About that 500 tons of yellow cake...
We interrupt this scandal to ask a question that, due to it's 'explosive' nature was never asked when the story broke almost exactly a year ago...
What were 500 tons of yellow cake uranium still doing at the nuclear research center of Al—Tuwaitha in Iraq when American tanks rolled into Bagdhad?
The fact that the material was under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for more than a decade opens an entirely different line of questioning: Is the entire group of United Nations bureaucrats running the IAEA legally insane?
These issues are somewhat separate from the Plame—Wilson—Rove dust up that's been roiling Washington recently, but nevertheless shed light on why Joe Wilson went to Niger in February of 2002 and why the bureaucratic tussle over those 16 words about the Iraqi—Niger yellow cake connection was so fierce.
The story begins at the end of the first Gulf War when inspectors found a 500 ton cache of refined yellow cake uranium at Iraq's primary nuclear research facility in Al—Tuwaitha outside of Bagdhad. The cache was part of a huge inventory of nuclear materials discovered by UN inspectors that included low—level radioactive material of the type used for industrial and medical purposes as well as a quantity of highly enriched uranium suitable for bomb production.
This HE uranium was shipped to Russia where it was made relatively harmless by a process known as 'isotopic dilution' — but only after the Iraqis dragged their heels for more than 6 months following the cease fire by playing a cat and mouse game with the IAEA's inspectors. The history of those early IAEA inspections can be found here and is an eye opening look at both the gullibility of the IAEA and the lengths to which Saddam sought to keep as much of his nuclear bomb making capability as he could.
The IAEA placed a seal on the nuclear materials in November of 1992. From then until the fall of Saddam, the agency attempted to make sure that Iraq did not use the yellow cake to reconstitute its nuclear program, something the IAEA acknowledged could be done if the Iraqis were able to rebuild its centrifuges and gain access to additional fissile material. Keeping track of the material was made extraordinarily difficult by the Iraqis who regularly impeded IAEA officials from carrying out even the most routine inspections.
Flash forward to 1999 when British intelligence found out through multiple sources that representatives of the Iraqi government had met with officials from the Niger government.
This fact is not in dispute. The mystery is in what they talked about. A memo obtained by the British — later proven to be a forgery — purported to show the Iraqis were interested in purchasing 500 tons of yellow cake uranium from Niger's mines. Forgery or not, since Niger's exports are extremely limited, consisting largely of uranium ore, livestock, cowpeas, and onions, one doesn't have to be an intelligence analyst to figure out in which one of those items the Iraqis might be interested.
Both the Butler Review and the Senate Select Committee on Pre War Iraq Intelligence (SSCI) point to other efforts by Saddam to purchase uranium, most notably from the Democratic Republic of the Congo . The Butler Review states in 2002 the CIA 'agreed that there was evidence that [uranium from Africa] had been sought.' In the run—up to war in Iraq, the British Intelligence Services apparently believed that Iraq had been trying to obtain uranium from Africa; however, no evidence has been passed on to the IAEA apart from the forged documents.
This then was the context in which Ambassador Joe Wilson went to Niger in February of 2002. Based on multiple sources and the best judgement of the CIA, Saddam Hussein was trying purchase uranium. Since there were no working commercial nuclear reactors in all of Iraq, his interest could only be based on his desire to reconstitute his nuclear weapons program.
There was no 'fixing' of intelligence or 'shaping' intelligence to fit some preconceived agenda. Despite UN resolutions and sanctions, Saddam was looking to build the bomb.
What about that 500 tons of yellow cake under seal at Al—Tuwaitha? As long as the sanctions were in place, the inspectors would be able to confirm, albeit with great difficulty, that Saddam would not be able to use the material for his bomb building program. But that fact doesn't answer the question: why would any organization charged with keeping a lid on nuclear proliferation allow that much fissile material to be kept by a bloodthirsty tyrant who had already demonstrated a desire to construct a nuclear weapon?
In an article that appeared in The American Thinker on July 20, 2004, Douglas Hanson draws some rather unflattering conclusions about the IAEA and their mission:
The actions, or more appropriately, the inactions of the IAEA regarding Iraq since the end of Gulf War I, betray the agency's true agenda. Rather than inspect, report, and implement restrictions in accordance with the provisions in the treaty, the agency has in effect become an enabler of rogue nations who are attempting, or who have already succeeded in developing or acquiring special nuclear material and equipment. In other words, the IAEA is simply a reflection of its parent organization, which routinely delays and obfuscates the efforts of the US and the UK in controlling banned substances and delivery systems.
Time after time, the agency has either intentionally or naively bought into the lies and deceptions contrived by nations of the Axis of Evil during IAEA visits and inspections. In most cases, the IAEA avoids confrontation like the plague in order to maintain access to the facilities. If they are booted out, as was the case with North Korea, their impotence is on display for all to see. In other cases, the agency joins in the deception, thereby allowing these rogue states to level the nuclear playing field with the West and Russia.
Clearly then, the IAEA was totally dependent on the sanctions to even carry out the limited inspections it was performing in the 1990's. But how long would the sanctions be in place?
It is an article of faith with critics of the war that 'Saddam was in a box' and there was no need for an invasion to remove him. It's a pity that many of those critics have such a short memory because a review of what many of them were saying about the sanctions prior to September 11, 2001 would show that they were eager to lift the very same sanctions that they now claim was keeping Saddam in check.
Thanks to a remarkable propoganda program that included funeral processions of Iraqi babies whose dead bodies were used over and over again in macabre effort to make it appear that the death toll of infants was higher than it was, the world community was, by 2001, agitating for the lifting of sanctions on the Iraq economy. And while the lifting of economic sanctions would not have meant a lifting of the arms embargo, given the limited resources available to both The United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the IAEA as well as Iraq's demonstrated ability to impede, obstruct, and deceive inspectors, it stands to reason that the continuation of the arms embargo would have been a sham. Even with the embargo, the Dulfer Report showed that Saddam's ability to evade the sanctions and purchase illicit weapons was extremely troubling.
All of this is important to remember when thinking about that 500 tons of yellow cake uranium sitting under seal at Al—Tuwaitha. How worried was the CIA that Saddam would someday be able to use that material to construct a bomb?
That question goes to the heart of the current controversy over not just who may have 'outed' a covert CIA operative, but whether the Administration was trying to discredit Mr. Wilson so that his charge that the White House manipulated intelligence to fool the American people into support for war would also be disbelieved.
Why would the White House want to discredit Mr. Wilson? Given that the Mr. Bush was in the midst of tight Presidential campaign, it's obvious that politics had something to do with it. But the effort by the White House to push back against who Mr. Wilson was running interference for — the CIA — was at bottom what this conflict has been about from the start.
From the time of the President's State of the Union in January of 2003 until Mr. Wilson's celebrated July Op—Ed in the New York Times in which he basically called the President of the United States a liar, the former Ambassador had been peddling his story of the Administration 'twisting' pre war intelligence regarding efforts by Saddam to purchase uranium from Niger to reporters all over Washington, D.C. Wilson said as much in an interview with LA Weekly:
I spoke to a number of reporters over the ensuing months. Each time they asked the White House or the State Department about it, they would feign ignorance. I became even more convinced that I was going to have to tell the story myself.
This is where the yellow cake story became a club that the CIA could bash the Administration over the head with. Never mind that Saddam already had 500 tons of the stuff on hand just waiting for the world to turn its back so that it could be used to jump start his nuclear program. And since the intelligence regarding Saddam's further efforts to purchase uranium was partially discredited, the President's opponents at the agency thought they saw an opening. Already under fire for missing the 9/11 plot thus making that tragedy the biggest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor, the hyper sensitivity of the CIA to criticism would now manifest itself into an attack on its more vocal critics in the Administration.
One of the most underreported aspects of this scandal has been the hostility by a faction in the CIA toward the White House during the period following the discovery that weapons of mass destruction were not to be found in Iraq. This kind of bureaucratic infighting is usually too arcane a subject for most people to pay much attention to. However, in this case, there appears to be a measure of partisan politics on the part of CIA personnel thrown into the mix in addition to the very human impulse to shift blame for failure.
The Wall Street Journal commented on this conflict in an editorial on September 29 following a selective leak of a CIA report predicting post—war instability in Iraq. Not only was the leak a brazen attempt by the CIA to embarass the administration, but the fact that it came two days before the first debate between the President and Senator Kerry was evidence that this faction in the CIA was determined to affect the election.
In it's editorial, the Journal noted the following about the CIA's war with the White House:
Keep in mind that none of these CIA officials were ever elected to anything, and that they are employed to provide accurate information to officials who present their policy choices for voter judgment. Yet what the CIA insurgents are essentially doing here, with their leaks and insubordination, is engaging in a policy debate. Given the timing of the latest leaks so close to an election, they are now clearly trying to defeat President Bush and elect John Kerry. Yet somehow the White House stands accused of 'politicizing' intelligence?
The leaking of pre—war intelligence nuggets prior to the election in 2004 that showed the CIA in the best possible light by highlighting alternate analyses of Iraq WMD capabilities was a remarkable demonstration of partisanship by supposedly non—partisan bureaucrats. And while the partisanship was not necessarily due to any allegiance to the Democratic party on the part of the leakers, it did reveal a mind set that wished to establish a public record absolving the CIA of failure. The fact that the President would be hurt politically by the revelations was also a probable motive for the leaks.
Was Valerie Plame a part of this faction? In his column naming her as a CIA employee, Robert Novak describes her as an 'operative on weapons of mass destruction.' Since most of the leaks coming from the CIA faction at war with the White House involved the analysis of the WMD threat from Iraq, it's tempting to connect the dots and say that Plame was part of a group that wished to, at the very least, prove that the CIA was not as wrong about WMD in Iraq as some in the Administration were saying. At worst, Mrs. Wilson may have been a party to an effort to influence an election by trying to embarass the President.
And by connecting the dots between Mrs. Wilson and other agency rebels who sought to take down the President, doesn't this open up a whole slew of questions about Mr. Wilson? The former ambassador has been portraying himself as a whistleblower. What if he was an errand boy instead? Wilson, by virtue of his former employment at the State Department could be the perfect front man for a propoganda campaign by his wife's employer to shift blame for the WMD fiasco from the agency's incompetence to the neoconservative hawks and their rush to war.
Another question raised by this effort of the CIA to discredit the President is about the complaint filed with the Justice Department by the agency when Mrs. Wilson's "cover" was blown.
Having worked at CIA headquarters at Langely for nearly 6 years, the idea that any foreign intelligence service who wanted to find out wouldn't have known of Mrs Wilson's employment at the agency strains credulity. The turnoff from the highway into CIA headquarters is clearly marked. Is it possible that foreign spies could have observed Mrs. Wilson entering the complex at Langely over a six year period? Or, more likely, could they have gotten a hold of a list of agency personnel who work at Langely? Given the number of truly damaging revelations regarding traitors over the years, it seems logical to conclude that a list of employees at Langely could be in the hands of one or more foreign intelligence services. The filing of the complaint over the leak could then be seen in the context of further efforts by the CIA to get back at the Administration.
The question of whether or not Saddam wanted to purchase yellow cake uranium to augment his existing supply sitting in the Al—Tuwaitha facility, when viewed in the context of this White House—CIA conflict, becomes not a question of the CIA analyzing Saddam's intentions but rather a question of the CIA attacking the Administration's intentions. The rationale for war given by the President goes far beyond any disputed effort by Saddam to buy uranium. But the only way to attack the President's motives is by concentrating solely and exclusively on the lack of WMD. And since it's been widely reported that most western governments believed Saddam had a large stockpile of chemical and biological weapons prior to the invasion, the only possible line of attack by the President's opponents at CIA was the single reference to uranium found in the State of the Union address given by Bush in 2002.
Did the White House go overboard in its effort to push back against this effort by the CIA to discredit the President? At this point, it's unclear if any laws even were broken by Karl Rove or anyone else in the White House. But however the scandal shakes out, it would be hard to argue that Plame, Wilson, or Rove acted honorably and in the best interests of the United States.
Rick Moran is the proprietor of the blog Rightwing Nuthouse