October 6, 2006
The Real Story Behind the Niger Affair?By Ray Robison
So what were Niger, those sixteen words, and Joe Wilson's outrage all about? They were connected to the 'Bush lied!' claim. Is the mystery of how the President came to claim Iraq was searching for uranium in Niger solved? I think I may have put together a reasonable account of how this all came about. I will explain and let the reader decide.
Here is a review of the affair for those who haven't been keeping track. The central argument is whether or not Saddam Hussein tried to obtain uranium from Niger in the late 90's or so. The CIA/State Department sent Joe Wilson to Niger on a fact finding mission to substantiate intelligence that Saddam was doing so. Wilson then reported back what he thought was a report of a negative finding. Yet the White House pushed forward with the claim that Saddam was seeking uranium. Wilson subsequently launched a verbal attack on the White House as he considered his trip to have invalidated the Niger intelligence.
Along the way, the President gave a State of the Union speech in which he uttered the sixteen words about the matter. Subsequently, it became public knowledge that fake documents collected by Italian intelligence were the basis for the President's claim. Iraq war dissenters then claimed that the President knew the Italian documents were faked, thus claiming he lied in the speech.
Now however, we have a new source that tells us the Italian documents were not the source of the uranium intelligence. They were nothing more than one false lead in an intelligence collection and analysis process.
A key to this story may lie in a document produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency called the Iraqi Perspective Project. Based on high level detainee interviews, the report stated that Saddam had become insulated behind a few key advisers, mostly his sons, who constantly lied to him. They also made sure to never tell him bad news. They continually promised Saddam everything he wanted was just around the corner.
In reading the report it seems that when Saddam's sons could not fulfill his demands, they had to think of a way to place the blame on something beyond their control.
Another key lies in the recent Senate Prewar Intelligence Review Phase II report. The report reveals that Saddam's Foreign Minster told the US government that Saddam was trying to build a bomb. He said Saddam was trying to get uranium and was irate that his nuclear team was taking too long.
So what did Saddam's foreign minister tell the US government? From the report: [emphasis mine]
So here is the story as I see it.
In the late 90's, after Saddam became convinced the sanctions would never end, he ordered his scientists to build a nuclear bomb (source: phase II report—Iraqi foreign minister). He was angry because they had plenty of money but needed fissile material.
Of course we know from postwar intelligence that in no way was the Iraqi nuclear group prepared to fully implement Saddam's orders to build a bomb. Sanctions had left them unable to build a device. Yet they could not tell Saddam the truth about this as it would be perceived as a failure.
Thus Wissam al—Zahawie was sent to Niger in 1999, as revealed by Christopher Hitchens. Wissam had nuclear expertise but was in all other ways unsuited for the mission. I believe his mission was to try and obtain uranium, but he and the mission were never in earnest.
You see, if he had procured the uranium, then Saddam's officials and scientists would have had no further excuse to delay the project. It would have been much better for everyone to report back that they simply couldn't convince the Nigerians, thus laying the blame on an element outside of their control. Some have argued that Saddam already had plenty of uranium and didn't need new supplies, but his was all under IAEA seal, therefore not available for a secret program. No new supply of uranium meant no bomb to Saddam.
After the US signaled its intention to take military action in 2002, the Iraqi Prime Minister and probably other officials started looking to cut a deal. A minister tells the US in the summer or early fall of 2002 that Saddam is trying to get uranium. Then the US sends out a request for intelligence to its allies to find more evidence that he is seeking uranium. The Italians cough up some documents that later are determined to be fake.
Then the State Department sent Joe Wilson to Niger to get their side of it.
As the Phase II report says, only senior policymakers are aware of the intelligence from the Iraqi Prime Minster. That means it is likely Wilson did not know. So Wilson returned and stated that the Nigerian President says he thought the Iraqi representative wanted to talk about uranium, but he didn't give him the chance. The Nigerian President says he steered the conversation away from the subject, which was probably just fine with Zahawie because he didn't really want the uranium. He probably wanted to mention it a little just to say he asked, but that's about it.
So now Wilson reported back what he saw as no significant attempt to obtain uranium. What he did not know is what the Iraqi Prime Minister had already said, and that his report would have seemed to senior officials to be second source confirmation. Saddam's Foreign Minister said Saddam wanted uranium, and sure enough, the Iraqis had sent the right man for the job. That sounds like a pretty solid link. This explains why the Senate Prewar Intelligence Report (Phase I) says analysts thought that Wilson's trip confirmed their suspicions about uranium.
Wilson then came out blasting the White House because he had no idea about the other intelligence. He thought the case about uranium was based on forged documents and his refutation of the matter. His righteous indignation triggered the entire Plame affair.
It could be just that simple. Saddam wanted the device. Saddam's sons told him they were trying to get the uranium, but they weren't. They sent a subject matter expert on a trip to create the impression that they were trying. Saddam's minister was looking for immunity and told the truth as far as he knew it. He said Saddam was seeking uranium because Saddam was demanding it. And Wilson thought he invalidated the intelligence when he didn't even know the full story.
But the simple truth is that the way intelligence looks at it, Saddam wanted a nuclear bomb. We know because his Foreign Minister said so. We have confirmation because Iraq sent a diplomat with nuclear expertise to Nigeria at this time.
Ray Robison is the proprietor of the eponymous blog Ray Robison.