Covering up Iraq's quest for uranium in Africa

The left accepts as gospel the Joseph Wilson—inspired allegation that President Bush lied in his State of the Union address reference to Iraq seeking uranium in Africa. The media and much of the public parrots this line. The allegation is itself a lie. All evidence points to the Plame leak investigation as another battle in the ongoing internal war between US intelligence agencies and the Bush administration.  Of course, the mainstream media is only too happy to support a leftist CIA, which is out to keep its power intact at all costs.

But this operation is just as tactically clumsy as the intelligence agencies' ill—prepared efforts to find Saddam's WMD.  Available information shows that the Iraq—Niger connection is, at best, another goof—up of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), or at worst, a red herring constructed by disgruntled intelligence functionaries to discredit the President.

First of all, President Bush never said Saddam tried to buy uranium from Niger.  His exact words were:

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

As it turns out, the President's statement was accurate concerning African uranium production and distribution, since Niger isn't the only country on the continent that has sizable uranium deposits.  The Congo, Namibia, South Africa and Gabon also have large uranium mines.  Therefore, how Plame and her co—conspirators at the CIA were able to finagle a trip for Wilson to Africa to refute the President's statement by producing 'forged' documents with a singular focus on Niger is puzzling.

Iraq does indeed have a history of buying uranium from Niger, but that was decades ago, and it wasn't the only foreign source for nuclear raw materials.  Two organizations provide us with a reasonably accurate inventory of Saddam's uranium and other related compounds: the IAEA and the Iraq Survey Group (ISG).

Iraq has imported hundreds of tons of yellowcake, highly enriched uranium (HEU), and Low—enriched uranium (LEU) from Europe, Russia and other Western countries.  According to the IAEA, Saddam bought about 151 tons of yellowcake from Niger in 1981, and then made an additional purchase of 153 tons in 1982.  [For some reason, Duelfer's ISG report does not mention the second procurement from Niger in 1982.  There are several other discrepancies in the ISG final report that will be discussed in a later article.]

The Congo connection

The British intelligence report that GW cited in his State of the Union address didn't even concern Niger, but rather focused on the Congo.  According to the U.K. Telegraph, the Congo was a far more promising source of uranium since the country had been in throes of a civil war, and since it also had a reasonable level of proven uranium reserves.  The country's history of uranium production goes back to 1939, when a Congo mine supplied the material for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  The Congo also has one of the few nuclear power reactors on the continent.

Ironically, the backing for the British intelligence report targeting the Congo is none other than our own ISG, which was largely composed of elements of the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).  In his final report, Duelfer notes that the ISG had found a document that told of a post—Gulf War I contact between Baghdad and Africa concerning an offer of uranium; and the source of the uranium was not Niger, but — surprise — from the Congo.  As the ISG report notes:

In mid—May 2003, an ISG team found an Iraqi Embassy document in the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) headquarters related to an offer to sell yellowcake to Iraq.  The document reveals that a Ugandan businessman approached the Iraqis with an offer to sell uranium, reportedly from the Congo.  The Iraqi Embassy in Nairobi—in reporting this matter back to Baghdad on 20 May 2001—indicated it told the Ugandan that Iraq does not deal with these materials, explained the circumstances of sanctions, and said that Baghdad was not concerned about these matters right now.

Duelfer accepts the Iraqi ambassador's refusal of the Congo uranium offer as fact, while his analysis soft pedals the extreme Islamic undertones of the May 2001 letter.  The Ugandan 'friend' who wanted to arrange the uranium transfer, also said that

...he will do his best to help Iraq and Iraq's regime for Jihad together against our enemy, and he considers supporting the power of Iraq to be his participation which is power for all Muslims, and he feels that his duties are to support and strengthen that power.

There was apparently no urgency on the part of the ISG to pursue the Congo connection, despite the evidence provided by the letter and the views of British intelligence.  Yet, Duelfer felt compelled to investigate the 'specific allegations of uranium pursuits from Niger,' even though there was no paperwork or recent intelligence that logically pointed to a recent Niger—Iraq uranium deal.  Nevertheless, the ISG pursued this line of investigation by obtaining information from none other than Ja'far Diya' Ja'far, who was the head of Iraq's pre—1991 nuclear weapons program!  In other words, the ISG investigated a potential Niger—Iraq uranium link by using the same dubious methods I noted last year.  True to form, they relied on questioning former regime scientists without corroborating documentation that could potentially validate their stories and reduce the possibility of deception and obfuscation.

According to the ISG, Ja'far claimed Iraq did not purchase uranium from abroad after it bought its first shipment of yellowcake from Niger in 1981.  Duelfer duly notes, however, that Saddam purchased uranium dioxide from Brazil in 1982 and that Iraq did not declare this to the IAEA.  This indicated that the Iraqi government was willing to pursue uranium illicitly.  [The ISG report states that Iraq also did not declare a second shipment of yellowcake from Niger.  Presumably, this is the 1982 shipment that is noted in the IAEA inventory, but not in the ISG list of Iraqi nuclear materials.]  Talking about Niger, Ja'far claimed:

...that after 1998 Iraq had only two contacts with Niamey [capital of Niger] — neither of which involved uranium.  Ja'far acknowledged that Iraq's Ambassador to the Holy See traveled to Niamey to invite the President of Niger to visit Iraq.  He indicated that Baghdad hoped that the Nigerian President would agree to the visit as he had visited Libya despite sanctions being levied on Tripoli.  Former Iraqi Ambassador to the Holy See Wissam Zahawie has publicly provided a similar account.

Ja'far claims a second contact between Iraq and Niger occurred when a Nigerian minister visited Baghdad around 2001 to request assistance in obtaining petroleum products to alleviate Niger's economic problems.  During the negotiations for this contract, the Nigerians did not offer any kind of payment or other quid pro quo, including offering to provide Iraq with uranium ore, other than cash in exchange for petroleum.

ISG recovered a copy of a crude oil contract dated 26 June 2001 that, although unsigned, appears to support this arrangement.

So, despite Ja'far's penchant for lying to the ISG about uranium acquisitions, Duelfer's report used one scientist's testimony and an unsigned crude oil contract to conclude that Iraq had not purchased any uranium from Niger for over 20 years.  Even if Ja'far, however unlikely, is telling the truth about the Niger—Iraq connection as no more than innocent diplomatic contacts, the ISG apparently lends no greater credence to the Congo connection, which was based on sound analysis by British intelligence and documentation that the ISG itself had uncovered.

It is clear that a greater geo—political game has been afoot for some time.  The fact that France had paid to have the Niger documents forged to embarrass the Bush administration is only part of the deception.  The other aspect of this operation is that the CIA and ISG deliberately ignored or downplayed information provided by British intelligence and documents found in Iraq indicating that an Iraq—Africa uranium connection was a logical and reasonable conclusion, and that connection most likely involved the Congo. 

On would think that by now, the rogue agents would have realized that their attempt to slam the President on pre—war intelligence has been undone by their own post—war audit trail. The media will, naturally, wait for historians to correct the record.

Douglas Hanson is our national security affairs correspondent.