Tuesday :: Jan 2, 2007

WMDgate - "Hubris" and Uranium from Africa: The Odd Incident of 9/11/02

by eriposte

I recently finished reading the book Hubris by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. It's a well-written and interesting book with some new nuggets of information on pre-war WMD claims and the Valerie Plame case (see here for example - although not everything they claim is necessarily correct). Given the impending start of the Libby trial, this is probably as good a time as any to discuss some of the information in the book. (Note that all emphasis in this post is my own.)

In this post, I'm going to discuss an incident that was originally mentioned in the (2004) Phase I SSCI report. The SSCI report said:

In a written response to questions from Committee staff, the White House said that on September 11, 2002, National Security Council (NSC) staff contacted the CIA to clear language for possible use in a statement for use by the President. The language cleared by the CIA said, "Iraq has made several attempts to buy high strength aluminum tubes used in centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. And we also know this: within the past few years, Iraq has resumed efforts to obtain large quantities of a type of uranium oxide known as yellowcake, which is an essential ingredient of this process. The regime was caught trying to purchase 500 metric tons of this material. It takes about 10 tons to produce enough enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon." The text was identical to the text proposed by the White House except that the CIA had suggested adding "up to" before 500 metric tons. The President never used the approved language publicly. [page 49]

In a detailed post in late 2005, I discussed this incident in the context of the CIA's known actions on the uranium from Africa matter. However, at the time, I did not really address what to me was the rather odd sentence at the end of the above passage:

The President never used the approved language publicly.

A literal reading of the SSCI report would indicate that the NSC/WH decided against using the uranium claim in Bush's Sep 2002 UN speech despite "CIA" approval on 9/11/02 - a claim that the WH/NSC specifically wanted to use in Bush's speech and one which they reached out to the "CIA" to get approval for. Does that sound believable?

Well, at the time, the SSCI report's narrative seemed convincing enough to most of us following the NSC/WH trail on the uranium allegation (me included). For example, while commenting on the then-secret meeting between SISMI's Nicolo Pollari and NSC's Stephen Hadley, Emptywheel said:

On September 12 (going by memory here) Bush reports to the UN, again no Niger. And then around the 20th, the Brits issue their White paper and the Americans start a few more leaks (including Feith's Al Qaeda-Iraq BS)...

In other words, September is new product month, and they're throwing everything they've got into the muddle. But they don't, directly, mention Niger. I wonder if Pollari actually warned them off using that or if he strategized a way they could use it?

I will return to the Pollari meeting and its significance in my next post, but you can see how the SSCI report's narrative was enough to throw most of us off the right track, including the brilliant Emptywheel.

I don't want to overstate this, but Craig Unger best summed up the point I'm trying to make in his July 2006 Vanity Fair article on the Niger hoax:

In addition, Vanity Fair has found at least 14 instances prior to the 2003 State of the Union in which analysts at the C.I.A., the State Department, or other government agencies who had examined the Niger documents or reports about them raised serious doubts about their legitimacy—only to be rebuffed by Bush-administration officials who wanted to use the material. "They were just relentless," says Wilkerson, who later prepared Colin Powell's presentation before the United Nations General Assembly. "You would take it out and they would stick it back in. That was their favorite bureaucratic technique—ruthless relentlessness."

Yet, per the SSCI report's rendering of the events, a White House/NSC that was hell-bent on using the false Niger claim even when the CIA and other agencies repeatedly asked them not to use it, seemingly decided on 9/11/02 to not use the claim despite "CIA" approval! Too good to be true? Sadly, yes.

Some of you may recall that in my Dec 2005 post, I mentioned that the unclassified portion of the SSCI report had completely left out the fact that on the very same day - 9/11/02 - the CIA had communicated some concerns about the credibility of the British uranium claim - back to the U.K. Which naturally raises the question - since the CIA communicated their concerns to the U.K. on 9/11/02 regarding the uranium allegation, is it not possible that they might have also communicated concerns to the NSC/WH on the same day - a communication that the SSCI report did not mention (for whatever reason)? (See Appendix 1 for additional commentary on whether the SSCI report really did mention this or not).

According to Hubris, that is exactly what happened (although the authors don't discuss the SSCI report's omission):

Go ahead, the CIA replied, suggesting that the words "up to" be placed before "500 metric tons." That day, [NSC aide Robert] Joseph and [White House speechwriter John] Gibson conferred several times about how to insert the yellowcake charge into the UN speech. Joseph even faxed to Gibson the language that had been cleared by the CIA. But, at the end of the day, the CIA wasn't comfortable with Bush issuing this allegation in public. The information had come from a single foreign source. It had not been confirmed. It was not solid enough for a presidential speech. The CIA wanted it out. Strike it, Joseph said, and Gibson did. [page 86]

In other words, it wasn't out of the goodness of Gibson's or Joseph's or Hadley's or Bush's heart that the Niger claim was left out of Bush's Sep 2002 UN speech.

There's another, more important aspect to this incident that Isikoff and Corn do not seem to have appreciated the significance of (at least in their discussion of the incident).

  • The "CIA" approved the uranium wording on 9/11/02 (without any significant concerns)
  • The "CIA" wanted the uranium wording removed on 9/11/02 (because of significant concerns)

Clear as mud?

It is somewhat unfortunate that Isikoff and Corn didn't use this incident to delve more deeply into who within the CIA was doing the approving and who within the CIA was doing the disapproving (although they seem to understand and mention the intra-CIA disparities later on in the book). That said, we already know the answer. I demonstrated that in my Dec 2005 post "WMDgate: Fixing Intelligence Around Policy, Part 4A -- CIA's WINPAC and Uranium from Africa" - the entity within the CIA that was mostly doing the approving was WINPAC. For example, I noted that it is very likely that the term "CIA" in the passage from the SSCI report refers to WINPAC. I said:

First, the "approval" by the "CIA" occurred on the same day (9/11/02) that (likely) other individuals in the CIA transmitted their concerns about the credibility and validity of the uranium claim to the British Government. It defies logic to assume that the "CIA" as a whole would be approving a claim they were backtracking from, on the very same day, with the British (conveying the CIA's official position to the British). However, it is not illogical to assume that some individuals in WINPAC may have been pursuing their own (WH) agenda separate from the rest of the CIA, considering the evidence presented in Sec. 3.3 and Sec. 3.4.1.

Let me therefore close with this comment. The story of WINPAC is one of the biggest, most important, and yet barely told* stories of the pre-war intelligence fraud.

[*You can certainly find articles or books (not to mention discussion in the Robb-Silberman report) mentioning the egregious role of some "analysts" in WINPAC - which was a group created within the CIA by the Bush administration in 2001. What I'm trying to say is that the central role that the WH used WINPAC for, i.e., enabling the WH to defraud the public, circumventing the rigorous intelligence vetting process and ultimately blaming/scapegoating the "CIA" (of which WINPAC was merely one part), is the one major story that has not really been told in detail in the press.]


The premise that the Phase I SSCI report did not mention the fact that the CIA ultimately dissuaded the NSC/WH from using the uranium claim on 9/11/02 is subject to the condition that the following incident, also mentioned in the SSCI report, is not a reference to the 9/11/02 event:

Some time in September a member of the NSC staff discussed the Niger uranium issue with a CIA analyst. The CIA analyst told Committee staff that during coordination of a speech (he was not sure which one) with an NSC staff member, the CIA analyst suggested that the reference to Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium from Africa be removed. The CIA analyst said the NSC staff member said that would leave the British "flapping in the wind." In a written response to a question about this matter from the Committee, the NSC staff member said that the CIA did not suggest that he remove text regarding Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium from Africa. The NSC staff member said the analyst suggested that Saddam's meeting with his "nuclear mujahedin" was more compelling evidence of Iraq's effort to resurrect the Iraqi nuclear program than attempts to acquire yellowcake, but said the analyst never suggested that the yellowcake text be removed. He said he had no recollection of telling a CIA analyst that replacing the uranium reference would leave the British "flapping in the wind" and said such a statement would have been illogical since the President never presented in any one speech every detail of intelligence gathered on Iraq either by the U.S. or by the U.K. [page 51]

Setting aside the completely illogical poppycock from the NSC staffer, this incident could potentially have occurred on 9/11/02. However, since the SSCI report chose to separate it from the 9/11/02 incident by 2 pages and did not call out the wording "500 tons", I am going to assume for the time being that these are two different incidents.

eriposte :: 7:02 AM :: Comments (7) :: Digg It!