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~ Monday, July 14, 2003
 
What the U.S. envoy who went to Niger didn't find
Joseph C. Wilson IV IHT
Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Iraq

WASHINGTON Did the Bush administration manipulate intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq?

Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.

For 23 years, from 1976 to 1998, I was a career foreign service officer and ambassador. In 1990, as charge d'affaires in Baghdad, I was the last American diplomat to meet with Saddam. (I was also a forceful advocate for his removal from Kuwait.) After Iraq, I was President George H.W. Bush's ambassador to Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe; under President Bill Clinton, I helped direct Africa policy for the National Security Council.

Those news stories about that unnamed former envoy who went to Niger? That's me.

In February 2002, I was informed by officials at the CIA that Vice President Dick Cheney's office had questions about a particular intelligence report. While I never saw the report, I was told that it referred to a memorandum that documented the sale of uranium yellowcake - a form of lightly processed ore - by Niger to Iraq in the late 1990s. The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story.

After consulting with the State Department (and through it with Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, the U.S. ambassador to Niger), I agreed to make the trip. The mission I undertook was discreet but by no means secret. While the CIA paid my expenses (my time was offered pro bono), I made it abundantly clear to everyone I met that I was acting on behalf of the U.S. government.

In late February 2002, I arrived in Niger's capital, Niamey, where I had been a diplomat in the mid-1970's and visited as a National Security Council official in the late-1990's.

The next morning, I met with Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick at the embassy. The embassy staff has always kept a close eye on Niger's uranium business, so I was not surprised when the ambassador told me that she knew about the allegations of uranium sales to Iraq, and that she felt she had already debunked them in her reports to Washington. Nevertheless, she and I agreed that my time would be best spent interviewing people who had been in government when the deal supposedly took place, which was before her arrival. I spent the next eight days meeting current and former government officials and people associated with the country's uranium business.

It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.

Given the structure of the consortiums that operated the mines, it would be exceedingly difficult for Niger to transfer uranium to Iraq. Niger's uranium business consists of two mines, Somair and Cominak, which are run by French, Spanish, Japanese, German and Nigerian interests. If the government wanted to remove uranium from a mine, it would have to notify the consortium, which in turn is strictly monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Selling uranium would require the approval of the minister of mines, the prime minister and probably the president. In short, there's simply too much oversight over too small an industry for a sale to have transpired. (As for the actual memorandum, I never saw it. But news accounts have pointed out that the documents had glaring errors - they were signed, for example, by officials who were no longer in government - and were probably forged. And then there's the fact that Niger formally denied the charges.) In early March, I arrived in Washington and promptly provided a detailed briefing to the CIA. I later shared my conclusions with the State Department African Affairs Bureau. There was nothing secret in my report.

Though I did not file a written report, there should be at least four documents in U.S. government archives confirming my mission. They should include the ambassador's report, a separate report written by the embassy staff, a CIA report summing up my trip, and an answer from the agency to the office of the vice president (this may have been delivered orally).

I thought the Niger matter was settled and went back to my life. I did take part in the Iraq debate, arguing that a strict containment regime backed by the threat of force was preferable to an invasion. In September 2002, however, Niger re-emerged. The British government published a "white paper" asserting that Saddam and his unconventional arms posed an immediate danger. As evidence, the report cited Iraq's attempts to purchase uranium from an African country.

Then, in January, President Bush, citing the British dossier, repeated the charges about Iraqi efforts to buy uranium from Africa.

The next day, I reminded a friend at the State Department of my trip and suggested that if the president had been referring to Niger, then his conclusion was not borne out by the facts as I understood them. He replied that perhaps the president was speaking about one of the other three African countries that produce uranium: Gabon, South Africa or Namibia. At the time, I accepted the explanation. I didn't know that in December, a month before the president's address, the State Department had published a fact sheet that mentioned the Niger case.

Those are the facts surrounding my efforts. The vice president's office asked a serious question. I was asked to help formulate the answer. I did so, and I have every confidence that the answer I provided was circulated to the appropriate officials within our government.

The question now is how that answer was or was not used by our political leadership. If my information was deemed inaccurate, I understand (though I would be very interested to know why). If, however, the information was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses. (It's worth remembering that in his March "Meet the Press" appearance, Cheney said that Saddam was "trying once again to produce nuclear weapons.") At a minimum, Congress, which authorized the use of military force at the president's behest, should want to know if the assertions about Iraq were warranted. I was convinced before the war that the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam required a vigorous and sustained international response to disarm him. Iraq possessed and had used chemical weapons; it had an active biological weapons program and quite possibly a nuclear research program - all of which were in violation of U.N. resolutions. Having encountered Saddam and his thugs in the run-up to the Persian Gulf war of 1991, I was only too aware of the dangers he posed.

But were these dangers the same ones the administration told us about? We have to find out. America's foreign policy depends on the sanctity of its information. For this reason, questioning the selective use of intelligence to justify the war in Iraq is neither idle sniping nor "revisionist history," as Bush has suggested. The act of war is the last option of a democracy, taken when there is a grave threat to our national security. More than 200 American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq already. We have a duty to ensure that their sacrifice came for the right reasons.

The writer, U.S. ambassador to Gabon from 1992 to 1995, is an international business consultant.
 
July 14, 2003
Democrats Attack Credibility of Bush
By ADAM NAGOURNEY


ASHINGTON, July 13 — Democratic presidential candidates offered a near-unified assault today on President Bush's credibility in his handling of the Iraq war, signaling a shift in the political winds by aggressively invoking arguments most had shunned since the fall of Baghdad.

In interviews, town hall meetings and television appearances, several Democratic presidential candidates, who had been sharply divided over whether to go war, declared that President Bush's credibility had been harmed because of his use of unsubstantiated evidence in supporting the looming invasion of Iraq in his State of the Union address in January.

They also criticized the administration for what has happened in postwar Iraq, especially the continued deaths of American military personnel, which many attributed to Mr. Bush's failure to enlist the help of the United Nations in conducting the war. They questioned the failure to uncover the nuclear, chemical or biological weapons Mr. Bush had cited in pressing for war.

"The most important attribute that any president has is his credibility — his credibility with the American people, with its allies and with the world," Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who voted for the war resolution last fall, said in a telephone interview today. "When the president's own statements are called into question, it's a very serious matter."

Mr. Edwards added, "It's important that we not lose sight of the bigger picture, which is the enormous failure that is looming in Iraq right now."

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who also supported Mr. Bush last fall, cited the intelligence failures in an interview today as he challenged Mr. Bush's ability to protect the nation from terrorism.

"Americans have a right to ask a question, `Are we safer today than we were three years ago?' " he said. And, criticizing Mr. Bush's failure to enlist international support before starting the war, he said: "It's obvious now with the lack of international support in Iraq that our troops are at risk because we don't have the kind of plan that would have come with adequate diplomacy."

The shift in the debate from the Democratic side reflected a sudden confluence of events: the administration's admission of error regarding the State of the Union speech, the continuing carnage in Iraq and the failure of the United States to find the weapons that it used as a justification for invading Iraq. Until now, most of the Democrats had been reluctant to criticize a war that had appeared successful and, polls suggested, was largely supported by the American public.

"It's the first time we've seen them sweat," Jennifer Palmieri, the spokeswoman for Mr. Edwards, said of the White House. "It's the first time anything has ever stuck."

There were signs today that the White House had put been on the defensive by the wave of criticism of the State of the Union speech and the deteriorating events in Iraq. It dispatched top administration officials to the television talk shows to explain what had happened with the speech and assure the American public that events in Iraq were under control.

While it remained too early to measure whether this has genuinely changed the political landscape more than a year before the presidential election, it clearly has altered the dynamics in the Democratic primary. The recent problems in Iraq have offered Democrats who supported the war a way to criticize Mr. Bush's war policy without appearing to be admitting any past error.

Among them are Mr. Kerry, Mr. Edwards, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, all of whom have been increasingly critical of Mr. Bush's Iraq policy.

And the changing sentiments about the war have provided a new affirmation for the position taken by Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor whose opposition to the war has helped power him into the front tier of the Democratic competition. Dr. Dean said today that he foresaw the shortfalls of Mr. Bush's Iraq policy from his perch in the Vermont Statehouse last fall — and mockingly questioned why his opponents in Congress had failed to do so.

"I think they bear some responsibility here," Dr. Dean said. "If I as governor of Vermont can figure out the case is not there to invade Iraq, how can three senators and a congressman who claim to have authority in public affairs manage to give the president unilateral authority to attack Iraq?"

"It looks like my analysis was the correct one and theirs was the incorrect one," he continued. "It's going to be hard for them to make the case that I don't have the credentials on foreign policy after this."

Dr. Dean also called today for the resignations of George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, and Stephen J. Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, pointing to reports that both men knew in October that the disputed information — that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear information from Africa — was incorrect.

For all the flurry today, the situation could turn again if, for example, dangerous weapons are discovered, as Mr. Rumsfeld predicted in interviews on ABC's "This Week" and NBC's "Meet the Press."

Still, there was abundant evidence that there has been a broad change in the nature of the Democratic presidential campaign.

Mr. Kerry has scheduled a speech in New York City on Wednesday that will include what one aide described as a "blistering critique" of Mr. Bush's foreign policy, and Mr. Gephardt has scheduled a speech on the same subject for next week in San Francisco.

Last week, Mr. Lieberman wrote an Op-Ed column in The Washington Post asserting that the opportunity to build a stable Iraq "was now in jeopardy."

On "Meet the Press," Senator Bob Graham of Florida, who voted against the Iraq resolution and has long accused the administration of holding back critical intelligence data, suggested today that the White House had manipulated public opinion in making the case for war.

"There was a selective use of intelligence; that is, that information which was consistent with the administration's policy was given a front-row seat," Mr. Graham said. "Those questions that were not supported were either put in the closet or were certainly in the back rows."

At a town hall meeting today in Dubuque, Iowa, Mr. Gephardt repeatedly attacked Mr. Bush, even as he struggled at times to contend with catcalls from audience members critical of the central role he played as minority leader by supporting Mr. Bush's Iraq policy last fall.

"We had a president from Missouri named Harry Truman, and he had a sign on his desk that said, `The buck stops here,' " said Mr. Gephardt in the meeting, which was televised on C-Span. "I think the president has to get that sign back on the desk."


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