Thursday, July 15, 2004

The Yellowcake Con

The Yellowcake Con
From the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page
The Wilson-Plame "scandal" was political pulp fiction.

Thursday, July 15, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT
So now the British government has published its own inquiry into the intelligence behind the invasion of Iraq, with equally devastating implications for the credibility of the Bush-Blair "lied" crowd. Like last week's 511-page document from the Senate Intelligence Committee, the exhaustive British study found some flawed intelligence but no evidence of "deliberate distortion." Inquiry leader Lord Butler told reporters that Prime Minister Tony Blair had "acted in good faith."

What's more, Lord Butler was not ready to dismiss Saddam Hussein as a threat merely because no large "stockpiles" of weapons of mass destruction have been found. The report concludes that Saddam probably intended to pursue his banned programs, including the nuclear one, if and when U.N. sanctions were lifted; that research, development and procurement continued so WMD capabilities could be sustained; and that he was pursuing the development of WMD delivery systems--missiles--of longer range than the U.N. permitted.

But the part that may prove most salient in the U.S. is that, like the Senate Intelligence findings, the Butler report vindicates President Bush on the allegedly misleading "16 words" regarding uranium from Africa: "We conclude also that the statement in President Bush's State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that 'The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa' was well-founded." (Click here for more excerpts.)

We're awaiting apologies from former Ambassador Joe Wilson, and all those who championed him, after his July 2003 New York Times op-ed alleging that Mr. Bush had "twisted" intelligence "to exaggerate the Iraqi threat." The news is also relevant to the question of whether any crime was committed when a still unknown Administration official told columnist Robert Novak that Mr. Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA employee and that's why he had been recommended for a sensitive mission to Niger. A Justice Department special prosecutor is investigating the case, with especially paralyzing effect on the office of the Vice President.

In that New York Times piece, readers will recall, Mr. Wilson outed himself as the person who had been sent to Niger by the CIA in February 2002 to investigate claims that Iraq might have been seeking yellowcake ore for its weapons program. Vice President Dick Cheney had asked for the CIA's opinion on the issue after reading a Defense intelligence report.

Mr. Wilson wrote that "It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place." He claimed he informed the CIA of his findings upon his return, was certain reports of his debrief had circulated through appropriate channels, and that the Administration had chosen to ignore his debunking of the story.

After the Novak column appeared, Mr. Wilson charged that his wife was outed solely as punishment for his daring dissent from White House policy. To that end, he has repeatedly denied that his wife played a role in his selection for the mission. "Valerie had nothing to do with the matter," he wrote in his book "The Politics of Truth." "She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip." A huge political uproar ensued.

But very little of what Mr. Wilson has said has turned out to be true. For starters, his wife did recommend him for that trip. The Senate report quotes from a February 12, 2002, memo from Ms. Plame: "my husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity."

This matters a lot. There's a big difference both legally and ethically between revealing an agent's identity for the revenge purpose of ruining her career, and citing nepotism (truthfully!) to explain to a puzzled reporter why an undistinguished and obviously partisan former ambassador had been sent to investigate this "crazy report" (his wife's words to the Senate). We'd argue that once her husband broke his own cover to become a partisan actor, Ms. Plame's own motives in recommending her husband deserved to become part of the public debate. She had herself become political.

Mr. Wilson also seems to have dissembled about how he concluded that there was nothing to the Iraq-Niger uranium story, serving for example as the anonymous source for a June 12, 2003, Washington Post story saying "among the Envoy's conclusions was that the documents may have been forged because 'the dates were wrong and the names were wrong.' " There were some forged documents related to an Iraq-Niger uranium deal. Trouble was, such documents had not even come to the intelligence community (never mind to Mr. Wilson's attention) by the time of his trip, and obviously hadn't been the basis of the report he'd been sent to investigate. He told the Senate he may have "mispoken"--at some length we guess--on this issue.

The Senate Intelligence Committee found, finally, that far from debunking the Iraq-Niger story, Mr. Wilson's debrief was interpreted as providing "some confirmation of foreign government service reporting" that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger. Why? Because he'd reported that former Nigerien Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki had told him of a 1999 visit by the Iraqis to discuss "commercial relations," which the leader of the one-industry country logically interpreted as interest in uranium.
Remember that Messrs. Bush and Blair only said that Iraq had "sought" or was "trying to buy" uranium, not that it had succeeded. It now appears that both leaders have been far more scrupulous in discussing this and related issues than much of the media in either of their countries, which would embarrass the journalistic profession, if that were possible.

All of this matters because Mr. Wilson's disinformation became the vanguard of a year-long assault on Mr. Bush's credibility. The political goal was to portray the President as a "liar," regardless of the facts. Now that we know those facts, Americans can decide who the real liars are.

Saddam, Uranium and Africa
What two investigations say about Bush's statements on Iraq, yellowcake and Niger.

Thursday, July 15, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT
From the "Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction" chaired by Lord Butler, published yesterday by the British House of Commons (a related editorial appears nearby):

493. In early 1999, Iraqi officials visited a number of African countries, including Niger. The visit was detected by intelligence, and some details were subsequently confirmed by Iraq. . . .

494. There was further and separate intelligence that in 1999 the Iraqi regime had also made inquiries about the purchase of uranium ore in the Democratic Republic of Congo. . . .

497. In preparing the dossier, the U.K. consulted the U.S. The CIA advised caution about any suggestion that Iraq had succeeded in acquiring uranium from Africa, but agreed that here was evidence that it had been sought.

498. The range of evidence described above underlay the relevant passage in the Prime Minister's statement in the House of Commons on 24 September 2002 that: "In addition, we know that Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa, although we do not know whether he has been successful."

499. We conclude that, on the basis of the intelligence assessments at the time, covering both Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the statements on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa in the Government's dossier, and by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, were well-founded. By extension, we conclude also that the statement in President Bush's State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" was well-founded.

500. We also note that, because the intelligence evidence was inconclusive, neither the Government's dossier nor the Prime Minister went on to say that a deal between the Governments of Iraq and Niger for the supply of uranium had been signed, or uranium shipped.

501. We have been told that it was not until early 2003 that the British Government became aware that the U.S. (and other states) had received from a journalistic source a number of documents alleged to cover the Iraqi procurement of uranium from Niger. Those documents were passed to the IAEA, which in its update report to the United Nations Security Council in March 2003 determined that the papers were forgeries. . . .

503. From our examination of the intelligence and other material on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa, we have concluded that:

a. It is accepted by all parties that Iraqi officials visited Niger in 1999.

b. The British Government had intelligence from several different sources indicating that this visit was for the purpose of acquiring uranium. Since uranium constitutes almost three-quarters of Niger's exports, the intelligence was credible.

c. The evidence was not conclusive that Iraq actually purchased, as opposed to having sought, uranium and the British Government did not claim this.

d. The forged documents were not available to the British Government at the time its assessment was made, and so the fact of the forgery does not undermine it.

From page 46 of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report published last Friday:

The CIA's DO [Directorate of Operations] gave the former ambassador's [Joe Wilson's] information a grade of "good". . . because the information responded to at least some of the outstanding questions in the Intelligence Community, but did not provide substantial new information. He [the reports officer] said he judged that the most important fact in the report was that Nigerien officials admitted that the Iraqi delegation had traveled there in 1999, and that the Nigerien Prime Minister believed the Iraqis were interested in purchasing uranium, because this provided some confirmation of foreign government service reporting. . . .

DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] and CIA analysts said that when they saw the intelligence report they did not believe that it supplied much new information and did not think that it clarified the story on the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium deal. They did not find Nigerien denial that they had discussed uranium sales with Iraq as very surprising because they had no expectation that Niger would admit to such an agreement if it did exist. The analysts did, however, find it interesting that the former Nigerien Prime Minister said an Iraqi delegation had visited Niger for what he believed was to discuss uranium sales.