Wilson & Uranium from Africa
Joe Wilson has an oped in today's Los Angeles Times [mirrored here].
Conservatives have distorted the SSCI report and the Butler report to two ends: preemptively excusing any criminal charges related to the leaking of the identity of Joe Wilson's wife (Valerie Plame) as a NOC CIA operative (see David Corn's account of a WSJ editorial here), and exonerating Bush of the charge that he lied in the 2003 State of the Union when he claimed "British intelligence has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." (William Safire here)
Both uses are laughable, but they have succeeded in turning the national conversation to the minutiae of Wilson's credibility, away from the glaring weakness of the administration's case for war.
In February 1999 the Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican, Wissam al-Zahawie, visited four African countries, including Niger. The visits were public, and the American ambassador to Niger, Charles Cecil, filed a report at the time, based at least in part on a picture in the local media. There was nothing suspicious about the visit, and at the time the Nigerien government was trying to improve relations with the United States. [SSCI Report p. 42] There was no mention of uranium.
Niger's two top exports are livestock and uranium. The British government has relied on this fact as evidence that Zahawie's visits were part of an Iraqi effort to procure urnaium [Butler Report para. 493]. Zahawie, though, claimed that the visit was part of an effort to get African heads of state to visit Baghdad to weaken the UN sanctions and build support for their elimination [article mirrored here]. Libya had used a similar tactic in the early nineties. The IAEA investigated this explanation and determined that it was credible [Butler Report para. 502]. The Nigerien President agreed to visit Baghdad in April but was assassinated prior to the visit.
There are two uranium mines in Niger, an open pit mine run by SOMAIR (Arlit) and an underground mine run by COMINAK (Akouta). The mines, six kilometers apart, are owned and operated by a consortium headed by France's Cogema and including Japan, Germany, Spain, and Niger. After being converted to yellowcake (uranium oxide) on site, the uranium is processed into uranium hexaflouride by the French Comurhex, and most of it was sold to France and Japan in 1999 [pdf]. It would be logistically very difficult to steal uranium from this complex. There is also significant IAEA oversight of the complex, which would have made diversion difficult.
In the aftermath of September 11th, the Italian intelligence service SISMI forwarded a report on Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium from Niger. [SSCI Report p. 36] The report alleged that after a year of negotiation the State Court of Niger, with the assent of the Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Nassirou Sabo, "concluded an accord to provide several tons of uranium to Iraq." [SSCI Report p.36]
The American intelligence community doubted the SISMI report. Rep. Henry Waxman compiled media reports of Intelligence Community (IC) skepticism [pdf] about the general claims in 2003. I will probably update this list at some point in the near future.
Nonetheless, the report was forwarded/stovepiped to the OVP. Cheney asked his intelligence briefer about the report, and his briefer sought out more information. He reported back that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger in the early eighties. In 1981, Hussein had purchased uranium from the Nigerien government. Cheney was interested, and asked for more information. [See Hersh]
The CIA decided to send Joe Wilson to investigate the claims. Wilson had extensive contacts in the area and had been singled out by GHWB for his heroism in the first Gulf War. His wife, Valerie Plame, was also a CIA operative who was able to facilitate his trip.
Wilson was called into a meeting with the CIA where he was given background information on the charges. He was then sent to Niger to verify the claims. There was no evidence to support any of the specific information, and all of the actors indicated in the report denied any involvement. The former Prime Minister of Niger reported that he met with the Iraqi ambassador, and that Zahawie mentioned "expanding trade relations," which the PM believed was an oblique reference to uranium.
U.S. Marine General Carlton W. Fulton Jr. also visited Niger and reported to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers that the uranium facilities were secure. He was accompanied in his meeting with Niger's President, Mamadou Tandja and Foreign Minister Aichatou Mindaoudou by the US Ambassador to Niger Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick. She filed a report with the State Department discrediting the SISMI intelligence claim [SSCI report 41-42].
These reports have been dismissed as casual interviews by non-intelligence operatives, not up to the task of discovering the diabolical Iraqi machinations. These critics are overlooking how ludicrous the allegations were to begin with. There is no plausible scenario by which a secret Iraq-Niger agreement could be implemented. If it isn't formal, approved by the consortium actually controlling the uranium mines and the IAEA, it doesn't happen. This is exactly what Wilson, Fulton and Owens-Kirkpatrick reported: the consortium controls were in place, and there was no formal agreement.
It doesn't take a lot of effort to debunk these ridiculous claims. That they were believed at all is evidence of horrible negligence, an unwillingness to look at the actual operation of the uranium mines, and a potentially bad-faith credulity when it came to anti-Hussein allegations.