Iraq and Niger: A Twisted, Tangled Tale

Despite two painstaking inquiries, the truth about Saddam's attempts to buy black-market uranium remains clouded in confusion

By Stan Crock

If you want to understand how the intelligence community could have gotten so much wrong before 9/11 and the Iraq war, two recent reports offer eye-opening case studies of the murky world of intel analysis. Usually, 20-20 hindsight is perfect. But even Monday morning quarterbacks in the U.S. and Britain can't agree on what conclusions to reach about alleged Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium in Niger for a nuclear-weapons program.

This has enormous consequences. A huge flap erupted over the 16 words on the topic in President Bush's State of the Union speech last year. And a special counsel is investigating whether anyone at the White House broke the law in disclosing the name of a CIA employee whose husband issued a report on the Niger effort.

AFRICAN WHISPERS.

  Let's start at the beginning: According to the scenario laid out in a July 14 report by Britain's Lord Butler, some Iraqi officials visited a number of African countries, including Niger, in early 1999. Three-quarters of Niger's exports are uranium, and Iraq had purchased uranium from the country in the late 1970s, before Baghdad became self-sufficient in the mining of the ore.

Trouble is, the mines were damaged in the first Persian Gulf War. And with international inspectors in Iraq in the '90s guarding whatever ore was out of the ground, Baghdad would have had to import uranium to pursue its bomb.

The British had intelligence suggesting the purpose of the Niger visit was to buy ore, and other reports indicated Iraqi efforts to buy uranium in the Democratic Republic of Congo. All of this led the Brits to conclude in a Sept. 24, 2002, white paper that Iraq had sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa. And given that Iraq had no active civil nuclear program that would require uranium, only one inference could be drawn: Iraq wanted a nuke.

BLAIR'S BLUNDER.

  Still, it was far from clear the sales took place or that Saddam Hussein was making any real progress. On Sept. 24, in the lead-up to war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament about Iraq's attempts to buy uranium, with the caveat that he did not know if the efforts bore fruit.

The next month, an Italian journalist released some documents that purported to show Niger and Iraq had struck a deal for uranium. The papers turned out to be forgeries, according to a March, 2003, report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA also reviewed the travel report of the Iraqi official who went to Niger in 1999 and interviewed him. The agency's conclusion: The visit was an innocent one to invite the President of Niger to visit Iraq.

As a result, the agency concluded that no evidence showed an attempt to obtain uranium. That doesn't mean no attempt was made, only that the IAEA had no evidence of one.

The bottom line for Lord Butler: Because the British government didn't know about the forgeries when Blair made his September statement, that statement was based on credible intelligence.

FORGING TOWARD WAR.

  Can the same be said for President Bush and his State of the Union? Butler thinks that by extension, Bush's statement -- "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" was "well-founded." That's odd because Administration officials were quick to say after the speech that the level of certainty about the allegations wasn't high enough for the sentence to have been in the address.

Indeed, the CIA had long been skeptical of the British take on Niger and had told both Congress and the White House as much in October, 2002, according to the July 9 report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Among the reasons for U.S. reservations: One of the mines that allegedly was a source of the uranium had been flooded, and the other was under the control of the French, not Niger's government.

And in January, 2003, before the State of the Union speech, intel officers at both State and the CIA were suspicious of the "sale" documents. In an e-mail, one State official made it clear he thought the papers were forgeries. That should have raised red flags about all of the allegations. Indeed, the Senate Committee concluded that until October, 2002, when U.S. officials obtained the forged documents, it would have been reasonable to assume that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium -- but not after that. By Stan Crock

MURDEROUS OR MUNDANE?

  Trouble is, the President gave his speech four months later. So Butler's conclusion that Blair and Bush were in the same position and that both acted reasonably don't square with the Senate panel's conclusion.

To make your head spin even more, the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community was that you could completely ignore the uranium issue and conclude Iraq was trying to reconstitute its nuclear capability. Why? It was buying such things as aluminum tubes, magnets, and machine tools. However, those are dual-use items that could have been purchased for completely innocent commercial purposes. Do you go to war over such ambiguous evidence?

Just to add another 360-degree spin, the Financial Times recently reported that European intelligence agencies believe Niger had been trying to sell its uranium to rogue nations. Could all the statements actually be true after all, or is the paper getting woofed?

If the Bush Administration and its defenders have credibility problems, one of its chief critics does, too. Joseph C. Wilson IV, the former ambassador the CIA sent to Niger in early 2002 to check out the allegations, doesn't come out well in the Senate committee report. He is portrayed as having said his wife, Valerie Plame, who worked for the CIA, had nothing to do with his trip, yet the Senate panel says she suggested in an e-mail he would be the perfect person in light of his contacts in the region.

OPEN QUESTIONS.

  And in a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed piece, Wilson said his trip disproved the notion that Iraq was trying to obtain nukes. In fact, according to the committee report, Wilson's report said the Prime Minister of Niger confirmed a separate 1999 meeting with Iraqi officials and that the Nigerian leader believed the Iraqis wanted to buy uranium.

Wilson himself puts all of this in a very different light. He told me his critics are lifting half of a sentence out of his recently published book and ignoring the second half. He wrote that other than serving as a conduit for the agency, Plame had nothing to do with the trip. So he was acknowledging some involvement on her part but suggesting that she wasn't responsible for his assignment.

That, I'm reliably told, is true. The CIA is unclear about the sequence of events that led to her e-mail but holds out the possibility Plame did not initiate the discussion.

And what of the meeting between the Iraqis and the Nigerian President? Wilson agrees it's a fair assumption the Iraqis wanted to talk about uranium. But Niger's President steered the discussion away from trade, so the topic never came up. Was this an attempt to acquire significant amounts of uranium? Or was it a sign the efforts went nowhere? Was this a reason for war?

FOG AND CONFUSION.

  Wilson's Times piece, which suggested the Administration manipulated intelligence about Saddam, evidently prompted someone in the Administration to tell reporters Plame worked as an operative for the CIA. Was the motive merely to explain why Wilson was given the Niger mission? That's what some Administration supporters say.

But such a disclosure normally would come in response to a reporter's question about why Wilson was sent. Yet it has been reported that five media organizations got phone calls about Plame's identity. It just doesn't add up.

In fact, none of this does. And that's one of the problems with intelligence. Even in hindsight, people can disagree on what took place and what was reasonable to conclude. We can add all the human intelligence we want, and it's not likely things will get better.

Don't expect smoking guns to make what's happening clear. It will be a matter of connecting dots -- but viewing those dots and the patterns that emerge through the distorting prism one brings to the task. Uncertainty and errors are inevitable. There's a lesson here, one articulated brilliantly in a graffito on a wall in Belfast years ago: "If you aren't confused, you don't understand the situation."

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE