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Yellowcake to 'Plamegate'


By Peter Grier
The Christian Science Monitor

How mishandled intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war led to an indictment in the White House.

Washington - The first time the State Department intelligence analyst saw the documents he thought there was something weird about them.

The ones dealing with a purported uranium deal between Niger and Saddam Hussein's Iraq bore a validation stamp that seemed a bit funky, for one thing. And that companion paper! It outlined some kind of bizarre military campaign against world powers. Iraq and Iran were supposedly in it together - preposterous, given their enmity - and the whole thing was being run out of the Nigerien Embassy in Rome.

"Completely implausible," the analyst later recounted for investigators.

Because the documents had come from the same source, and were similar in appearance, they were probably all suspect. Maybe now the CIA and the rest of the US intelligence community would believe what the State Department had said for months: These allegations from a foreign intelligence service that Hussein was hunting for "yellowcake" - a uranium concentrate - in Africa were unlikely to be true.

But the CIA didn't look at the documents. A little over three months later President Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union speech, said 16 fateful words: "... the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

This is the story of how those words came to be, and how their effect rippled through the years, ultimately resulting in the criminal indictment of a high administration official, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Culled primarily from US government reports and congressional testimony, it deals with nuclear materials, foreign spies, and a secret trip to the finest refueling stop in Africa. It centers on a peculiar set of documents - provenance as yet unknown - that a presidential inquiry three years later found to be "transparently forged."

Much about the affair remains to be discovered. But one thing now seems clear: If US intelligence agencies had spent more time studying the evidence in their possession, the president might never had said those words. Scooter Libby probably would be in his White House office today.

The intelligence community's "failure to undertake a real review of the documents - even though their validity was the subject of serious doubts - was a major failure of the intelligence system," the presidentially appointed Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States concluded last March.

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In its natural state uranium occurs in tiny concentrations. Thus, the first stop for crushed rock from many uranium mines is a mill, where it is bathed in sulfuric acid, dried, and filtered. The result is a coarse uranium oxide power that is often yellow in color. That's where it gets its nickname, "yellowcake."

Yellowcake is itself a raw material. Enriched, it can serve as the beating heart of a nuclear power plant. Enriched to a higher level, it can serve as the fissile core of a nuclear bomb. For that reason, the destinations of yellowcake shipments are of interest to intelligence officials around the world.

Sometime in October 2001, a foreign government told US intelligence it had information indicating that Niger was planning to ship several tons of yellowcake to Iraq. (This government goes unnamed in official US accounts, but it is widely reported in the media to have been Italy.)

Several things about this allegation made sense. Along with Canada and Australia, Niger is one of the globe's largest producers of uranium. And Hussein knew all about yellowcake. He already had 550 tons, subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.

Still, US analysts were unimpressed. The report lacked detail. The US Embassy in Niger checked with the head of the French-led consortium that ran Niger's mines. According to an embassy cable, the reply was indignant: There was "no possibility" of such a diversion.

In February 2002, US intelligence received a second foreign government tip - from a country unnamed by unclassified US material. This contained more information, including an alleged verbatim text of the Niger-Iraq accord.

The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), its in-house intelligence-analysis agency, thought the whole thing baloney, since any nation that tried to transfer such a large quantity of a suspicious material was likely to be caught.

But the rest of US intelligence was taking notice. The source of this information was credible, claimed the CIA's intelligence-gathering directorate. So on Feb. 12, the Defense Intelligence Agency issued a finished intelligence product on the topic.

"Iraq probably is searching abroad for natural uranium to assist in its nuclear weapons program," concluded the DIA analysis.

It was at this point that the matter of Niger, Iraq, and yellowcake rocketed from intelligence ephemera to prime policy concern. The reason? Dick Cheney.

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Vice President Cheney read the DIA product on the day it was produced, according to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which investigated prewar intelligence and reported on it in July 2004. That day he asked his intelligence community briefer what the CIA thought about the Niger issue.

The result was a very unbureaucratic scurry of activity.

First, the CIA fired back an assessment that in so many words said, "We're working on it." It promised to see if the information could be corroborated.

Second, CIA experts began to confer as to how this corroboration could be done. Who could make discreet inquiries in the region? One Counterproliferation Division expert offered up a name: ex-Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who happened to be her husband.

The subsequent exposure of that expert - the clandestine operative Valerie Plame - led to the naming of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate the leak. In turn, that led to the indictment of Mr. Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, on charges of false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice.

But that was all in the future that February day. Ms. Plame was just someone talking up her husband's credentials - he "has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines," stated her memo to superiors.

She was blunter with her husband. She told congressional investigators that when she approached him on behalf of the CIA she said, "there's this crazy report" about Niger selling uranium to Iraq. Could he go to Niger and check out the deal?

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Niger is not the center of the universe. Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick realized that when she arrived there to take up the post of US ambassador in the fall of 1999.

One of the only ways she could lure top US officials for a visit was to encourage them to stop for refueling if they were overflying the region.

"I worked very hard to make Niger the best refueling stop in Africa," Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick told congressional investigators.

On Feb. 24, 2002, she snagged a big one: Marine Gen. Carlton Fulford, then deputy commander of US European Command. She decided to use his visit to raise the uranium issue with Nigerien officials. At her urging, General Fulford asked Niger's President Mamadou Tandja about it. President Tandja assured him that Niger's goal was to keep its uranium in "safe hands."

Two days later, Mr. Wilson landed on Owens-Kirkpatrick's doorstep. She'd already raised the issue with Niger's leaders, so she asked her CIA-dispatched visitor to limit his meetings to ex-officials and business contacts.

Wilson agreed. Among the people he met was former Nigerien Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki, who said he was unaware of any yellowcake contracts with rogue states - and that if any existed, he would know. Mr. Mayaki also mentioned that in 1999, when he was still in power, he'd met with an Iraqi delegation to discuss expanding commercial relations. He interpreted this to mean that the Iraqis were interested in yellowcake - it was Niger's biggest export, after all. But he told Wilson he'd steered the conversation to other topics, and then let the matter drop.

Before he left, Wilson told Owens- Kirkpatrick that as far as he was concerned it appeared highly unlikely anything was going on. Back home, he told CIA debriefers the same thing. He figured this information would be distributed to the White House, and Vice President Cheney, directly. Instead, the CIA produced no paper in response to his trip, and gave his effort a middling grade of "good."

It was not surprising that Nigeriens would play down reports of a yellowcake sale, analysts felt. One CIA officer believed Wilson's trip actually provided some confirmation of what the foreign tips were saying. Former Prime Minister Mayaki had acknowledged meeting with an Iraqi delegation, after all.

In the end, the US intelligence community had a fairly consistent response to ex-ambassador Wilson's dip into intelligence-gathering. "No one believed it added a great deal of new information to the Iraq-Niger uranium story," stated the report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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About one month after Wilson's trip, the CIA's intelligence-gathering arm received a third tip from a foreign government - again unnamed in unclassified US papers - that Niger and Iraq were working a yellowcake deal.

This report had yet more detail. The CIA's Iraq nuclear analyst (who is unnamed in government reports, as are most US intelligence analysts involved in this matter) saw nothing obviously suspicious about it. True, it contained one glaring mistake, but at the time it didn't seem like a big deal. The report placed July 7, 2000, on a Wednesday. That day was actually a Friday.

The relevant folks in Foggy Bottom remained unimpressed. Over at the State Department's INR, the Iraq nuclear analyst continued to argue that the whole thing didn't make sense. The substantial amounts allegedly involved amounted to a large percentage of Niger's yellowcake production. France controlled the mines - and anyway, one of the mines was flooded.

The CIA analyst stuck to his position. Niger wasn't the only place Hussein was supposedly shopping for uranium, he noted. Separate intelligence reports said Iraqi officials had been looking for yellowcake in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In the end the CIA and State counterparts "agreed to disagree," according to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Meanwhile, it was becoming clear to many in Washington that a US-led war to oust Hussein was possible, even likely, in the near future. By late summer 2002, key senators were beginning to complain that they would soon have to vote on a resolution on use of force in Iraq without a comprehensive US intelligence community estimate of the state of Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

So US intelligence began compiling one. On Sept. 25, the CIA hosted a big interagency meeting to discuss a draft of this National Intelligence Estimate. The uranium section was straightforward, repeating that a foreign government passed along reports of Hussein's interest in yellowcake.

The only analyst present who voiced disagreement was the one from State's INR, which serves as the department's in-house intelligence-analyzing agency.

The uranium text stayed in. But it wasn't included in the "key judgments" section. The consensus in the room held that Iraq's efforts to get more yellowcake weren't crucial to the argument that he was rebuilding his nuclear-weapons program.

"We'll leave it in the paper for completeness. Nobody can say we didn't connect the dots," said the person in charge of the paper, the national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs.

INR added a footnote that it found the uranium claim "highly dubious." But in the finished product, that dissent was all but lost. It was separated from the section on the alleged uranium deal by 60 pages.

Meanwhile, the British government made public its own official conclusions on the Niger subject, on Sept. 24, 2002. In response to unrest in Britain about the possibility of war, it issued a white paper on Iraq's WMD programs that, among other things, stated "there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

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The story of the documents may begin in Italy, in 1991.

That year - the year the first President Bush launched the first US war against Iraq - someone broke into the Nigerien Embassy in Rome. Reportedly, nothing was taken except paper - official letterhead of the Republic of Niger.

Eleven years later, on Oct. 9, 2002, an Italian journalist named Elisabetta Burba contacted the US Embassy in Rome. Ms. Burba worked for the magazine Panorama, part of the media empire of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and she had a question: Could the US authenticate some interesting documents that had come into her possession?

The papers depicted some sort of contract for uranium between Niger and Iraq. The source, who had provided them to Panorama, wanted 15,000 euros in return for publication, said Burba. Her bosses wouldn't pay that kind of money unless they were sure they weren't being misled.

That was what she told US diplomats in Italy, anyway. The diplomats were glad to oblige.

On Oct. 15 the embassy in Rome faxed the papers to the State Department's Bureau of Nonproliferation in Washington. That same day the bureau passed copies to State's INR.

This is the point when INR's nuclear analyst figured something was really wrong. That paper alleging a military campaign against world powers - it seemed ridiculous. And it had the same authentication stamp as the ones dealing with uranium.

At an interagency meeting the next day, intel analysts from the DIA, the Department of Energy, and the National Security Agency all snapped up copies of the documents. Four CIA employees attended that meeting. None remembers taking the Niger papers, although a postmortem search turned up copies in a CIA vault.

At that point the alleged uranium deal just wasn't a significant part of the CIA's argument that Hussein was rebuilding his nuclear program, the analysts later said. "Getting the documents was not a priority," one told Senate investigators.

Within months, that would change.

For one thing, the IAEA became interested in the alleged Niger-Iraq yellowcake deal. On Jan. 6, 2003, an IAEA official asked the US for any information it had backing up the claim.

And the INR analyst kept at it. On Jan. 13, he sent an e-mail to colleagues outlining his reasoning why the purchase agreement "probably is a hoax."

Reading this e-mail, the CIA's Iraq nuclear analyst realized he didn't have the supposedly ridiculous documents the missive discussed. He asked for copies.

The CIA finally received copies of the original foreign language documents detailing the supposed Niger-Iraq contract on Jan. 16, 2003.

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On Jan. 27, 2003, at a National Security Council meeting at the White House, someone handed George Tenet a paper copy of Bush's State of the Union address, to be delivered the next evening.

Then director of Central Intelligence, Mr. Tenet was a busy man, and he dealt with this document in the manner of busy people everywhere. He didn't read it, he testified later.

Instead, he handed it to an executive assistant, who presumably wasn't supposed to read it, to give to a top official in the CIA's intelligence directorate, who was. That official, being as busy as his boss, didn't read it either.

Thus nobody at the CIA's top levels saw that the president's signature speech of the year contained an assertion, sourced to British intelligence, that Hussein was seeking uranium oxide from Africa.

Three months earlier, Tenet had called the White House and insisted that similar words be excised from another speech.

But on Jan. 28, Tenet could only stand by while the president repeated the allegations for a TV audience of tens of millions.

"The Director of Central Intelligence should have taken the time to read the State of the Union speech and fact-check it himself," later concluded the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Of course, the White House had been trying for some time to get CIA clearance for the president to publicly mention this allegation. Truth be told, the CIA had been sending back a message that was mixed.

Mid-level CIA analysts had no problem with Bush mentioning yellowcake. Throughout the fall of 2002, when the NSC would send over proposed presidential language on the subject, they would merely edit it, making minimal changes such as inserting "up to" before a reference to "500 metric tons."

But Bush had never publicly brought up the subject. By October, CIA higher-ups seemed chary.

On Oct. 6, 2002, the NSC sent over the sixth draft of a big speech the president was to give in Cincinnati. It contained a reference to Iraq "having been caught attempting to purchase up to 500 metric tons of uranium oxide."

Tenet and other top CIA officials told the White House to take it out. Reporting on this was weak, Tenet said. Bush should not be a "fact witness" on the issue. On Oct. 7, he delivered the speech in Cincinnati, without any uranium reference.

Down in the CIA's ranks, some continued to believe that Iraq and Niger were probably working a deal, they later testified. They believed that right up to the moment when the primary evidence for it was exposed as a fraud.

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At some point in the process of drafting the State of the Union speech in 2003, White House officials decided that the speech's assertions about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction would look better if they were sourced.

Discussions with mid-level CIA officials led speechwriters to believe that the reference to yellowcake was sensitive, and that the agency preferred it to be laid on the British, who had mentioned it publicly in the fall of 2002.

Stephen Hadley, then deputy national security adviser, said at the time that the White House was not aware of any question about the solidity of British sourcing. But Mr. Hadley had been involved in the decision to strike a reference to Hussein's interest in uranium from a Bush's Cincinnati speech in October 2002. "I should have recalled at the time ... that there was controversy associated with the uranium issue," said Hadley in 2003.

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On Feb. 4, 2003 - a week after the State of the Union speech - the US finally sent electronic copies of the Niger documents to IAEA offices in Vienna. Jacques Bute, then head of IAEA's Iraq Nuclear Verification Office, was in New York that day, and the US sent him copies as well.

On March 3, the IAEA told the US Mission in Vienna its conclusion: The documents were obvious fakes.

The little mistakes were telling. The papers referred to a Nigerien Constitution of 1965, which had been passed in 1999. The foreign minister who purportedly signed the papers was not in office at the time. The letterhead was obsolete, years old; and references to various Nigerien state agencies were riddled with errors.

"We have therefore concluded that these specific allegations are unfounded," IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei told the UN Security Council on March 7.

US intelligence began backpedaling with alacrity. Within weeks an internal intelligence community memo concluded the yellowcake deal was "unlikely." On June 17, 2003, a CIA memo for the Director of Central Intelligence said, "we no longer believe that there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad."

Then, on July 6, Wilson wrote his now-famous op-ed for The New York Times, "What I Didn't Find in Africa," which outlined why he had never believed the Niger story. Wilson also appeared on "Meet the Press." The Washington Post published a story on the Niger subject based in part on a Wilson interview.

On July 7, Scooter Libby had lunch with White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, according to court papers. This guy Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, Libby is said to have told Mr. Fleischer. That information wasn't widely known.

Soon, it would be.

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The question of who forged the Niger documents remains open. The FBI this month closed a two-year investigation of the subject, saying only that agents believe the whole scheme was "for financial gain."

News reports have focused on Italy - and specifically on Italian intelligence. The Italian newspaper La Repubblica has published a series alleging that Italian intelligence passed the documents to Washington and London knowing they were fake. Italian intelligence chief Nicolo Pollari denied this charge in a closed-door briefing for Italian lawmakers this month.

Britain has not retracted its claim of the Iraq-Niger connection, saying it has other evidence confirming the deal.

The US now believes all the evidence it has seen, including the multiple foreign government reports, came from one source: the tainted papers.

"The CIA concluded the original reporting was based on the forged documents and was thus itself unreliable," says the report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States.

Who knew what when? A chronology.

2001

Oct. 15 CIA issues an intelligence report on a possible sale of yellowcake uranium from Niger to Iraq. Source of the tip is a foreign government, later identified in news reports as Italy.

2002

Feb. 5: CIA's second intelligence report, again citing a foreign government service, includes more detail about alleged yellowcake deal. It includes what is said to be "verbatim text" of the accord.

Feb. 12: Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) writes an intelligence product titled "Niamey [Niger's capital] signed an agreement to sell 500 tons of uranium a year to Baghdad." Its basis: CIA's previous reports.

Vice President Dick Cheney reads the DIA report and asks his CIA intelligence briefer for more information.

CIA, scrambling to learn more, taps former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to travel to Niger. He is suggested for the trip by his wife, Valerie Plame, a clandestine CIA employee.

Feb. 24: Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja assures a US visitor that his country's uranium is "in safe hands."

Feb. 26: Wilson arrives in Niger.

March 1: State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research publishes an assessment titled "Niger Sale of Uranium to Iraq is Unlikely."

March 5: Two CIA officers debrief Wilson at his home upon his return.

March 8: CIA report on Wilson's trip rates his information as "good," meaning it adds to the US intelligence community's knowledge of an issue. It judges the trip's most important information to be a former Nigerien official's admission that he met an Iraqi delegation in 1999.

Sept. 11: National Security Council (NSC) staff contact the CIA to clear language about Iraq's alleged attempts to obtain yellowcake, for use in a presidential statement. CIA suggests adding "up to" before "500 metric tons." Statement is never used.

Sept. 24: British government publishes a "White Paper on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction," which states "there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

NSC staff contacts the CIA to clear another statement for the president. CIA suggests the phrase "of the process to enrich uranium" be changed to "in the process to enrich uranium." Statement is never used.

Oct. 1: US National Intelligence Council publishes a comprehensive National Intelligence Estimate, "Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction." It repeats allegations about Iraq, Niger, and yellowcake but notes that US intelligence has not confirmed foreign government reports.

Oct. 2: CIA deputy director testifies before Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Of reports of Iraq's interest in Niger and yellowcake, he says: "We don't think they are very credible."

Oct. 4: NSC sends CIA a draft of a speech President Bush is scheduled to give in Cincinnati. It contains a reference to the possible yellowcake deal. CIA Director George Tenet ultimately calls the White House to get it removed.

Oct. 9: An Italian journalist provides the US Embassy in Rome with documents that purport to detail the Niger-Iraq yellowcake dealings.

Oct. 15: Documents are faxed to State Department in Washington.

Dec. 19: On its website, the State Department posts a response to an Iraqi declaration to the UN. Iraq's declaration "ignores efforts to procure uranium from Niger," says the response. This is later changed to "... uranium from abroad."

2003

Jan. 13: Iraq nuclear analyst at State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research circulates an e-mail to counterparts in the intelligence community denouncing Niger documents as "clearly a forgery."

Jan. 16: CIA receives foreign-language originals of the Niger documents.

Jan. 26: Secretary of State Colin Powell addresses the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium?" he asks.

Jan. 28: In his State of the Union address Bush says, "[T]he British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Feb. 4: US government provides copies of the Niger documents to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Feb. 5: Powell briefs UN on alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. His speech includes no reference to Niger or yellowcake purchases.

March 3: IAEA informs the US that it believes the Niger papers to be forged.

March 11: CIA circulates a limited-distribution assessment that does not dispute IAEA's findings.

March 19: US airstrikes against Iraq begin.

May 29: On or about this date, I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, asks an undersecretary of State for information about Wilson's trip to Niger, according to prosecutors. Libby is given a series of oral reports.

June 11: On or about this date, a State Department official tells Libby that Wilson's wife works at the CIA, and that State Department officials are saying she had a hand in his selection for the trip.

June 12: The Washington Post publishes a story about Wilson's trip to Niger that questions the accuracy of Bush's State of the Union assertion about Niger.

June 17:: A CIA memorandum finds there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that Iraq has been pursuing uranium from abroad.

July 6: Wilson's op-ed, "What I Didn't Find in Africa," appears in The New York Times.

July 8: Libby meets with then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller and discusses Wilson's trip. Among other things, Libby advises Miller that Wilson's wife is a CIA employee, according to prosecutors. He has subsequent discussions with NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert and Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper.

2004

March 4: On or about this date, Libby, under oath, is said to tell a federal grand jury that Tim Russert told him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, and that when he heard it he was "taken aback."

2005

Oct. 28: Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald announces that Libby has been indicted by a federal grand jury for making false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice.

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