letter.

After that Smith says:

In the autumn of 2002, Martino passed the documents allegedly faked by Zakariaou and Montini to an Italian journalist. She then took them to the American embassy and they were passed on to Washington.

After the IAEA had dismissed the forged documents, the Americans disowned all the Iraq-Niger uranium claims. But the latest allegations are unlikely to end the row.

However, as I discussed earlier in this post, from what we know today this "letter" was part of the package of forged Niger documents that the IAEA received. So, it is most certainly NOT the case that this was somehow a separate "credible" document that was not present in the Niger forgeries, unless credible information emerges directly from the IAEA indicating that to be the case. [Portions in italics are clarifications added on 4/16/06].

What's worse, Smith's article also says this document was never passed on to the CIA. That is a rather odd statement considering that the IAEA got this document from the United States as part of the package of forged Niger documents - as I pointed out before and as I've discussed below. [UPDATE added on 4/16/06: Again, I want to add a clarification here that my statements are based on what the IAEA has publicly communicated to date, as discussed earlier in this post and in the portions below. If the IAEA changes their statements, then I will change my inferences accordingly].

Here's Smith in his blog post:

The only problem was that although the MI6 reports on Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium from Niger were much harder, they had provided the CIA with no evidence. They couldn’t. The French had provided them with a copy of the letter but were insistent that it could not be supplied to the Americans. The DGSE knew that if they passed a copy of the document to the CIA, Bush and Cheney would see it and want to publish its existence in order to justify the war, putting the French agent who provided the letter at risk. Lacking the evidence seen by the French and the British, most US intelligence experts still doubted the reports of Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium from Niger. The fallout from the President’s State of the Union address was to completely entrench their suspicions.

The reality is that the IAEA got the "Wissam al-Zahawie/uranium/July 6, 2000" letter from the U.S. Government in early February 2003, even though Italian journalist Elisabetta Burba had not given the U.S. embassy this forgery (that's another "mystery" in itself). The former piece of information is confirmed by this letter (PDF) from the IAEA to Rep. Henry Waxman on June 20, 2003 (bold text is my emphasis) discussing the forged Niger documents:

5 [Waxman]: On what date did IAEA officials receive intelligence documentation regarding these allegations? Who provided these documents? Were any assessments, qualifications, explanations, or warnings provided with these documents. If so, please describe what comments the IAEA received and when they were received.

[Response from Piet de Klerk for IAEA]: The documents were provided in early February to the Agency’s Iraq Nuclear Verification Office (INVO) by the US Government.....

(Note that European Tribune's de Gondi also effectively reached this same conclusion.)

Smith unfortunately missed all of this pre-existing data/evidence in his article and blog posts. For example, he even says in this blog post that:

The documents were sent to the IAEA on February 4, 2003, and a month later the IAEA dismissed them as amateurish forgeries. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee report, the US government learned at the same time “that the French had based their initial assessment that Iraq had attempted to procure uranium from Niger on the same documents that the US had provided to the IAEA”. This statement is deeply misleading. In fact, the French had based their initial assessment on a number of pieces of intelligence which included just one of the Martino/Mondini documents the US gave to the IAEA, the genuine document on Zahawi’s 1999 visit to Niger and that initial assessment had since been confirmed by the July 2000 Zahawi letter.

Let's see. Smith cites three pieces of information as being the basis of the French (DGSE) conclusion that Saddam was seeking uranium from Africa.

(a) One of the Niger forgeries
(b) The genuine document on Wissam Al-Zahawie's 1999 visit to Niger
(c) The "Wissam al-Zahawie/uranium/July 6, 2000" letter

You see the problem here?

(a) was a forgery - and the French discovered that back in 2002
(b) was a document that had no mention of uranium or a uranium deal - so it could not (by itself) have provided any credible proof of Saddam seeking uranium from Africa
(c) was also a forgery, which Smith clearly was unaware of when he wrote his article

In summary, this "new" evidence was a forgery. It is not credible evidence for Saddam Hussein having sought uranium from Africa. The claim that the French and the UK stand by this is nothing short of laughable. Further, if the Butler Report and the UK Government based their conclusion on this document then they are even bigger frauds than I thought was the case. (The similarities between this observation and my similar observation when I debunked Smith's earlier article on this topic are rather interesting).


4. The alleged letter and the issue of "sought" v. "bought" uranium

There's another angle that needs exploration and I hope Smith would consider following up on this. This fake letter by Wissam Al-Zahawie is dated July 6, 2000. As De Gondi of European Tribune remarked in an email exchange with me:

It is on the same date as the accord and cannot be construed as "seeking uranium in Africa" since it is an agreement to furnish uranium by Niger. It makes no sense to write a letter prospecting a hypothetical supply on the same day an agreement is signed.

Let me rephrase that a bit. The alleged uranium "accord" was dated July 6, 2000 (in three of the forged Niger documents - TLC NIGER DOC 3, 4, 5). If al-Zahawie actually wrote a (fake - clarification added on 4/16/06) letter dated the same day that the (fake) accord was signed, is it not reasonable to expect that that letter would at least mention the "accord" that was signed on that same day? This is important to check because if the "accord" was mentioned in this fake letter, that would certainly mean the letter was discussing an actual, completed uranium sale, not just an attempt to seek uranium from Niger.

All of this is of course just icing on the cake. As I've discussed in Section 3, the entire case built by Smith's sources already fell apart well before we get to the discussion of the detailed contents of the fake letter. But, it does go back to the question that I've raised before, which Smith must be aware of, and doesn't address in his articles or blog posts [note that this question was raised even earlier by Dennis Hans at Scoop]:

As [British Labor MP Lynne] Jones points out in a footnote, here is how the [British] intel was "reinterpreted" within a period of a few days (emphasis mine):

5. 10/11 September – draft version of the 24 September 2002 Dossier - Hutton Report (Appendix 9)

The Hutton Report reproduces the 10/11 September[1] draft version of the dossier which twice states that Iraq had purchased uranium (specifying from Africa only once) and once states that Iraq had sought the supply of uranium from Africa.[1]

16 September – draft version of the 24 September 2002 Dossier - Hutton Report (Appendix 10)

The Hutton Report also reproduces the draft dossier of 16 September[1] which removes all statements that Iraq had purchased uranium (specifying from Africa only once) but three times states that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa.

The change in the wording of the uranium claim from "purchased" to "sought" is more than just a technicality because the change was not based on any new intelligence - it was based on a reinterpretation of the same intelligence ("brokered with some difficulty with the originators") over a period of a few days. This should have set off a warning flag immediately to the Butler Committee and other committees, but they whitewashed it.

I say that because it defies common sense that intel which supposedly confirmed a deal having been signed, suddenly (over the course of a few days) got reinterpreted to state that uranium had only been sought, not purchased. Why would intel that indicated a sale be considered not credible, and yet the same intel (or other intel from the same source) be considered credible in the context of the "seeking" uranium claim? This doesn't pass the smell test. More importantly, this provides additional, independent support that the intel peddled by the British was all based on the forged Niger documents (just as this was the case with the CIA's intel). Let me offer here a speculative chronology of what I think may have transpired.

  • The original British claim was based on the forged Niger documents (which is the only set of documents mentioning both the alleged uranium sale by Niger to Iraq and Wissam Al-Zahawie's visit to Niger in the context of uranium)
  • The CIA realized that the intel was dubious and not trustworthy and they told the British that prior to the publication of the latter's White Paper (perhaps the Italians also told the British?)
  • The British went back to their source (almost certainly the Italians) and after some haggling decided that it was less risky to push the "sought" uranium angle because they knew Al-Zahawie had in fact made a trip to Niger in 1999 (this was well known and uncontested) and it would be easy to make an assertion that it had to do with seeking uranium even without any real, credible proof

(UPDATE 12/25/06: In a separate post, I have shown unambiguously that the British "evidence" was based entirely on the allegations of Iraq having "purchased" uranium (i.e., based on the Niger forgeries) and not based on any evidence that Iraq had merely "sought" uranium.)

Of course, all of this also brings to the fore two of the issues I have raised in this blog previously - which no major media outlet seems to be looking at.

(a) Was the uranium "accord" itself ever part of the forged Niger dossier or was it forged separately by SISMI to bolster the cooked up uranium claims from the forgeries that they were feedling to the CIA (among others)?

(b) How did the U.S. Government get a copy of the "Wissam al-Zahawie/uranium/July 6, 2000" forgery considering that they did not receive this from Elisabetta Burba? [this inference is subject to the qualifications discussed above]


5. Miscellaneous observations

Having read Smith's blog posts, it appears to me that he is trying his best to be fair in his reporting, but his articles and blog posts reveal that he is not familiar with a lot of the already published evidence that contradicts his views and reporting. If he had contacted me to discuss the British claim and the other evidence I would have been happy to get him up to speed on the facts so that he didn't go out and publish a seriously flawed article based on sources who continue to mislead him, months after he published another seriously flawed article where his sources misled him.

The sad part is, as much as Smith is trying to be fair, there are a number of other problems with the narrative he offers in his blog posts. I don't have time to debunk all of it but I'll mention on

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