More things to make you go hmmm…

July 20, 2004

Now that there has been a week to approach the Iraq-Africa uranium intelligence through the admittedly fun but not all that enlightening angle of “Joe Wilson is a jackass with ulterior motives! / No, Joe Wilson is still right!”, the time is ripe to approach the issue from more interesting angles, ones that better befit our duty as citizens in a Republic that still does make at least intermittent efforts to be transparent.

One obvious question is: How many independent sources did the US intelligence community really have in regard to possible dealings between Iraq and various African countries (famously Niger, but Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are also often mentioned)? In particular, how many times (and alas it appears the answer is not zero) did the US wrongly believe one foreign intelligence service was independently corroborating the report of another foreign intelligence service when in fact the first service was merely repeating the report of the second?

This issue, I feel, has already been elucidated as well as it can be given the redactions in the Senate Select Committee Report on prewar intelligence(available here in a full-text searchable PDF format thanks to Simson Garfinkel at the MIT Technology Review Blog—Go MIT!! Nerd Pride!!). See especially the analysis by the investigative reporter Laura Rozen posted on her blog “War and Piece” (beginning here, with followups here and here).

[Hat tip to Matthew Yglesias for this post reminding me that I’ve been remiss not to read Ms. Rozen regularly.]

So now the question I’d most like to see answered is this: On the issue of whether Iraq sought uranium from a country other than Niger, was there any evidence rising beyond the level of hearsay?

The main reason why I ask is this passage from the Senate Select Committee Report on prewar intelligence:

(U) On January 28, 2003, the President noted in his State of the Union address that “… the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” At the time the President delivered the State of the Union address, no one in the IC had asked anyone in the White House to remove the sentence from the speech. CIA Iraq nuclear analysts and the Director of WINPAC [i.e., the Director of Central Intelligence’s Center for Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation, and Arms Control] told Committee staff that at the time of the State of the Union, they still believed that Iraq was probably seeking uranium from Africa, and they continued to hold that belief until the IAEA reported that the documents were forgeries. [emphasis mine]

[Source: Page 66 of the Senate Select Committee Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s
Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq
, which note is Page 76 of the full-text searchable PDF file]

This passage certainly implies that numerous CIA analysts felt that the discredited Niger documents were the only pieces of evidence rising beyond the level of hearsay that Iraq sought uranium anywhere in Africa. (It would be horribly ironic given all the vitriol expended in debates along the lines of “Bush lied about Niger! / No, you twit, ‘sought uranium in Africa‘ is all the President said!” if the Senate Select Committee were so careless in discriminating between Africa versus Niger.)

How widely shared was this belief that the Niger allegations were the only significant ones? To me, it seems that this belief must have been pretty widely shared given that once Joseph Wilson publicized the Niger issue, the line of defense chosen by President Bush was not that “I said ‘Africa’ not ‘Niger’,” but rather “I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services,” at which point DCI Tenet took responsibility for the error claiming, “These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president” explaining that while it was “factually correct” to say British intelligence made such a claim, “This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed.”

Two other questions I’d like to see answered are these:

1) To me, it seems there is a common misconception as to when potentially forged documents purporting to be direct proof of an Iraq-Niger uranium deal came into US hands. The most infamous set documents now widely acknowledged to be forged are dubbed “The Niger Documents” by the Senate Select Committee and are described by them as follows:

G. The Niger Documents

(######) On October 9, 2002, an Italian journalist from the magazine Panorama provided U.S. Embassy Rome with copies of documents8 pertaining to the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium transaction. The journalist had acquired the documents from a source who had requested 15,000 Euros in return for their publication, and wanted the embassy to authenticate the documents. Embassy officers provided copies of the documents to the CIA’s ### CENSORED ### CENSORED ### CENSORED ### CENSORED ### CENSORED ### CENSORED ### CENSORED ### CENSORED ### CENSORED ### CENSORED ### CENSORED ### CENSORED ### CENSORED ### because the embassy, which did collect the information, was sending copies of the documents back to State Department headquarters.

8 (#) The documents from the Italian journalist are those that were later passed to the IAEA and discovered to have been forged. In March 2003, the Vice Chairman of the Committee, Senator Rockefeller, requested that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigate the source of the documents, ### CENSORED ### CENSORED ### , the motivation of those responsible for the forgeries, and the extent to which the forgeries were part of a disinformation campaign. Because of the FBI’s investigation into this matter, the Committee did not examine these issues.

[Source: Page 57 of the Senate Select Committee Report, which note is Page 67 of the aforementioned full-text searchable PDF file Note that my use of boldface pound signs # to mark censored text is my own scheme to give an approximate sense of the length of the censored text in the actual report.]

In comparison, Ambassador Wilson’s trip to Niger on behalf of the CIA occurred in late February 2002, i.e., seven months before “The Niger Documents” came into US hands and a full year before they were publicly discredited by the IAEA. This fact has led many of Ambassador Wilson’s detractors to attack him along the following lines (this particular rendition comes from Bill Safire’s New York Times column “16 Truthful Words” yesterday):

But when word leaked about the fake documents — which were not the basis of the previous reporting by our allies — Wilson launched his publicity campaign, acting as if he had known earlier about the forgeries. The Senate reports that in his misleading anonymous leak to The Washington Post, “He said he may have misspoken . . . he said he may have become confused about his own recollection. . . .”

However, “The Niger Documents” were not the only documents purporting to be direct evidence of a uranium sales agreement between Iraq and Niger. Indeed, as the Senate Select Committee documents on pages 37-38 of its Report, Vice-President Cheney’s question to the CIA that eventually led to the CIA sending Ambassador Wilson to Niger was sparked by a February 5, 2002 report from a “foreign intelligence service” (subsequently disclosed to be that of the UK) that purported to reproduce the “verbatim text” of a completed uranium sales agreement between Iraq and Niger negotiated on July 5-6, 2000. It was this highly detailed report, with its purported “verbatim text” of an actual sales agreement, that constituted the key reason for US concern of an Iraq-Niger deal. Thus, if one believes the consensus of the world intelligence community that no such specific uranium sales agreement was ever negotiated (though Iraq may indeed have “sought” uranium), then one must conclude bogus documentation entered the hands foreign intelligence services and was relayed to US intelligence services before Ambassador Wilson’s trip in late February 2002, much earlier than “The Niger Documents” of October 2002.

So finally here’s the first of the other questions I want answered: On what documents was the “verbatim text” in this February 5, 2002 report from British Intelligence based? Were copies of at least some of these documents among “The Niger Documents” (i.e., the documents obtained by the Italian journalist in October 2002 and subsequently described as “blatant forgeries” by the IAEA in March 2003)? If the answer is no, does this mean there was there some separate set of forgeries out there other than “The Niger Documents”? Alternatively if the answer is no, did the Brits get their “verbatim text” indirectly?

2) Is the Senate Select Committee engaging in strong-but-subtle criticism of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) when it repeatedly mentions—in passing and without any particular emphasis—that particular DIA reports did not mention any concerns about the credibility of their sources? The most notable instance of such possible strong-but-subtle criticism is the Select Committee’s description of the DIA report that sparked Vice-President Cheney’s question to his CIA briefer which eventually led to the CIA sending Ambassador Wilson to Niger:

(######) Based on information from the CIA report from the foreign service, on February 12, 2002, the DIA wrote a finished intelligence product titled Niamey signed an agreement to sell 500 tons of uranium a year to Baghdad (NMJIC [National Military Joint Intelligence Center] Executive Highlight, Vol 028-02, February 12, 2002). The product outlined the details in the DO intelligence report, namely, that Niger had agreed to deliver 500 tons of yellowcake uranium to Iraq ### CENSORED ### The piece concluded that “Iraq probably is searching abroad for natural uranium to assist in its nuclear weapons program.” The product did not include any judgments about the credibility of the reporting.

(######) After reading the DIA report, the Vice President asked his morning briefer for the CIA’s analysis of the issue…

[Source: Page 38 of the Senate Select Committee Report, i.e., Page 48 of the aforementioned PDF.]

Is it just me, or does entitling a report Niamey signed an agreement to sell 500 tons of uranium a year to Baghdad seem negligent in the absence of multiple credible sourcing? (And is it just me, or does the fact Vice President Cheney after reading this DIA report immediately asked for a second opinion in the form of a CIA assessment imply that he’s, shall we say, a guy who’s been around the block a couple times?)

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