The uranium that never was

It took the British government exactly three weeks, but on Tuesday an envelope arrived at the offices of the Commons foreign affairs committee containing Jack Straw’s response to one of the more perplexing episodes in the committee’s investigation about the decision to go to war with Iraq.

In its critical report, one of the key requests was: “We recommend that the government explain on what evidence it relied for its judgment in September 2002 that Iraq had recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Yesterday we discover that the question was still being ducked—because Straw’s response was confined to nine questions put to him by the committee chairman, Donald Anderson, and this specific information was not formally requested.

So the mysteries of the Niger connection will continue to cause political embarrassment.

At their heart are the questions: were British and US intelligence hoodwinked by a set of documents that were revealed to be crude forgeries? Or was the Niger story—inserted in the UK’s September 2002 dossier and repeated by Bush in his state of the union speech in January—just another attempt to egg the intelligence pudding as a casus belli? The British position is that the inclusion of the allegation was based on different information.

Straw did answer the question about when British officials knew that the documents were forged: incredibly, it was not until the forgeries were exposed as such by the International Atomic Energy Agency in March this year.

In the absence of any clarity from the government, there have been some developments in recent weeks that shed new light on the matter. We now know that for at least five months from October 2002 some senior US and British intelligence analysts examined 17 pages of correspondence, written in French, which appeared to support the allegation.

Copies of the documents were handed over to the US embassy in Rome that month by an Italian journalist, Elisabetta Burba. She said they came from a reliable source, but after investigation she believed they were fakes.

So what did the experts make of these pages? The first page, probably genuine, is a telex from the Niger ambassador to Rome to the foreign ministry in the Niger capital, Niamey, announcing the official visit of the Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See, Wissam al Zahawie.
Perhaps al Zahawie was going on a shopping trip—but apart from uranium, the only things Niger exported were cattle, cow-peas and onions.

Then there was the three-page accord for the uranium sale, allegedly signed on July 6 2000. As an accompanying letter of October 10 pointed out, it was being sent for information to the ambassador in Rome from the foreign ministry. The letter, however, would have struck anyone familiar with Niger as very odd. The heading included the words Conseil Militaire Supreme, a body which had been abolished in May 1989. It was signed by the foreign minister, Allele Elhadj Habibou. In 15 seconds an advanced Google search result shows that he held the post in 1988-89.

The intelligence sleuths must have been struck by at least half a dozen other peculiarities, for example a letter from Niger’s president with an inaccurate representation of the national emblem.

They would almost certainly have done some cursory research on Niger’s uranium industry—the third largest in the world. In a couple of minutes they would have found that it was run by the French company Cogema. A company official told the Guardian: “Cogema has at no point sold uranium from its mines in the Niger to Iraq. Careful records are kept of production in each of our mines.”

But the Americans still did not venture beyond scepticism. In those five months private doubts, although not outright denunciations, from US intelligence were circulated to senior administration officials.

But on December 19 a State Department fact sheet identified Niger for the first time. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeated the allegations in January. On January 28 Bush cited the British dossier—an inclusion that CIA director George Tenet now says should not have happened.

So where did the Niger connection come from? Democratic congressman Henry Waxman demanded some answers from the president. On April 29 Paul Kelly, a senior State Department official, replied on Bush’s behalf: “Beginning in late 2001,” he wrote, “the United States obtained information through several channels, including US intelligence sources… In addition, two western European allies informed us of similar reporting from their own intelligence services.”

He made it clear that one was Britain. The second at first refused to say if it had independent evidence. “Not until March 4 did we learn that in fact the second western European government had based its assessment on the evidence already available to the US that was subsequently discredited.”

Kelly’s remarks reveal that the forgeries, or at least a summary of what they contained, were actually circulating before Burba walked into the US embassy in Rome.

The US reaction to those early reports was to dispatch their man to the dust of the Sahel. Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador to Gabon, spent eight days in Niamey in February 2002. He revealed his mission in the New York Times on July 6 this year, saying he was sent by the CIA on behalf of the vice-president’s office.

Wilson concluded that the uranium claim was “highly doubtful”. But despite warnings from the CIA to MI6, the British published. In the US, however, doubts increased. A classified national intelligence estimate in October, said: “Finally, the claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in INR’s assessment, highly dubious.”

An early explanation for the forgeries was that they were created by a diplomat in Niger’s Rome embassy and passed or sold to the Italians, who then circulated summaries of the information. Two weeks ago the Italians finally admitted they were the source. After a closed session of the Italian parliament, it was confirmed that the allegation was being investigated by the military intelligence organisation in 2001 and that a “reciprocal exchange of information” was made with allied secret services.

Congressional and parliamentary committees, the FBI and Italian magistrates are all trying to get to the bottom of what might charitably be called wilful incompetence.

For the evidence to date suggests that the claim, probably emanating from the same tainted source in Italy, and circulated round the spookeries of Europe, was one that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic wanted to believe and promote. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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