Sunday, July 11, 2004

The Sixteen Words, Vindicated

Last summer, a controversy arose over a single 16 word sentence from President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address:

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

The controversy regarding this statement, which the CIA could not independently confirm, became a major basis for the "Bush lied!" argument used by so many on the left. At the forefront of the assault on the administration's credibility was former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. In February 2002, at the behest of the CIA, he visited the African nation of Niger in order to investigate reports that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from that nation. He described his trip in a July 6, 2003 opinion piece for the New York Times.

According to Wilson, the charges were baseless, and the administration must have known it. When, during the ensuing controversy, it was revealed that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, he responded with righteous indignation. Wilson insisted that his wife had nothing to do with his being asked to go to Niger, and that her identity had been maliciously leaked in order to punish him. To many liberals, Wilson became a heroic martyr, who exposed the wicked lies of the Bush Administration. He was able to parlay his new fame into a book deal. Wilson and his wife even did a photo shoot for Vanity Fair, which seemed a bit odd for someone who claimed to be so concerned about protecting his wife's anonymity. Heady times indeed for a man who actively keeps track of what he calls his "notoriety quotient".

Unfortunately for Ambassador Wilson and his adherents, the story has not ended there. In spite of the controversy here in the US, British intelligence has stood by its reporting. On June 27, the Financial Times explained why:

The FT has now learnt that three European intelligence services were aware of possible illicit trade in uranium from Niger between 1999 and 2001. Human intelligence gathered in Italy and Africa more than three years before the Iraq war had shown Niger officials referring to possible illicit uranium deals with at least five countries, including Iraq.
This intelligence provided clues about plans by Libya and Iran to develop their undeclared nuclear programmes. Niger officials were also discussing sales to North Korea and China of uranium ore or the "yellow cake" refined from it: the raw materials that can be progressively enriched to make nuclear bombs.

The raw intelligence on the negotiations included indications that Libya was investing in Niger's uranium industry to prop it up at a time when demand had fallen, and that sales to Iraq were just a part of the clandestine export plan. These secret exports would allow countries with undeclared nuclear programmes to build up uranium stockpiles.

One nuclear counter-proliferation expert told the FT: "If I am going to make a bomb, I am not going to use the uranium that I have declared. I am going to use what I acquire clandestinely, if I am going to keep the programme hidden."

Courtesy of Belgravia Dispatch, which has much more.

On July 7, the FT published some additional reporting on this issue:

A UK government inquiry into the intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq is expected to conclude that Britain's spies were correct to say that Saddam Hussein's regime sought to buy uranium from Niger.

The inquiry by Lord Butler, which was delivered to the printers on Wednesday and is expected to be released on July 14, has examined the intelligence that underpinned the UK government's claims about the threat from Iraq. . . .

The Financial Times revealed last week that a key part of the UK's intelligence on the uranium came from a European intelligence service that undertook a three-year surveillance of an alleged clandestine uranium-smuggling operation of which Iraq was a part.

Intelligence officials have now confirmed that the results of this operation formed an important part of the conclusions of British intelligence. The same information was passed to the US but US officials did not incorporate it in their assessment.

Courtesy Instapundit.

In other words. the "sixteen words" were indeed true. Bush's statement was both accurate and appropriate. So much for "Bush lied!", and for Joe Wilson's investigative skills.

The final nail in the coffin of the Joe Wilson view of the Niger/Iraq/uranium story comes, ironically enough, from the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report released on Friday, July 9. According to the committee's findings, as reported by the Washington Post, someone lied about Niger, and it wasn't the administration:

Wilson's assertions -- both about what he found in Niger and what the Bush administration did with the information -- were undermined yesterday in a bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report.

The panel found that Wilson's report, rather than debunking intelligence about purported uranium sales to Iraq, as he has said, bolstered the case for most intelligence analysts. And contrary to Wilson's assertions and even the government's previous statements, the CIA did not tell the White House it had qualms about the reliability of the Africa intelligence that made its way into 16 fateful words in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address.

Yesterday's report said that whether Iraq sought to buy lightly enriched "yellowcake" uranium from Niger is one of the few bits of prewar intelligence that remains an open question. Much of the rest of the intelligence suggesting a buildup of weapons of mass destruction was unfounded, the report said.

But wait, there's more:

The report turns a harsh spotlight on what Wilson has said about his role in gathering prewar intelligence, most pointedly by asserting that his wife, CIA employee Valerie Plame, recommended him.

Plame's role could be significant in an ongoing investigation into whether a crime was committed when her name and employment were disclosed to reporters last summer.

As the article notes, this is yet another blow to Wilson's credibility:

The report states that a CIA official told the Senate committee that Plame "offered up" Wilson's name for the Niger trip, then on Feb. 12, 2002, sent a memo to a deputy chief in the CIA's Directorate of Operations saying her 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." The next day, the operations official cabled an overseas officer seeking concurrence with the idea of sending Wilson, the report said.

Wilson has asserted that his wife was not involved in the decision to send him to Niger.

"Valerie had nothing to do with the matter," Wilson wrote in a memoir published this year. "She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip."

The Post itself was a victim of Wilson's lack of candor:

The report also said Wilson provided misleading information to The Washington Post last June. He said then that he concluded the Niger intelligence was based on documents that had clearly been forged because "the dates were wrong and the names were wrong."

"Committee staff asked how the former ambassador could have come to the conclusion that the 'dates were wrong and the names were wrong' when he had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports," the Senate panel said. Wilson told the panel he may have been confused and may have "misspoken" to reporters. The documents -- purported sales agreements between Niger and Iraq -- were not in U.S. hands until eight months after Wilson made his trip to Niger.

The report is available via the Senate Select Intelligence Committee Web site. It's a PDF file of over 500 pages, so you'll need to have a broadband or DSL connection to open it. The section on Niger covers pgs. 36-80. See also the additional views of Chairman Roberts, starting on p. 441.

I eagerly await the upcoming repudiation of Joe Wilson by the Democrats and the "Bush lied!" crowd. Somehow, I know not to hold my breath while waiting.


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