Niger uranium

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Niger uranium or yellowcake forgery is often used as shorthand to refer to the controversy surrounding and a set of false documents that were used in the justification of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The documents suggested that Iraq attempted to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger. Both President George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union Address and Secretary of State Colin Powell's address to the United Nations Security Council cited the forgeries as "indisputable" evidence that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. In the case of the former, 16 words in President George W. Bush's State of the Union address on January 28, 2003. The President was attempting to bolster his case for removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq by force, and told Congress and the American people:

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

The fact that this claim was based on a report that the American intelligence community believed to be false, and the fact that the White House knew this well in advance of the speech, formed the basis for the controversy. The incident cast light both on the tendency of the Administration to use intelligence of dubious quality to make its case and on the competing aims of, and rivalries between, the National Security Council, the Office of the Vice President, the CIA, and the State Department.

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Italian Intelligence Reports

The Niger Embassy in Rome, Italy, was burglarized on the evening of Jan. 1, 2001. Along with a few minor valuables, Italian police believe the thieves also took blank letterhead stationery and official seals of the government of Niger.

In late 2001, the Italian Military Intelligence and Security Service, SISMI, sent reports to the CIA claiming that the Iraqi Ambassador to the Vatican, Wissam al-Zahawie, had visited Niger in February 1999 to attempt to arrange the purchase of "yellowcake" uranium from Niger. The trip was public knowledge at the time, but the implication that a uranium purchase was discussed had never been made before. Because the report contained no documents to back it up, it was not given much credibility in the American intelligence community. But the information was nonetheless given to Vice President Dick Cheney, whose office repeatedly put pressure on the CIA to investigate the possibility that Iraq was trying to restart its nuclear program.

In February 2002, three different American officials made efforts to verify the reports. The deputy commander of U.S. Armed Forces Europe, Marine Gen. Carlton Fulford, went to Niger and met with the country's president. He concluded that, given the controls on Niger's uranium supply, there was little chance any of it could have been diverted to Iraq. His report was sent to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers. The U.S. Ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, was also present at the meeting and sent similar conclusions to the State Department. At roughly the same time, the CIA sent Ambassador Joseph Wilson to investigate the claims himself. Wilson had been posted to Niger 14 years earlier, and throughout a diplomatic career in Africa he had built up a large network of contacts in Niger. He concluded that there was no way that production at the uranium mines could be ramped up or that the excess uranium could have been exported without it being immediately obvious to many people both in the private sector and in the government of Niger. He returned home and told the CIA that the reports were false. The CIA passed this conclusion on to the White House, the FBI, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

In early October 2002, George Tenet called Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, asking Hadley to remove reference to the Niger uranium from a speech President Bush was to give in Cincinnati on Oct. 7. This was followed up by a memo asking Hadley to remove another, similar line. Another memo was sent to the White House expressing the CIA's view that the Niger claims were false; this memo was given to both Hadley and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Forged Documents

Also in early October 2002, an Italian journalist, Elisabetta Burba, received copies of documents from Rocco Martino that indicated the Iraqi government had arranged the purchase of 500 tons of "yellowcake" uranium from Niger in 1999 and 2000. The documents were signed by officials of the government of Niger and appeared to be on official letterhead. Under instructions from her magazine's editor, Burba gave copies of the letters to officials at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, and then left for Niger to investigate the situation herself. Once there, her discussions with businessmen involved in the uranium business and investigations into the companies mentioned in the documents led her to the conclusion that the documents were fake. She returned to Rome and dropped the story, though there is no evidence she shared her conclusion with the officials at the U.S. Embassy with whom she had already shared the documents.

The U.S. Embassy in Rome sent the documents on to the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) at the State Department in Washington, D.C., which conducted its own investigation and also forwarded the documents to the CIA. Both the INR and the CIA soon came to the conclusion that the documents were fake. As the International Atomic Energy Agency would later point out, the documents contained a number of inconsistencies which were relatively trivial to check out on the Internet, such as references to the wrong date for the Nigerien constitution, signatures by a foreign minister who had been out of office for several years, and letterhead bearing obsolete emblems which were not in use at the time the letters were purported to have been written.

Claims Used Anyway

Despite the determination by its own intelligence analysts, two months earlier, that the documents were fake, on Dec. 19, 2002, the State Department issued a fact sheet entitled "Illustrative Examples of Omissions From the Iraqi Declaration to the United Nations Security Council" which listed Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium from Niger as evidence that Iraq was misleading the Security Council.

On January 28, the President gave his State of the Union speech, containing the Niger claim, which Stephen Hadley, Condoleezza Rice, and speechwriter Michael Gershon had all been told was not credible. Upon hearing the speech, Elisabetta Burba wanted to write an article explaining that it was based on false intelligence, but her editor, who had close ties to Italy's prime minister, overruled her, on the assumption that the US must have had other evidence to back up the claim. Also upon hearing the speech, intelligence analysts who had been involved in debunking the Niger claims realized they needed a way to publicize the fact that the claim was not true. They decided to give the documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency and let them do the work. The IAEA immediately realized the documents were forged, as had the State Department and CIA, and went public with that fact in early March 2003.

Revelations

On March 7, 2003, only days before the invasion, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released results of his analysis of the documents. Reportedly, it took IAEA officials only a matter of hours to determine that these documents were fake. Using little more than a Google search, IAEA experts discovered indications of a crude forgery, such as the use of incorrect names of Niger officials. As a result, the IAEA reported to the U.N. Security Council that the documents were "in fact not authentic."

Soon thereafter, the documents became generally accepted by the press as falsified.

Also iIn March 2003, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, agreed not to open a Congressional investigation of the matter, but rather asked the FBI to conduct the investigation.

Condoleezza Rice claimed, on June 9, 2003, that nobody at her level in the Administration had any prior knowledge that the Niger claims were false, and that it was only after the State of the Union speech that it was determined that the documents were forged. Ambassador Joseph Wilson spends most of June trying behind the scenes to convince officials to come clean and admit they knew the claims were false well before the speech was ever written. Finally, on July 6, 2003, he wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled "What I Didn't Find in Africa," which described his trip to Niger and his conclusions.

In July 2003, conservative pundit Patrick Buchanan stated "[T]he truth now, we know, is that a forgery was put together to get this country into a war with Iraq, that forgery found its way into our intelligence agencies, it found its way into the State of the Union, and the president of the United States should show more indignation and outrage that this was done." Buchanan added "Somebody in our own government knew very well that was a forgery, and they advanced it on up the line." [1]

Finally, on July 11, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet released a statement saying "These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president." Although there is ample evidence that the CIA warned White House officials on numerous occasions that the Niger claims were false, Tenet assigned the blame to his agency alone.

Postscript

Angry at Joseph Wilson for revealing that they had made claims which had already been shown to be false, "senior officials" in the Administration leaked word to columnist Robert Novak that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was actually a CIA operative, and that she was the one who suggested him for the Niger investigation. Thus, the Niger uranium controversy segued smoothly into an even larger scandal, "Plamegate."


Sources

  • Complete timeline of the 2003 invasion of Iraq - Center for Cooperative Research (Retrieved May 30, 2004)
  • The Stovepipe - by Seymour Hersh, The New Yorker, Oct. 27, 2003
  • Follow the Yellowcake Road. Newsweek by Michael Isikoff & Evan Thomas, July 28, 2003
  • Chronology of Bush Claim that Iraq Attempted to Obtain Uranium from Niger - Arms Control Today by Paul Kerr, Sept. 2003
  • Niger and Iraq: the war's biggest lie? - The Sunday Herald (Glasgow) by Neil Mackay, July 13, 2003

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