Wednesday :: Apr 12, 2006

Uranium from Africa: The Tangled Web

by eriposte

[NOTE: This post discusses a classified memo referenced in Patrick Fitzgerald's recent filing regarding Scooter Libby and explains why that memo could not have bolstered the Bush administration's justification for the use of the false uranium claim in Bush's SOTU.]

Emptywheel has a very interesting post (same goes for the comments section of the post) trying to understand the implication of another one of those cryptic comments in Patrick Fitzgerald's recent brief:

Defendant testified in the grand jury that he understood that even in the days following his conversation with Ms. Miller, other key officials – including Cabinet level officials – were not made aware of the earlier declassification even as those officials were pressed to carry out a declassification of the NIE, the report about Wilson’s trip and another classified document dated January 24, 2003.

As you can see from her post and discussion, per the SSCI report, there are basically two known classified documents dated Jan 24, 2003, which are of relevance here.

  • One is a bunch of "background information" faxed to the NSC relating to Saddam Hussein's alleged WMD possession - for the purpose of Colin Powell's then-upcoming speech. This was faxed to the NSC by Robert Walpole, the then-NIO for Strategic and Nuclear Programs (NIO-SNP) - who was also the same person tasked to put together the NIE by Tenet in Oct 2002 (SSCI Report, p. 52). For the sake of discussion, let me refer to this faxed "packet of background information" (which also contained the portion of the NIE that mentioned the uranium claim) as Jan24-NIOSNP-fax.
  • The other is a DIA report focusing specifically on the uranium claim. Let's call that the Jan24-DIA-memo.

As it turns out, the Washington Post's Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer recently reported a previously unknown, and highly important, piece of news. On behalf of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) - "the senior coordinating body for the 15 agencies that then constituted the U.S. intelligence community" - the NIO for Africa wrote a memo, also in Jan 2003, that was sent to the White House. This memo specifically rejected the Niger uranium story as baseless. I'm going to call this the JanXX-NIOAfrica-memo (XX = date unknown).

One of the questions that Emptywheel has been trying to answer is whether the Jan 24, 2003 memo referred to by Fitzgerald was the Jan24-NIOSNP-fax or the Jan24-DIA-memo. I had originally thought that it was likely the latter, but there is a strong case to be made that it could be the former as well - see this comment by Emptywheel:

1) It was the document the WH had immediately preceding the SOTU from which they could justify the 16 words in the SOTU. Consider the strategy they were using that week. They wanted to argue that the claim was in the NIE, and therefore it was logical to use (based on the traditional treatment of NIEs). Then that came under challenge, so they wanted to provide a reason why it was STILL a valid conclusion. If the Walpole document(s) is the basis for which they made that decision and if it gave them a way to blame CIA for the claim then it served their purpose. The DIA document just doesn't do that.

This comment immediately triggered another chain of thought in my head. Namely, does this Jan24-NIOSNP-fax really give the White House an excuse to blame the CIA and justify the 16 words?

The answer is NO. Here's why.

Let's look at the key steps involved in the context of the uranium claim in the NIE.

  • On October 1, 2002, the NIE was published with the uranium claim mentioned only in the body, and rebutted by the INR text box in the Annex, because there were questions about its authenticity. For this reason the uranium claim was also excluded from the key judgements of the NIE (SSCI p. 53 and Tenet statement on 7/11/03).
  • Immediately after the NIE was published, the CIA began to directly try to dissuade the White House from using the uranium claim and told Congress and the White House repeatedly in the following days that the uranium claim was not credible. One of the people involved in this action was none other than the NIO-SNP who told the SSCI on October 4, 2002 that the British uranium claim was questionable (SSCI p. 54-55).
  • Flash forward to sometime in Jan 2003 - the White House receives the JanXX-NIOAfrica-memo which warns them that the uranium claim is bunk.
  • On Jan 24, 2003, the NIO-SNP faxes Jan24-NIOSNP-fax to the White House. Details of what was in the fax are unclear but it evidently contained the portion of the NIE body that mentioned the uranium claim (did it have the INR dissent? We don't know - but see Appendix 2).
  • On Jan 27, 2003, however, the DCI received the first SOTU draft from the NSC. It was after Jan 27, 2003, that then-WINPAC Director persuaded his NSC/White House counterpart to ensure that the claim "we also know that he has recently sought uranium from Africa" should not be in the SOTU, even though this was factually indistinguishable from (and was worded weaker than) the claim in the body of the NIE that "Iraq also began vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake". However, the WINPAC Director allowed the White House to cite the uranium claim as long as it only referred to the British allegation and not to the CIA (while misleading the SSCI for the reason why he did so).

[UPDATE 6/3/06: There is some question as to whether the WINPAC-NSC conversation occurred before or after the Jan24-NIOSNP-fax. In this TNH comment, I discuss why the evidence suggests the conversation occurred after the Jan 24 fax, and why, even if it hypothetically occurred *before* the Jan 24 fax, it makes no difference to my conclusions in this post.]

My point here is simple.

Even if the White House received the Jan24-NIOSNP-fax, it makes no difference because several days after the White House received it, the WINPAC Director specifically told the White House they could not refer to the CIA's uranium claim in the NIE. [Cross-out added 6/3/06. For details on why I have crossed the words out and why despite the cross-out my conclusion stays the same, see this TNH comment].

Indeed, in the fake defense mounted on behalf of Bush for his 16 words, we keep hearing how his words were "accurate" (they were not) since he only referred to the British (Niger) uranium claim.

As I point out in Appendix 1, the NIE did not refer to the British claim (especially considering that the CIA communicated their concerns on the credibility of the British claim, to the British on 9/11/02, and followed that up by warning the White House and Congress repeatedly that the British uranium claim was not credible). Further, as I mentioned above, the NIO-SNP who sent the White House the Jan24-NIOSNP-fax was one of those who testified to Congress in Oct 2002 that the British uranium claim was not credible.

Bottom line: If Libby was trying to leak the Jan24-NIOSNP-fax, then that would have been another attempt to mislead the Press because the WH was told not to use the NIE uranium claim just before the Bush SOTU (a claim that referred to the Italian intelligence reporting on Niger based on the contents in the Niger forgeries, and not to the British reporting).

Bonus: The Jan24-DIA-memo also did not mention the British intel. It only talked about the original Niger uranium reporting from the Italians and the NCIS report regarding the warehouse in Cotonou, Benin. So, if Libby was trying to leak that memo, that would have also been an attempt to mislead the press because that memo did not refer to the British intel cited by Bush in the 2003 SOTU.

The Bush administration cannot have their cake and eat it too. They put their bets on the (mythical and likely fake) British intel as being the only one that Bush was relying on (this was an after-the-fact, false cover story and even that cover story failed to pass the laugh test). If Libby was trying to bolster the fake 16 words by telling reporters about intel from the CIA - that was separate from the alleged British intel - that was deliberate misrepresentation because the CIA told Bush he couldn't refer to their claims in the NIE.


Here are the main claims in the body of the NIE regarding Saddam's alleged attempts to seek uranium from Africa:

(U) Regarding uranium from Africa, the language of the NIE said:

Iraq has about 550 metric tons of yellowcake and low enriched uranium at Tuwaitha, which is inspected annually by the IAEA. Iraq also began vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake; acquiring either would shorten the time Baghdad needs to produce nuclear weapons.

  • A foreign government service reported that as of early 2001, Niger planned to send several tons of "pure uranium" (probably yellowcake) to Iraq. As of early 2001, Niger and Iraq reportedly were still working out arrangements for this deal, which could be for up to 500 tons of yellowcake. We do not know the status of this arrangement.
  • Reports indicate Iraq has also sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

We cannot confirm whether Iraq succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from these sources.

Anyone who has read the SSCI report will immediately recognize that the portion referring to Niger was based entirely on the original Niger uranium claims sent to the CIA by SISMI (and which was based on information from the Niger forgeries). For example, the wording "as of early 2001...planned to send several tons..." was similar to what was present in one of the Oct 2001 CIA reports that discussed the reporting from Italian intelligence.

The portions in the body of the NIE referring to Somalia and "possibly" the DRC are not relevant anyway because both the CIA and the British admitted that the uranium claim in the SOTU was about Niger, and not any other African countries.

In short, the contents of the body of the NIE did not refer to the British intel. This is no surprise in itself because the CIA had strong objections to the British claims at the time the NIE was written and they had even communicated their concerns to the British on 9/11/02, about the credibility of those claims.


The implication of the Jan24-NIOSNP-fax is also not as straightforward as it may seem at face value. At face value it may have seemed to pass on the NIE uranium claim, but the SSCI Report also points out that:

According to the CIA's former ADDI for Intelligence for Strategic Programs, who was the point person for coordinating the [Powell] speech, the CIA removed some of the information that the White House had added to the speech, gathered from finished and raw intelligence, because the information was single source and uncorroborated. All of the individuals interviewed by Committee staff who were involved in drafting and coordinating the speech, said that they never saw any drafts that referenced Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium from Africa.

The last piece of wording is a bit ambiguous. Does it mean that no one saw any drafts with the uranium claim *after* the CIA removed some of the junk the White House had added, or even *before*? Either way, since this speech was based on the Jan24-NIOSNP-fax, the implication of that fax is not as straightforward as it may seem.

eriposte :: 7:20 AM :: Comments (27) :: TrackBack (0) :: Digg It!