The Nucleus of the Scandal

The White House still maintains there was evidence other than crude forgeries to back its prewar charge Saddam Hussein was trying to procure uranium from Niger, giving a reed of hope to loyal defenders that the whole Iraq nuke scare wasn’t an orchestrated fraud begging for cover-up.

But when pressed, the White House defers to the British government, which insists the charge was based on sources other than the fake Niger documents. The purported "other sources" remain unnamed.

But in a revealing, albeit little-reported, letter to the House Government Reform Committee, a senior State Department official suggests the other source of the uranium hoax was Italy – an all-too-eager ally in the Iraq war which provided the forged document information to both the Bush and Blair administrations. (Now, ironically enough, Italy wants to pull out of the Iraq mess it helped create.)

Paul V. Kelly, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, says the administration received information about the uranium allegation from two foreign sources – the "intelligence services" of the British government and a second "Western European ally," which can only be Italy. The Italian press is now reporting that Italian intelligence officials met with top Bush and Blair officials before the war to share the rotten intelligence. They all bit greedily, in spite of the CIA warning them off it.

"Not until March 4 [2003, on the eve of war] did we learn that in fact the second Western European government [Rome] had based its assessment on the evidence already available to the U.S. that was subsequently discredited," Kelly claims in his April 29, 2003, letter responding to a request from Democrats on the panel for more information. In fact, central intelligence knew long before that date.

But listen to the subtler confession about "discredited" evidence. Kelly is saying, in so many words, that all three countries – the U.S., U.K. and Italy, in a cabal of the willing to deceive – picked from the same garbage to make the alarmist case Hussein was actively seeking fuel for his fictional nukes.

And each provided the other with plausible deniability, however weak, should they be caught in their scam. Sure enough, now that the forgeries have been exposed, each has claimed they did not base their uranium charge exclusively on them, but had other sources – namely government intelligence services from abroad. For the U.S., it was the MI6. For the U.K., it was SISMI, whose source, in turn, is said to be a neocon agent of the Pentagon. Never mind that the circle starts and ends with the forgeries.

"Based on what appeared at the time to be multiple sources for the information in question, we acted in good faith," blushes Kelly, a Bush appointee, in an after-the-fact effort to absolve him and his boss Colin Powell for their part in a fraudulent war that has stained their hands, as well, with the blood of thousands of brave young U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi women and children.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair maintains he has intelligence "independent" of the Niger documents to back the claim Hussein recently sought uranium from the African nation, though he says he has not shared it with U.S. intelligence, or his own legislature. Oh? Pray tell, what could it be? During a postwar visit here, Blair dropped a hint: "In the 1980s, we know for sure that Iraq purchased round about 270 tons of uranium from Niger." That is, Iraq and Niger have a history of this stuff, so … .

The White House has also offered past deals as additional evidence to buttress the uranium claim. NSC adviser Steve Hadley has argued the Niger allegation rang true because "we also knew that [Hussein] had uranium oxide … and that he had obtained about 200 tons of that, roughly, from Niger."

Of course, an ancient commercial relationship is no proof any new deals were negotiated as claimed before Congress and the world.

Besides, UNSCOM and IAEA have known for years that Iraq had uranium concentrate, or "yellowcake" – about 550 metric tons, in fact – and had monitored its inventory in Tuwaitha through regular inspections. Iraq acquired it before the first Gulf war.

That’s nothing new. What’s new was the claim that Hussein recently sought an additional 500 tons – a huge amount – from Niger.

The alleged attempted acquisition (couched in final presidential speech drafts as "significant quantities from Africa") was critical to the administration’s case that Iraq "has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons," as Vice President Dick Cheney claimed just three days before the war.

It takes hundreds of tons of unrefined uranium to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to make a single nuclear bomb. In addition, the refining process requires thousands of gas centrifuges to separate the isotopes. These centrifuges, in turn, require tubing to make the casings for the rotors that spin inside them.

One-Two Punch

In a one-two punch, President Bush in his prewar State of the Union accused Iraq of not only aggressively seeking uranium from abroad, but also thousands of aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons.

The tubing charge has also been discredited.

In October 2002, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence speculated Baghdad could make a nuclear bomb in a year or less only if it "acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad." The judgment was published in the declassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq weapons, roughly 80 pages of which is still secret (this is separate from the 25-page propagandized version of the NIE, an unclassified "white paper" the administration stripped of caveats, qualifiers and other doubts and made public on the CIA website the same month for the benefit of the Fox News Channel and other media lapdogs).

"Without such material from abroad," however, "Iraq probably would not be able to make a weapon until 2007 to 2009," the real NIE report continues.

That’s a big difference: one year away from a nuke with large uranium imports, or five to seven years without them. Without the Niger uranium allegation, the five-to-seven year scenario was not sufficiently alarming to justify starting a war.

It’s clear from another part of the NIE that the White House knew an Iraqi agreement to purchase 500 tons or more of uranium would "shorten the time Baghdad needs to produce nuclear weapons" – if the deal were true, that is, and the CIA had serious doubts that it was.

White House security advisers simply ignored CIA warnings to drop the spurious uranium allegation in the State of the Union speech. Why? Those 16 words were essential to conveying a sense of urgency about the alleged Iraqi threat. They represented the newest thread in an otherwise old blanket of evidence recast from dusty U.N. weapons-inspections reports and tips from dubious Iraqi defectors who’d been out of the country for years.

The CIA warned Hadley and his predecessor Condi Rice not to mention the Niger business in Bush’s speech in Cincinnati three months before the State of the Union, so they knew the information was, at best, poor intelligence.

But the White House was hellbent to make the case for war against Iraq, and the speech was slanted to try to convince as many Americans as possible that Hussein and his alleged weapons posed a direct threat to these shores. Bush left the charge out of his Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati, but astonishingly, it resurfaced in his State of the Union speech just a few months later.

The White House contends officials simply forgot about the earlier CIA warnings, even though they were memorialized in at least two memos, one of which went to Rice. During the drafting of the State of the Union, moreover, CIA analysts lodged new concerns with Rice staffers, who insisted on reinserting the allegation in the speech. Rice maintains neither she nor the president were aware of CIA concerns at the time, even though the wording on the uranium line changed dramatically during the speech draft process – a process in which Bush had a hands-on role, internal White House photos show.

Other African countries?

In further defending its uranium charge, the White House now says there may have been other African countries contacted by Iraq. It says Bush wasn’t referring to just Niger when he said "Africa." And officials point to the select parts of the NIE (the White House was compelled to declassify) that cite Somalia and Congo.

But there are problems with this explanation, as well.

The relevant passage states: "Reports indicate Iraq also has sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of Congo."

The very next sentence, however, casts doubt on the reliability of the "reports." And for good reason: both the amounts of uranium and the dates they supposedly were sought are missing from the alleged Somalia and Congo connections.

The phony Niger claim, on the other hand, cites both amount and date. Discussed earlier on the same page of the NIE, it says that Iraq was "working out arrangements for … up to 500 tons of yellowcake" as of early 2001.

So it’s unlikely the president was referring to Somalia or Congo when he asserted Hussein "recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." He most likely meant Niger.

Indeed, former White House spokesman Ari Fleisher is on record stating that "the president’s statement was based on the predicate of the yellowcake from Niger." And Hadley has confirmed Niger was at the center of the row with the CIA over the earlier Cincinnati speech.

Further, Somalia and Congo aren’t even among the top African nations that produce uranium. Besides Niger, they are Gabon, South Africa and Namibia.

Even if there were something to the Somalia and Congo rumors, former CIA Director George Tenet has said the various intelligence agencies concluded that reports about the alleged African uranium deals were "fragmentary." And none of them made it into the key judgments section of the NIE, which is meant to be read by the president and his national security adviser. And by logical extension, they were too sketchy to be used by the president in a historic war speech – yet the president’s advisers still cherry-picked the information from what was in effect the bleacher-bum section of the report.

State’s intelligence arm, then headed by Bush appointee Carl W. Ford, was less kind, calling all the Iraq-Africa allegations "highly dubious" further on in the NIE report, echoing former George H. W. Bush diplomat Joseph Wilson’s own findings several months earlier.

NSC spokesman Michael Anton essentially agreed with Tenet on July 8, 2003, when in a prepared statement, he said: "The other reporting that suggested Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from Africa is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that such attempts in fact were made."

But that’s not all. There’s yet another indication the administration’s uranium claim was based on the phony Niger documents.

As soon as IAEA nuclear inspectors heard the claim issued by Powell’s State Department in December 2002 that Iraq was trying to procure uranium from Niger, they asked the administration to provide "any actionable information" that would aid them in confronting Iraq and Niger with the allegation, as was their job.

The information they finally received – a month-and-a-half later, and just after Bush’s State of the Union speech, tellingly – consisted of only the Niger documents, which they quickly and easily exposed as crude forgeries.

No other additional information was provided to IAEA by the administration to support the uranium charge, according to IAEA spokesman Piet de Klerk, in a June 20, 2003, letter to the House Government Reform Committee. The head of IAEA, moreover, has stated publicly that the forged documents "formed the basis" for the White House’s charge.

And the forgeries were likely the underlying source of the NIE report’s Niger claims, as well. The NIE cites a "foreign government service" – now revealed as Italy’s SISMI – as its source for the Niger claim.

In his letter to Congress, Kelly says State’s Dec. 19, 2002, fact sheet making the Niger charge "was a product developed jointly by the CIA and the State Department." And State’s source was Britain and Italy, whose source was the forged Niger documents, making it the central source. (It’s curious who at the CIA would have helped State "develop" those erroneous "facts" when the agency had just waved both Bush and Blair off them.)

Technically Correct?

A desperate White House has also argued that the president’s State of the Union statement, while based on bogus intelligence, was nonetheless technically accurate because he attributed it in the final draft, after much back-and-forth between at least NSC staffers and concerned CIA analysts, to the "British government."

However, that argument assumes the administration didn’t know the British government’s allegation was faulty, when in fact the CIA warned the British government to drop the uranium charge back in September 2002, after Blair published it in his Iraq dossier. No, citing the Brits was merely CYA – of the most cynical variety.

Also, other top administration officials, including the president’s security adviser and defense secretary, have made the uranium accusation on their own – without any attribution to Britain.

Rice’s charge, which she made in the New York Times just five days before Bush’s, was naked. Iraq had failed to explain its "efforts to get uranium from abroad," she asserted in her Jan. 23, 2003, op-ed piece. The defense secretary also made the charge on his own. The day after Bush’s State of the Union address, Donald Rumsfeld declared that Hussein’s regime "recently was discovered seeking significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Even some Republicans are puzzled over why an American president would blindly rely on British intelligence to help justify a war that he was initiating. "Why should we use intelligence cited by a foreign government as justification for going to war?" wonders Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.

Despite growing doubts, the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill refuses to hold open hearings to investigate the merits of the intelligence used by the Bush administration to start the Iraq war. In its half-baked report on Iraq intelligence, the Republican-controlled Senate Select Committee on Intelligence took a dive when it came to investigating the origin of the forgeries.

Lacking subpoena power, minority Democrats cannot compel the White House to comply with requests for more information. The White House has stonewalled several written requests for additional information to explain its uranium charge, which is at the heart of the mushrooming leak scandal.

Hopefully, it will not be outside the scope of Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s ongoing conspiracy investigation. The prosecutor says he still wants to know why so many White House officials were so concerned about Wilson.