The Clintons, US Intelligence, and the Great Uranium Follies
Hillary Clinton handing over a sizable portion of US uranium production potential to Russia is not an isolated event, but rather is the logical convergence of decades-old Clinton era dealings with Russia and rogue states, for enrichment of the power elite. AT contributor Michael Curtis is correct when he says that the Uranium One deal has serious implications for our national security. In fact, the revelation of Hillary’s independent intel network, coupled with Clinton era national security policy changes in the form of counter-proliferation (CP) regimes, have been far more strategically harmful than many Americans realize.
Post-Cold War counter-proliferation
Counter-proliferation (CP) regimes were established with the best of intentions and satisfied requirements of their day. After winning the Cold War and the subsequent dissolution of the USSR, the West was faced with a country where mob rule dominated the military. A foreign buyer could buy modernized T-55 tanks for $500.00 a pop with an extra tank thrown in for free if you purchased an entire tank company. Against this backdrop, the Former Soviet Union and the West were staring into the abyss, with nuclear weapons and materiel being sold to any number of bad actors, while unemployed Soviet scientists were seeking work with hostile dictatorships. The West embarked on a much-needed program to secure Soviet warheads, track loose materiel, and under US State Department auspices, track and gainfully employ weapons scientists.
Despite achieving the near term goals of the program, a strange shift in US policy occurred during the Clinton administration. It seemed as if we could no longer pass judgment on dictators and the nations they led, despite clear indications of their hostile intent – think “death to America” chants. Yet, we needed some sort of enemy to latch onto to provide the rationale to maintain a minimum level of military force and to gainfully employ our intelligence agencies. The answer: we started fighting things and weapons instead of the leaders and countries that threatened us. This was akin to a mother seeing her kid and his playmates misbehaving, and rather than discipline the kids, she would take away the toys and hope they would learn a lesson (of course, after much weeping and wailing, the toys would be returned). In another sense, this policy was a form of waging war by gun control writ large; gun control being a favorite domestic citizen control tactic of the Clinton administration.
The post-911 era only heightened the fears of terrorist groups acquiring what was now called weapons of mass destruction (WMD); a term that was quickly politicized to mean any number of conventional weapons as well as chemical, biological, and nuclear warheads simply to gain funding to jump on the CP bandwagon. (In one case, the official government definition of WMD could be construed to cover hand grenades.) In typical beltway fashion, Congress threw tons of money and people at the military and intelligence agencies to track down materiel and the people who would sell and buy the technology and weapons. A great idea in theory, and of course, it was a huge boon to the intelligence agencies and the defense contractors which supported them.
Everything was falling into place for the Clinton holdovers and the beltway elites of the American left. They had the ear of a post 911 fearful Congress and the valid concerns of the American people. It seemed the taxpayer funded revenue stream and the nanny approach to countering WMD would never end. After all, bad actors will always be with us, as are banned weapons and materiel. The thing to remember is that the focus of CP programs and money was Russia. It seems that the huge amounts of dollars were spent with never quite solving the problems of materiel and weapon accountability. To this day, the US taxpayer foots the bill for questionable CP programs in Russia run by the Department of Energy, even while the country is under sanctions for its actions in Ukraine.
So, when GW Bush assumed office, the missing “W’s” from the computer keyboards would be the least of his worries. He also inherited a leftist, hostile beltway bureaucracy that included some intelligence assets which would later come back to oppose the President’s decisions, even in a time of war, and CP protocols that were selectively applied to certain favored nations. But initially, there was a big problem for the CP gravy train. In 2003, President George Bush decided to act against a dictator who had never been held fully accountable for his WMD, and inadvertently (?) reveal Clinton administration connections to Saddam’s nuclear material.
There were two separate, yet related, capabilities of Saddam’s WMDs. One was accountability of chemical/biological weapons and the other was the residual nuclear material and equipment. The chemical weapons must be addressed first since they clearly reveal a disloyal opposition in the very agencies which are supposed to inform our decision makers and reduce uncertainty for our warfighters.
It was an established fact that Saddam had used chemical weapons against his own people, and prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), he had also failed to account for his chemical weapons and biological seed stock despite repeated inspections by UNSCOM. The accurate accounting of Iraq’s weapons, something that UNSCOM and the CP community were established to do, could not with any degree of certainty, prove or disprove the weapons’ presence even after several years of intelligence gathering and analysis.
In the end, the Bush administration decision to initiate OIF rendered moot the do-loop of conflicting intelligence assessments, soft UN inspection programs, and beltway hand wringing by use of some combat divisions and fighter wings. What could be a more proactive counter-proliferation measure than that? Yet, if you thought the intelligence community would have been on board with actually putting eyes on the ground to confirm or deny Saddam’s WMD capabilities, you would be wrong.
By withholding finds of chemical weapons to the public, the CIA reinforced the left’s “Bush lied, people died” meme. Finally, after 11 years, the New York Times revealed that chemical weapons were there in Iraq. This was not due to the Times or the CIA feeling guilty about a decade-long record of deceit. It was because US soldiers had encountered chemical rounds, with some suffering wounds resulting in long-term disabilities. Once news broke of their medical claims it would have been another hit against the MSM and the intel community. In other words, the issue was belatedly forced on the NYT and the CIA.
While the media and the military covered up chemical weapons finds in Iraq, the CIA embarked on a program to purchase nerve agent rockets unaccounted for by Saddam and UN inspectors. The Times reported:
The extraordinary arms purchase plan, known as Operation Avarice, began in 2005 and continued into 2006, and the American military deemed it a nonproliferation success.
Note the use of the term “non-proliferation” versus “counter-proliferation.” The CIA did in fact accomplish a non-proliferation mission, and were correct in saying so, because the one responsible for the actual counter-proliferation operation was George W. Bush. The CIA may have had bragging rights in accounting for Saddam’s weapons, but the secretive nature of the finds was really about opposing a CinC in a time of war and protecting beltway turf.
But unlike Saddam’s chemical weapons, which were covered in a cloak of secrecy, his nuclear materials ultimately revealed a direct connection to two former Clinton administration officials.
Prior to OIF, and contrary to US media reports, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) never gave Saddam a “clean bill of health” concerning his supposedly dormant nuclear program. The UN’s doubts were well justified, as there were not only 550 tons of yellowcake at the Tuwaitha nuclear research center, but tons of other radiological material, which if discovered in an unsecured state in Russia, would have generated another $100 million or so from Congress to immediately rectify the situation.
At this point, two people who were very familiar with the uranium business and connected to the Clinton administration enter the picture: Joe Wilson and Mary McCarthy.
If someone views uranium as a commodity to bought and sold rather than a proliferation concern, the CIA’s Valerie Plame could not have picked a better man to send to Niger than husband Joe Wilson. His mission was to discredit President Bush's claim that Iraq had sought quantities of uranium from Africa (emphasis added). Wilson was President Clinton’s Ambassador to the Gabonese Republic from 1992 to 1995. Gabon was a producer of uranium, as were several other African countries, so he must have been deeply knowledgeable about uranium production and trade in all of Africa and about global customers for yellowcake. Wilson’s position in Gabon raises questions about his official trip to Niger in hopes of countering Bush ‘43 and a British intelligence report about African uranium acquisition. The British report, by the way, has yet to be proven false.
In a sense, Clinton holdovers were getting a twofer. Wilson could fabricate a non-finding of Bush’s statement about Saddam wanting to acquire uranium from Africa, and he could also protect uranium trade interests from outside scrutiny. After all, it is a highly profitable commodity traded under UN supervision and restrictions, a set of circumstances known to produce extraordinary opportunities for both profit and corruption, as in the UN’s Oil-for-Food program. For example, current market price for one pound of uranium is about $38.00; therefore, Saddam’s 550 tons of yellowcake would today sell for nearly $42 million.
The other player from the Clinton era is former CIA officer Mary McCarthy, who was fired in 2006 for leaking a story about a secret network of CIA-run prisons in Europe. Ms. McCarthy was appointed to the White House as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Intelligence Programs in 1998. One aspect of her background that had gotten little attention at the time, was that her first job at the CIA was an Africa specialist, and before that she was employed by Beri, SA. Possibly by coincidence, Beri provides business intelligence services including a Mineral Extraction and Risk Assessment for countries that are expected to show growth in oil, gas, and mineral extraction capacity. If one had advance access to economic intelligence and had fostered close business ties over the years with uranium producers, huge financial gains would be possible. Given the Clintons’ dealings with Uranium One, the Wilson-McCarthy-Africa connection may indicate the start of high level US intelligence and Foreign Service personnel taking advantage of the chaos of war and lax security of nuclear materiel for personal gain.
Ultimately, Iraq’s 550 tons of yellowcake was shipped out in 2008. After five years of publicly scoffing at the yellowcake find and its use in making the fissile material, the MSM reported that the shipping operation was conducted in secret, and that,
It also brought relief to U.S. and Iraqi authorities who had worried the cache would reach insurgents or smugglers crossing to Iran to aid its nuclear ambitions.
So, once again some agency gets a CP feather in its cap thanks to George Bush despite five years of the “Bush lied” mantra. The Iraqi uranium was sold to Canadian uranium producer, Cameco Corporation for “tens of millions of dollars.” In case you’re wondering, there appears to be no direct connection between Comeco and the Uranium One consortium related to the Clinton Foundation scandal. However, Mr. Guerman Kornilov, Ph.D., a Non-executive Director at Uranium One held several senior management positions at Cameco in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, including the Director of Trading. What influence he had on the Iraq uranium shipment or any connections to the Clintons are unknowns.
Unfortunately, the story of Clinton holdovers in the intelligence and foreign services waging a campaign of opposition to a sitting president doesn’t end with Iraq’s WMDs. The beltway sensed blood, and the influence peddling and deception would only get worse when Iranian nuclear ambitions entered the picture. And naturally, the obvious beneficiary would be Russia.
The Iranian Gambit
Without public acknowledgement of the CIA’s WMD finds in Iraq, the left and US intelligence agencies were emboldened and decided to go beyond informing decision makers, but also to prevent a gun shy Bush administration from taking action against Iran. It was also puzzling and frustrating that the President’s advisors – chief among them Karl Rove – chose at first to emphasize the WMD rationale for going to war; and in a great disservice to the president and the American people, eventually adopted a “move on” attitude about WMD even while our soldiers were being wounded by direct encounters with chemical warheads. The contrast between the 2005 and the 2007 National Intelligence Estimates is a good example of the beltway influence racket involving Iran’s nuclear program.
In 2005, a series of key negotiations were ongoing between Iran and what was then called the European-3 (France, Britain, and Germany), and with Russia. The primary area of concern was that the E-3 and Russian agreement with Iran called for the spent fuel rods to be shipped out of Iran for reprocessing. This is because any reactor burning uranium results in the spent fuel containing plutonium. From there, it is a matter of chemical processing, not nuclear, to extract the plutonium.
From the EU's perspective, the deal put forth was probably the best that could be expected for the West. The E-3 would recover and account for the spent fuel, while Russia would get billions of rubles for refurbishing the civil nuclear power plant at Bushehr. There was also a significant economic benefit for certain members of the EU. Nuclear fuel reprocessing for commercial reactor fuel ended in the US in the late 70s. However, outside of Russia, there were only a limited number of reprocessing facilities. These plants happened to be in Belgium, France, Germany, and the UK.
The Russians also offered to return the spent fuel to their facilities for reprocessing. (This is not a new proposal by Putin, as part of Obama’s current deal with Iran as the media would have us believe.) Not only that, in 2005 the Russians stated that the spent fuel rods would be kept in a cooling pond for ten years, far more than the industry standard of 150 days. Ten years is plenty of time for the mullahs to deceive an IAEA inspection team, which has historically been unable or unwilling to conduct proper inspections and report violations with other budding nuclear powers. The reason for this is simple: the IAEA cannot conduct inspections without the consent of the country in question.
So, Iran's rejection of the offer not only meant the loss of billions of Euros for potential reprocessing contracts for the E-3, it also left Russia as the only country in a position to provide the full range of nuclear fuel cycle services. Of course, this was just fine with Iran. In this way the fuel could remain in “the family” and Putin would not be out billions of rubles in contracts. However, no fuel elements were shipped to Iran after the talks collapsed.
Then, two years later, a controversial assessment about Iran’s nuclear program was published. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2007 concluded that the mullahs had halted their nuclear program in 2003. Amazingly, even the IAEA stated that it was “not that generous with Iran” in its own assessment of the situation. For a full critique of the NIE see here.
Why was the IAEA suspicious? It wasn’t only because of the supposed halt to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but also because Iran’s civil program was removed from the calculus to assess Iran’s technological capabilities for producing enough fissile material for a bomb. The New York Times even omits this fact in its timeline covering Iran’s nuclear development. This is all the more confounding since the CP community regards civil power reactors as the “gateway drug” for developing nuclear weapon technologies. This glaring omission not only failed to address previous deceptions on the part of Russia and Rosatom (the State Corporation for Atomic Energy), it essentially gave a green light to Russia to ramp up its support to the Iranians and the Bushehr reactor.
The report came out in November of 2007, and over the next two months Russia delivered nearly 97 tons of uranium fuel elements manufactured at the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant for the Russian built VVER-1000 reactor at Bushehr. The uranium had low enrichment levels ranging from 1.6 percent to 3.62 percent. In my view, the 2007 NIE enabled another instance of Russian resource nationalism concerning highly controlled uranium fuel elements while rendering CP protocols meaningless. This is especially frustrating given this concerned a country which had received huge amounts of US funding and services to prevent material from moving to terrorist supporting states.
The financial gains of course were significant to the suppliers. TVEL manages the Novosibirsk plant under the direction of Rosatom, just as Rosatom oversees the mining operations of Uranium One, the company currently involved in the Clinton foundation scandal. Of note, in October of 2014, the Senior Vice President at TVEL, Vasily Konstantinov, assumed the duties as President of Uranium One). I am not stating or implying any direct connection with former Clinton administration staff as in the case of Iraq’s uranium. This is to show that only a limited number of firms have the wherewithal to provide services and products for the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Therefore, what benefits Rosatom and TVEL, will enrich all of its investors.
Ultimately, what was the practical effect of rushing the fuel elements to Iran? Here is power plant’s track record:
- December 2007 –January 2008 – Fuel shipped to Iran
- September 2009 - , the first reactor was 96% complete; final testing would begin in the near future
- August 2010 - Iran began loading the plant with fuel.
- November 2010 - Iran declared that "All fuel assemblies have been loaded into the core of the reactor" and they were hoping that the facility "will hook up with the national grid in one or two months"
- February 2011, Rosatom announced that one of the reactor’s four main cooling pumps had suffered damage; repairs required the removal of the fuel core; i.e., the reactor had to be defueled (emphasis added)
- September 2011 - official inauguration; plant was at 40% capacity
- February 2012 - reached 75 percent of its power generation capacity
- August 2012 – reached 100 percent of its power generation capacity
- September 2013 - the Bushehr plant began producing power on the power grid
So, it took two and a half years to finally load the fuel, and over five and one-half years went by after fuel was shipped before Bushehr was hooked up to the grid to provide a whopping two percent of Iran’s electrical needs. (At two percent why do the mullahs insist this will enable them to export more oil?) Maintenance problems have actually plagued the reactor from the get go, so why rush the uranium shipment? It could have been because of contractual requirements, but taking advantage of the soft intel assessment of the 2007 NIE cannot be discounted.
In dealing with Iran, we have witnessed a level of technical and economic cooperation heretofore unseen between an extremist Islamic regime and, supposedly, a nominal ally in the War on Terror. Russia was and is now the only willing nuclear supplier and technical advisor available to support the mullahs' plans to become a nuclear power. Some of these Russian suppliers also have had dealings with the Clintons through their foundation and have acquired a significant chunk of global uranium mining and nuclear fuel production.
Counter-proliferation, once useful for dealing with Russian materials and technologies in the post-Cold War chaos, has been co-opted to aid select dictators and to enrich the power elite. It has also been simultaneously reduced to meaningless rhetoric any global limitations on WMD without a military capability to back it up. For example, Obama’s series of “redlines” established to stop Assad’s alleged use of chlorine gas has proved any tough talk to be a cruel joke. There are no true redlines unless one has the will and the military means to make it effective, just as G.W. Bush did in Iraq in 2003.
In addition, there have been many indicators since the Iraq War started that the intelligence community and the beltway’s internal war against the Bush administration was much more than ideological. For some it was not about the struggle for democracy and freedom to protect our national interest, it was about empire building for personal aggrandizement. While there are many talented and patriotic people in the Intelligence Community, institutionally, the agencies have failed to cope with the supreme irony. That is, the descendants of the defeated USSR have manipulated well-meaning US programs and with the assistance of the Clinton gang, have placed US and Western security in jeopardy.
Obama’s policies have not only mirrored Clinton soft power nonsense, but have carried it to a worldwide disastrous conclusion. The administration has managed to convince Congress to continue down the path of ever increasing intel funding without a commensurate build up of conventional combat power to action the intelligence they produce, or to maintain a viable nuclear force to deter current or future hostile nuclear powers.
This is the real challenge for the next, hopefully, conservative President. Getting our own house in order will take a Herculean effort, but without it, we’re doomed to continue our slide into corruption, irrelevance, and ultimately submission to our enemies.
John Smith is a former member of the intelligence community who has had assignments in Europe and the Middle East. He previously wrote about intelligence agency influence peddling in the Fast and Furious scandal. He currently lives overseas.