“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Hardly noted at the time, the liberal media and partisan politicians have seized on these sixteen words from President Bush’s State of the Union address to discredit the administration’s case for war on Iraq. The President’s reference was to an intelligence judgment included in a public dossier issued by the British government in September 2002. In a section covering Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, the British government had stated, “As a result of the intelligence, we judge that Iraq has sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite having no active civil nuclear program that could require it.” It quickly became known that this was a reference to Iraq’s interest in procuring uranium from Niger.
But shortly after the State of the Union speech, foreign documents upon which this judgment was supposed to have been made were determined to be forgeries by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency. Herbert Romerstein, an expert on Soviet disinformation techniques, claimed in a Washington Times column on July 21 that the forgeries “were designed to discredit the truth about Saddam’s nuclear program.” He says the Iraqi intelligence service was trained to use this trick by the Soviet KGB. Some analysts suggest the phony documents came from anti-Saddam forces.
Whatever the ultimate source, when weapons inspectors failed to immediately uncover hard evidence of Iraq’s WMD after the fall of Baghdad, the liberal media cited the forged documents and the uranium reference in the State of the Union speech to charge that the administration had misled the public about its reasons for going to war. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof led the charge, accusing the administration of “cooking the intelligence” and making “reckless exaggerations of intelligence that were used to mislead the American people.” Kristof had previously achieved notoriety for accepting former Florida Professor Sami Al-Arian’s claims of innocence in a terrorism investigation. Al-Arian was later indicted as a leader of the murderous Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Kristof is the same columnist who led the media pack in pointing an accusing finger at Dr. Steven Hatfill in the anthrax letters case without any evidence whatsoever.
This media assault, plus the drumbeat about security problems and attacks on Americans during the occupation of Iraq, took their toll. A Zogby poll released on July 18 found that the Bush job performance had slipped to 53% Positive, 46% Negative. It found that more voters (47%) said it was time for “someone new” than favored his re-election. The Pew Research Center found that Bush’s approval ratings stood at 60 percent, a significant drop from his 74 percent rating on April 9, the day the statue of Saddam Hussein fell in Baghdad. A July 21 USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll found that Bush only held a 6-percentage-point advantage, 47%-41%, when those polled were asked whether they would support his re-election bid against a Democratic candidate, down from 12 points a month before.
Subsequent polls indicated that Bush’s approval rating was rising, but the furor showed how the major media can still have an enormous impact on public opinion by concocting a phony political “scandal.” Working with congressional Democrats, the media fueled a left-wing movement that is still calling for the impeachment of the President because he supposedly lied to the American people. Senator Bob Graham, a Democratic presidential candidate, also suggested Bush’s impeachment.
Taking his cue from the media, an audiotape from Saddam Hussein accused the Bush administration of “tricking” the American people into war with Iraq.
But the liberal media distorted key elements of this story. On ABC World News Tonight on July 16, anchor Peter Jennings introduced a story about the “forged documents about uranium and Iraq”-“the ones the President used in his State of the Union address.” This false claim was repeated over and over again by the media. The Democratic National Committee went so far as to run an ad alleging that Bush’s statement “was proven to be false.” But the ad omitted the first six words, “The British government has learned that.” A DNC ad in the New York Times, which was not screened for factual accuracy, also omitted the six words.
On cable news, MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews, a former Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill, led the assault. He parroted the DNC line, trying repeatedly to implicate Vice President Cheney and other administration officials in a deception campaign.
Allegations that the administration “politicized” the intelligence on Iraqi WMD programs were also fueled by anonymous reports from inside the U.S. intelligence community claiming that the White House exerted undue pressure on intelligence analysts.
It became known that the CIA had commissioned a former U.S. diplomat, Joseph Wilson, to investigate the Niger uranium reports. He concluded the reports of a deal between Iraq and Niger were baseless and then published a column in the New York Times charging the administration had exaggerated the Iraqi threat.
The administration’s mishandling of the issue has served to further fuel the controversy. At one point, the White House said the information was unreliable and should not have been included in the speech. CIA Director George Tenet apologized to the White House for permitting the President to include the Niger uranium allegation in his speech. He said that the agency doubted the claim and should have removed it from the speech.
But then the administration backtracked. Condoleezza Rice, the President’s National Security Advisor, told Tony Snow on Fox News Sunday that the British statements were accurate but that there were “higher standards” for the inclusion of such statements in a State of the Union address. There has been considerable finger pointing between the CIA and the White House over responsibility for the State of the Union reference and media references to a feud between the two. Senators have blamed the dust-up on “sloppy coordination” during the review of the speech and promised hearings at a later date. The administration’s handling of the issue has mostly served to annoy the British, who feel they are being scapegoated for the controversy.
Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland dismissed all this as a “minor intelligence controversy.” But in spite of the relative insignificance of the issue, there is real potential to severely damage the credibility of U.S. intelligence. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, for example, Faye Bowers and Peter Grier warned that the issue “has become so heated and public that it may affect the nature and usefulness of further intelligence operations.” They worried that such an open discussion of intelligence sources would harm our ability to collect intelligence in the future and inhibit other intelligence services from sharing information with us for fear of public compromise. That would be a major blow to the war on terrorism or our ability to rally allies in the event of a North Korean nuclear crisis.
No serious person believes that the Bush administration went to war in Iraq just because Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium in Africa. Before the war, there had been a decade-long consensus within the intelligence community, successive administrations, and on Capitol Hill about the status of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs. Few in the intelligence community disputed Saddam’s possession of a cadre of nuclear scientists (the so-called “nuclear Fedayeen”) and a workable design for a nuclear warhead. Former chief UN weapons inspector Richard Butler wrote that with no inspections since 1998, “Saddam is back in the business of developing nuclear weapons.”
Nearly all agreed that Iraq’s primary obstacle in its nuclear weapons program was the acquisition of sufficient fissile material for nuclear warheads. Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981 effectively closed off the production of plutonium for this purpose. Iraqi efforts then focused on enriching uranium. This process is more difficult to detect, and it became the focus of international monitoring. And over the years, Iraq’s worldwide efforts to procure such a capability and related items were closely watched. That is what made reports about Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium in Africa of such great interest.
The British say that they were provided reports on these efforts by “third-party” intelligence services. The British media have speculated that these reports came from France and Italy and, among other topics, reported on an Iraqi trade delegation that traveled to Niger in 1999. A British official told the U.K. media, “Uranium is Niger’s top export; it’s unlikely that the Iraqis were looking for livestock, which is their second export.” And IAEA documents show that Iraq procured more than 200 tons of yellowcake from Niger in the early 1980s.
After the controversy erupted in the U.S., the British refused to back away from their September 2002 judgments. Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons in mid-July, “I stand by entirely the claim made last September” about Iraq’s WMD programs. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the media that the third-party intelligence services that gave the intelligence information to the British refused to permit them to share it with the CIA. Most U.S. media have continued to source the Niger uranium reports to documents that the IAEA determined to be forgeries last March, but British officials are adamant that they had other sources for their judgments. In fact, Straw said that British intelligence had not acquired the forged documents until after they had already been denounced by the IAEA.
Straw also said that the CIA had pressured the British to drop the reference from its public report last fall. Straw said that the CIA request was rejected, in part, because of the “reliable intelligence” held by the British government but not by the CIA. He also said the CIA had offered no explanation for its request. Curiously, he then told the U.K. media that, “The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency believed in the veracity of the claims which we had made, and also from other sources quite separate from British sources, about the fact that the Iraqis were seeking the purchase of uranium from Niger, not that they bought it, but they were seeking it, quite late on last year and that ran through, I think, into January.”
In an attempt to quell the controversy, the White House released declassified portions of an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s weapons programs. The release showed that most of the agencies involved in the preparation of the assessment believed that there was “compelling evidence that Saddam [Hussein] is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad’s nuclear weapons program.”
The Wall Street Journal had previously obtained portions of this NIE, which it cited on its editorial page on July 17. According to the Journal, the Estimate asserted that “Iraq also began vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake.” If successful, “acquiring either would shorten the time Baghdad needs to produce nuclear weapons.” The editorial went on to report the NIE as concluding, “A foreign government [the British] 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.” It also said, “Reports indicate Iraq also has sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” The Journal said the Estimate concluded, “We cannot confirm whether Iraq has succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from these sources.”
In contrast to the Journal, liberal media sources emphasized doubts and dissents about the claim that were also contained in the Estimate. It is customary in the preparation of such estimates for agencies that do not agree with the majority opinion to “take a footnote.” In the October NIE, according to the Washington Post, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) took such a footnote. The Post reported that State’s footnote represented a “caustic criticism” of the Niger uranium claims: “The claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in INR’s assessment, highly dubious.” The Post reported that INR also disagreed with the other agencies that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. “Lacking persuasive evidence that Baghdad has launched a coherent effort to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program, INR is unwilling to speculate that such an effort began soon after the departure of UN inspectors or to project a timeline for completion of activities it does not now see happening.”
The media failed to note that inside the intelligence community, State/INR is notorious for assuming the most benign interpretation of any potential threat to the security of the United States. During the Cold War, it consistently downplayed Soviet foreign policy actions or weapons developments. That was also true of the INR’s assessment of the route chosen by Saddam Hussein to provide Iraq with nuclear weapons. This would require the import of uranium and the development of facilities to enrich it. Niger, Gabon, and Congo, former French colonies in Africa, produce it.
In February 2002, the CIA sent Joseph C. Wilson IV, a retired Foreign Service officer, to Niger to find out if it had supplied uranium to Iraq. Wilson had served in Iraq, Burundi and Congo before becoming ambassador to Gabon in 1992. He served as an adviser on Africa to President Clinton in 1997-98. A column he wrote about his Niger assignment for the New York Times was published on July 6, 2003. He told of meeting current and former government officials and people associated with Niger’s uranium business.
He said that after “drinking sweet mint tea” with these people, “it did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.” In so doing, he was confirming what our ambassador to Niger had told him-that she had “already been debunking” reports of uranium sales in her cables to Washington. In the Times article, Wilson wrote: “Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”
That is said to conflict with his report to the CIA, which is still classified. John Diamond in USA Today said that Wilson’s report said a former Niger official told him a businessman had approached him in June 1999 and proposed a meeting with an Iraqi delegation to discuss “expanding commercial relations.”
George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence, confirmed this, adding that, “The former official interpreted the overture as an attempt to discuss uranium sales.” Wilson’s Times article made no mention of such overtures and focused instead on whether such deals were consummated.
The British had reported only that Iraq was seeking to acquire uranium and made no claims that any transactions had actually occurred. These claims were echoed in the National Intelligence Estimate, which made no assertions that any uranium had been purchased. Columnist Robert Novak reported that, “CIA officials did not regard Wilson’s intelligence as definitive, being based primarily on what Niger officials told him and probably would have claimed under any circumstances.”
The British government was similarly dismissive of Wilson’s report. Glenn Frankel of the Washington Post reported that Foreign Secretary Straw had denied any knowledge of Wilson’s trip until it was first mentioned in the U.S. press in June. He said that the “U.S. authorities have confirmed that Ambassador Wilson’s report was not shared with the U.K.” Frankel also reported that after finally reading a summary of the report they “contend it is inconclusive.” “We can see why it wasn’t passed on to us because it doesn’t point in one direction.” Another British official told reporter Michael Smith, “He [Wilson] seems to have asked a few people if it were true, and when they said ‘no’ he accepted it all.” “We see no reason at all to change our assessment.” In early July, the British media reported that a House of Commons committee had cleared the British government of charges that it had doctored evidence on Iraqi WMD programs. While critical of the handling of intelligence findings, it found no proof of “politically inspired meddling.” It cleared Prime Minister Blair’s director of communications of allegations that he had personally influenced the content of the government assessments.
While the controversy was continuing, there were developments that could signal an end to the dispute. David Kay, the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, told Tom Brokaw of NBC’s Nightly News that his teams had uncovered a “mother lode” of documents describing Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs. Kay said the documents included progress reports, lab results, records of foreign purchases, and data on financial rewards given by Saddam to Iraqi scientists for “breakthroughs” in the WMD programs. He told Brokaw that there were “audio tapes” of interviews between these scientists and Saddam describing their achievements. Kay estimated that six months would be required to fully translate all the relevant materials that would provide the Bush administration with a “substantial body of evidence” on Iraq’s WMD programs.
Kay rebutted a July 31 front-page article in the Washington Post by Walter Pincus and Kevin Sullivan claiming that no Iraqi scientists were cooperating in the hunt for weapons in Iraq. A Pincus story about Kay’s news conference following his congressional testimony was found on August 1, back on page 14 of the paper.