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The return of the Nigerien yellowcake

A pulse has been detected in the long-thought-dead claim that Saddam Hussein tried to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger or possibly another African country. Yellowcake is a precursor to building nuclear weapons, and the notion that Iraq was trying to acquire nukes was one of the rationales for war pushed by the White House.

George W. Bush has been endlessly excoriated for his January 2003 State of the Union address. His offending words: "The British government has learned that Saddam recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." As it happened, the CIA had already concluded that the evidence was based on forged documents. The agency had acted to prevent Bush from making a similar claim in an October 2002 speech, but failed to vet the State of the Union address.

Still, the Brits never backed down from their contention that Saddam had, indeed, sought yellowcake. Now come two developments that may further boost that claim.

• The Financial Times, an international paper based in Britain, has reported in several articles since late last month that European intelligence sources believe five countries have attempted to buy yellowcake from Niger in recent years: North Korea, Libya, China, Iran, and — yes — Iraq. This week, the paper reported that an investigation by the British government will find that Iraq did indeed try to buy yellowcake from Niger.

• The Senate Intelligence Committee report released last week, which was highly critical of the faulty intelligence on which the White House built its case for war, nevertheless found that former ambassador Joseph Wilson’s February 2002 trip to Niger actually bolstered the case that Iraq had attempted to purchase yellowcake. Last summer, Wilson wrote a celebrated op-ed piece for the New York Times in which he accused the White House of ignoring his findings that there was nothing to the Iraq-Niger connection. But now Wilson, in his recently published book, The Politics of Truth, writes about a Nigerien government official telling him that, in 1999, Iraq’s then–information minister, Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf (better known as "Baghdad Bob"), had tried to open trade discussions. The Nigerien told Wilson he assumed Sahhaf was interested in yellowcake. The intelligence-committee report contains similar information.

For good measure, the intelligence committee suggests that Wilson has been disingenuous in denying that his wife, CIA employee Valerie Plame, had recommended him for the Niger mission. Plame’s cover was later blown in a Robert Novak column, and an investigation continues into who leaked her name and whether it was done in retribution for Wilson’s Times piece (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, October 10).

How important is this? The idea that Bush helped build his case for war with a knowingly false claim about Saddam’s nuclear ambitions has been enormously useful to the anti-war movement. Conservative pundits, predictably, are rapturous over the new revelations. The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby blasted the US media for being insufficiently excited because the news does not fit their allegedly liberal ideological construct. Jonah Goldberg, of National Review Online, demanded that John Kerry publicly repudiate Wilson, who’s one of his foreign-policy advisers. Bob Somerby, the impresario behind the Daily Howler, who leans left but who dishes it out to all sides, mocked Wilson’s word-parsing defense of his claim that his wife hadn’t recommended him for the Niger mission. Wrote Somerby: "Maybe it all depends on what the meaning of ‘a recommendation to send me’ is!"

Needless to say, this remains a convoluted, confusing matter, and there has yet to be any proof one way or the other. Joshua Micah Marshall, who writes the Talking Points Memo weblog and has followed the Wilson-Plame story closely, says that the Financial Times’ report that three European intelligence agencies believe Iraq sought Nigerien yellowcake may be less impressive than it seems: the agencies were all relying on "the fruit of the same poison tree," which is to say documents that may have been forged. Marshall also notes that a Washington Post story from last Saturday appeared to report incorrectly that Wilson had been told Iraq tried to buy 400 tons of uranium from Niger in 1998. In fact, the Senate Intelligence Committee report identifies the country as Iran. (The Post subsequently ran a correction.)

Still, for Bush critics, this all adds up to an unlucky break. The fact remains that Bush relied on documents already known to be fake in order to frighten the public about Saddam’s nuclear ambitions. Besides, it’s hardly surprising that Saddam would want yellowcake. The real issue is whether he got any, and the Senate Intelligence Committee report contains compelling evidence that Nigerien officials spurned Iraq’s advances because they were too afraid of getting caught. In other words, the sanctions that were already in place worked.

Nevertheless, the anti-war movement is in danger of losing a bit of its moral high ground to the Bush administration. Whether — and how — that will matter depends on how this story continues to play out.

Issue Date: July 16 - 24, 2004
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