June 27, 2004

Joe Wilson: A Botched Niger Mission?

Remember Joe Wilson, he of the cheesy V.F. photo shoot that seemed meant to evoke an aura of Gatsbyesque grandeur and Viennese espionage derring-do (rather underwhelmingly, I'd have to say)?

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Recall Wilson had this to say about his trip to Niger:

I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place....

...If my information was deemed inaccurate, I understand (though I would be very interested to know why). If, however, the information was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses.

Might Wilson have spent a tad too much time sipping all that tea?

Check out this, quite interesting, piece from today's FT.

To be sure, as the FT article reminds us, some documents that detailed alleged uranium transfers as between Niger and Iraq have indeed proved fraudulent.

So why then, now many months out, is British intelligence still sticking by the story, despite the embarrassing forgeries?

Here's why:

However, European intelligence officers have now revealed that three years before the fake documents became public, human and electronic intelligence sources from a number of countries picked up repeated discussion of an illicit trade in uranium from Niger. One of the customers discussed by the traders was Iraq.

These intelligence officials now say the forged documents appear to have been part of a "scam", and the actual intelligence showing discussion of uranium supply has been ignored.

More:

The FT has now learnt that three European intelligence services were aware of possible illicit trade in uranium from Niger between 1999 and 2001. Human intelligence gathered in Italy and Africa more than three years before the Iraq war had shown Niger officials referring to possible illicit uranium deals with at least five countries, including Iraq.

This intelligence provided clues about plans by Libya and Iran to develop their undeclared nuclear programmes. Niger officials were also discussing sales to North Korea and China of uranium ore or the "yellow cake" refined from it: the raw materials that can be progressively enriched to make nuclear bombs.

The raw intelligence on the negotiations included indications that Libya was investing in Niger's uranium industry to prop it up at a time when demand had fallen, and that sales to Iraq were just a part of the clandestine export plan. These secret exports would allow countries with undeclared nuclear programmes to build up uranium stockpiles.

One nuclear counter-proliferation expert told the FT: "If I am going to make a bomb, I am not going to use the uranium that I have declared. I am going to use what I acquire clandestinely, if I am going to keep the programme hidden."

As the FT wryly closes its piece:

Mr Wilson was critical of the Bush administration's use of secret intelligence, and has since charged that the White House sought to intimidate him by leaking the identity of his wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA agent.

But Mr Wilson also stated in his account of the visit that Mohamed Sayeed al-Sahaf, Iraq's former information minister, was identified to him by a Niger official as having sought to discuss trade with Niger.

As Niger's other main export is goats, some intelligence officials have surmised uranium was what Mr Sahaf was referring to.

Goats, yellowcake, sweet tea--what's the difference?

It's all about "false pretenses" and a mad rush to war!

UPDATE: The FT is now giving this story bigger coverage and has a second (lead) story up:

Intelligence officers learned between 1999 and 2001 that uranium smugglers planned to sell illicitly mined Nigerien uranium ore, or refined ore called yellow cake, to Iran, Libya, China, North Korea and Iraq.

These claims support the assertion made in the British government dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme in September 2002 that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from an African country, confirmed later as Niger. George W. Bush, US president, referred to the issue in his State of the Union address in January 2003.

The claim that the illicit export of uranium was under discussion was widely dismissed when letters referring to the sales - apparently sent by a Nigerien official to a senior official in Saddam Hussein's regime - were proved by the International Atomic Energy Agency to be forgeries. This embarrassed the US and led the administration to reverse its earlier claim.

But European intelligence officials have for the first time confirmed that information provided by human intelligence sources during an operation mounted in Europe and Africa produced sufficient evidence for them to believe that Niger was the centre of a clandestine international trade in uranium.

Well, I guess that's one fewer "lie" to throw at the feet of the Bushies.

But, of course, in the cretinous intellectual and political climate we inhabit (where the likes of Michael Moore parade about playing pretend noble dissident and are applauded by our estimable "cultural" arbitrers--from Tarantino's Cannes to Weinstein's Ziegfeld bash)--how many will read this critical update to the yellowcake chronicles in the august pages of the FT (or Instapundit!)?

Too few, doubtless.

Oh, and might Sy Hersh want to clarify his earlier New Yorker reporting on this matter?

The Bush Administration’s reliance on the Niger documents may, however, have stemmed from more than bureaucratic carelessness or political overreaching. Forged documents and false accusations have been an element in U.S. and British policy toward Iraq at least since the fall of 1997, after an impasse over U.N. inspections. Then as now, the Security Council was divided, with the French, the Russians, and the Chinese telling the United States and the United Kingdom that they were being too tough on the Iraqis. President Bill Clinton, weakened by the impeachment proceedings, hinted of renewed bombing, but, then as now, the British and the Americans were losing the battle for international public opinion. A former Clinton Administration official told me that London had resorted to, among other things, spreading false information about Iraq. The British propaganda program—part of its Information Operations, or I/Ops—was known to a few senior officials in Washington. “I knew that was going on,” the former Clinton Administration official said of the British efforts. “We were getting ready for action in Iraq, and we wanted the Brits to prepare.

Hersh might owe British intelligence a little apology, no?

After all, he accused them of cooking the books on Niger.

"Sexed up" intel and all that.

But, rather, it looks like, if anything, the story was a lot bigger than what Hersh derisively accused the Brits of hyping.

It, reportedly, wasn't just Iraq that may have trying to obtain uranium from Niger.

For good measure, throw in China, NoKo, Libya, and Iran too.

So who comes off looking more credible in this whole affair: Bush/Blair--or Hersh/Wilson?

I report, you decide.

N.B: But, as you do so, recall Wilson went out to Niger and sent back the 'all clear' to HQ on the yellowcake front.

He'll have a lot of egg on his face if it turns out Niger was, per the FT, at the "centre of a clandestine international trade in uranium", no?

But, then again, he was never the spy in the family!

STILL MORE:

Josh Marshall appears to intimate the FT has been peddled some misinformation.

He mostly ignores the FT's main revelation (that Niger may have been at the center of a clandestine international trade in uranium) and instead focuses on the identity of the forger.

Marshall all but formally announces he's got a mega, air-tight story in the works that will apparently point to a different person or persons or organizations (ie, not the unnamed Italian businessman) regarding the "origins of those forged documents and who was involved."

He then provides this "hypothetical" to put the FT piece in context:

Let's say that certain individuals or organizations are responsible for some rather unfortunate misdeeds. And let's further postulate that such hypothetical individuals or organizations find out that some folks are on to them, that a story is in the works -- perhaps more than one -- and that it's coming right at them. Those individuals or organizations -- as shorthand, let's call them 'the bad actors' -- might well start trying to fight back, trying to gin up an alternative storyline to exculpate themselves and inculpate others. If that story made its way into the news, at a minimum, it might help the bad actors muddy the waters for when the real story comes out. You can see how such a regrettable turn of events might come to pass.

Developing...TPM versus the Financial Times!

(Or is it TPM--or some other media outlet Josh may be working on the story for singly or jointly with others--versus "the bad actors"?)

I wish Josh the best of luck if he's got a scoop of this size.

He would become a launched journalistic brand.

But, it's worth bearing in mind, the FT isn't stock-full of gullible hacks.

And there's still the matter, quite aside from the identity of the forger(s), of whether Niger sat at an epicenter of major cross-border trade in uranium or not.

We can't just sweep that issue aside, can we?



Posted by Gregory Djerejian at June 27, 2004 10:44 PM