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The UK on Niger

Given that most of the countries whose intelligence services thought Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger were working off the same set of forged documents, one key issue is what was the United Kingdom basing their assessment that this happened on. Today we get the British version of the Senate intelligence inquiry which has this rather unenlightening summary of the situation (paragraph 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.

So that doesn't tell us anything as to what the basis of this intelligence was. Since Iraq did not, in fact, acquire any uranium from Niger, if they did seek it, it would be nice to know why they didn't wind up getting it. Depending on what this story is, that could be something that tends to make us more fearful of the Iraqi threat (if they failed for reasons that seem highly contingent or that were likely to change in the near future) or it might make us less fearful (if they failed for fundamental reasons that were unlikely to change, and would thus give us confidence that irrespective of what Saddam wanted, he couldn't get it).

Now what's very odd is that this conclusion is at odds with both the IAEA and the US government's thinking on the issue. Britain seems to have "shared" its intelligence in this manner in the sense that it's said, "hey, we've got intelligence saying it happened" but since other agencies haven't been able to find any non-forged evidence to back up this conclusion, they say it didn't happen. Now I had always understood that US and UK intelligence shared a very close working relationship so it's hard to see why the UK isn't being more forthcoming.

It seems possibly relevant at this point to note that the SSCI Report identifies four defector-provided sources of Iraqi HUMINT that it regards as having been unreliable. One of these sources has his name redacted in the report specifically because he is still being used as a source by British intelligence. That's a pretty serious divide between the agencies in question, if one is writing him up as a cause of intelligence failures and the other is using him as an ongoing source of information. The guy in question was being used for information related to Iraqi BW programs, so it probably has nothing to do with the uranium issue per se, but does tend to indicate that there's a more complicated story about the international difference of opinion on Iraq-related questions (it's notable, for example, that before the war German intelligence was the one painting the most threatening picture of Iraqi activities, their government's anti-war views and Iraq's ties to German business notwithstanding).

Stepping back, I should add that this African (the report seems to indicate that intelligence suggesting efforts to buy uranium from the Congo was more solid) uranium business doesn't make a great deal of sense to me in light of the discrediting of the aluminum tube story and other reports that the nuclear program had been discredited. Uranium ore doesn't get you any closer to a bomb if you're not building the facilities in which to enrich it. What's more, Iraq already had uranium ore from its program in the 1980s, albeit in country under IAEA supervision. And it had the capability of acquiring more ore domestically, which is how it got that old ore.

July 14, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Now you're getting it.

Posted by: praktike | Jul 14, 2004 10:57:17 AM

On the face of your quote, it's not established that Iraq didn't obtain uranium. It's merely not known that they did. Personally, in Saddam's position, I might have run the entire nuclear program in another country which was under less observation...

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jul 14, 2004 11:11:52 AM

"in Saddam's position, I might have run the entire nuclear program in another country"

Saddam's nukes aren't in Dallas. I swear. I have looked around and not an aluminum tube to be found.

For gas and burritos, I'll check out Austin. Happy to serve.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 14, 2004 12:05:41 PM

If I were in Saddam's position, I would never have invaded Kuwait.

And if wishes were fishes, we'd all have a fry.

Posted by: praktike | Jul 14, 2004 12:06:02 PM

"Depending on what this story is, that could be something that tends to make us more fearful of the Iraqi threat (if they failed for reasons that seem highly contingent or that were likely to change in the near future) or it might make us less fearful (if they failed for fundamental reasons that were unlikely to change, and would thus give us confidence that irrespective of what Saddam wanted, he couldn't get it)."

If they failed to obtain uranium from Niger for fundamental reasons that were unlikely to change, and would thus give us confidence that irrespective of what Saddam wanted, he couldn't get it from Niger.

The problem is that not being able to get uranium from one source isn't as reassuring as Saddam no longer seeking it.

The problem is that Saddam was seeking uranium at a time when he was still under close scrutiny.

The STOU argument was that we have excellent reasons not trust his intentions, and that containment isn't a good long term option because of the serious differences between USSR-style warfare, and terrorist warfare.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Jul 14, 2004 1:10:12 PM

Whatever, Sebastian.

He had no capability to do anything with the yellowcake that he may have wanted but didn't get other than fling it us.

Posted by: praktike | Jul 14, 2004 1:22:36 PM

"On the face of your quote, it's not established that Iraq didn't obtain uranium. It's merely not known that they did."

I'm never quite so insecure as when I do not know whether or not another agent does not present a threat to my well-being. An excellent standard from the moral clarity crowd.

Posted by: Kriston | Jul 14, 2004 1:43:51 PM

It's a little premature to say that, praktike. For example, I wouldn't want 500 tons of marshmellows flung at me, let alone 500 tons of yellowcake.

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Jul 14, 2004 2:15:01 PM

Actually a very clever ploy. Apparently the forged documents were planted with numerous intelligence (sic) agencies, and each referred to the others hearing the same thing as their "proof".

There's a fine standard of evidence- "Well, I don't know, but everyone is saying it...."

Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 14, 2004 3:49:40 PM

How about chocolatecake Walt Pohl?

Posted by: epistemology | Jul 14, 2004 3:51:06 PM

1. Iraq had no WMD's when Bush went charging in, so Clinton and Bush's father had successfully declawed Saddam. Thanks, weapons inspectors!
2. The flawed intelligence, which you will never fully understand reading heavily redacted reports, was Bush's responsibility to fix after 9/11.

Posted by: epistemology | Jul 14, 2004 3:55:09 PM

Personally, I favor the most plausible explanation: Saddam *thought* he had Weapons of Mass Destruction because, after all, he was funding WMD programs and his aides were reporting to him that they had said weapons.

One consequence of fraud and corruption is that there is a paper trail which can be picked up by foreign intelligence agencies. It's also the sort of thing that is best kept an actual secret by the people who are perpetrating the fraud.

I don't fault the Iraqis in charge for not sending the US a double-secret comminique saying 'Dear Mrs. Wilson, Niger trip really about goatskins, for nuclear stuff we've got bupkis' while sending Saddam a bogus trip report telling about the attempt to procure yellowcake and some receipts.

Posted by: Hurm | Jul 14, 2004 4:37:54 PM

Matt,

This is about the sixteen words that Joe Wilson and so many others used as "proof" that Bush lied. Well, the British haven't rescinded their intelligence report yet, now have they? So not only did Bush not lie, but Wilson has been caught in a lie about whether or not his wife is the one who put up his tea-drinking trip. Read Belgravia Dispatch for more on this.

f

Posted by: Fred Schoeneman | Jul 14, 2004 7:19:33 PM

The orchestration of the 'soft landing' for Bush and Blair continues.

Posted by: xc | Jul 14, 2004 7:55:28 PM

Britain seems to have "shared" its intelligence in this manner in the sense that it's said, "hey, we've got intelligence saying it happened" but since other agencies haven't been able to find any non-forged evidence to back up this conclusion, they say it didn't happen. Now I had always understood that US and UK intelligence shared a very close working relationship so it's hard to see why the UK isn't being more forthcoming.

Yep. What's more: Jack Straw is on record as saying there was 'very good reason' not to share its additional sources on Niger with the CIA.

Which is more than a bit weird. And it meant that the CIA certainly didn't trust the British intel.

In other news, Fred Schoeneman reiterates that for the right, it's all about targetting Wilson in order to divert attention from the outing of his wife. Objectively pro treason-related-activities.

Posted by: nick | Jul 14, 2004 7:57:00 PM

OK, why not speculate?

Say the british got their info from somebody else, the french or the italians maybe, and that somebody else told them not to pass it on.

The british tell the americans they know but they can't say how they know.

Then maybe the british do give it to the CIA but make them promise they won't say they have it.

Or maybe the americans steal it from the british.

Either way, they have it but they can't let on.

Now say some of that information includes the forgeries. They're suspicious of those and show them to Wilson who tells them they're forged; he knows somebody who should have signed the contract who didn't. They send him to Niger to check up on the other names.

He comes back, yes, it's definitely forged.

But they can't say that he did because officially they have to pretend they didn't have it to show to him.

When asked to reveal his report they gut it because messing up the relationship with MI6 is more important than being truthful to the Senate.

And then there's all the *rest* of the stuff they lifted from the british that they still can't admit they've seen....

It's only speculation, but it fits.

Posted by: J Thomas | Jul 15, 2004 5:13:41 AM

Matt, I agree with Bob Somerby that the world could stand to have a little more acknowledgement from pundits (including yourself) of the following two things: (a) the word "Africa" does not mean the same thing as the the word "Niger"; and (b) the Brits were paying a lot more attention to Congo and Somalia than to Niger (a small country that, I must once again stress, is not coterminous with the continent of Africa). Since you are many times more reasonable than the vast majority of blog pundits, I have sometimes held the cherished notion in my head that you might be someone who might bring up these heretofore all-but-neglected topics.

Posted by: Combustible Boy | Jul 15, 2004 9:17:46 AM

J Thomas: my speculation is a bit more tinfoil-hatted. What if the British intel is actually from an American source -- an MI6 source within the CIA? I dunno, but the idea that MI6 and the CIA aren't spying on each other is just a bit naive.

Re: DR Congo. The one uranium mine (Shinkolobwe) was concreted over by the Belgians after WW2; there have been reports of attempts to begin illegal quarrying, usually with a North Korean connection. That said, the Iraqi intel archives suggest tentative contacts with a Kenyan middleman that went no further than that.

But again, it's worth saying that the British intel on the DR Congo was not (and has not been) officially shared with the CIA.

Posted by: nick | Jul 15, 2004 5:09:51 PM

Nick, the british claim they had important evidence that the CIA didn't. That means it wasn't something they got from the CIA.

Maybe it's just that MI6 is more loyal to Blair than CIA is to Bush? So they lie for him better?

Note the wording of the Senate report:

"IC analysts at the CIA and DIA were more impressed with the detail and substance of the second report [Feb 2002]. One analyst noted that the report contained much more information than they had seen previously in similar reporting about alleged uranium transactions to other countries." page 38

Even if they didn't have copies of the documents, they may have had enough information for Wilson to find problems with it, that he could then be sent to Niger to doublecheck. But that doesn't explain why he wouldn't just say so when asked, unless he wasn't quick thinking on his feet.

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