In 1981, Seyni Kountche, president of Niger, said that his country would “sell uranium even to the devil.” He made good on his word, doing business with both Libya and Iraq, and funneling billions in profits into private slush funds to prop up his corrupt regime. A 1993 IAEA report on the Iraqi nuclear program listed 580 tons of natural uranium in Iraq, some of it originating from Niger. Ancient history? Well maybe. (I’ve certainly written about it before.) But it is useful to remind people, in an age of short-attention spans, that Niger and Iraq were part of a nuclear family dating back to the 1970s.
Joseph C. Wilson probably knew about that previous relationship. He was first in Niger with USAID during the Carter administration, then later in the 1990s as a Clinton National Security Council staffer. He arrived back in the Niger’s capital of Niamey in February 2002 on a CIA-sponsored mission to investigate a report that Iraq had bought uranium from Niger in 1999. This trip took place a year before President Bush uttered the so-called “16 words” in his State of the Union address (“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”). Note that the president accused Iraq of seeking uranium, not actually obtaining it, which is what Wilson was sent to look into. He spent most of his time at the hotel — a fourth-floor suite at the Gawaeye, one report said. He was very open about his mission and its object, and began to take meetings near the pool. “I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people,” Wilson wrote in the New York Times
last July, “current government officials, former government officials, 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.” It is unclear with whom Wilson met. No Nigerien officials have admitted to attending those meetings. El Hadj Habibou Allele, who runs COMINAK, the major uranium-mining concern, stated he was never contacted. For their part, the staff at the Gawaeye thought Wilson was a nice guy, and they nicknamed him “Bill Clinton” after his former employer.
Let’s concede that the public face of Wilson’s mission may not be the whole story. There may have been a secret side to it — a side he may have been oblivious to — that has not yet been reported. It hardly seems credible that Wilson could have single-handedly investigated every aspect of the Niger-Iraq connection spending “eight days drinking sweet mint tea” and talking to people. If Niamey were nurturing such a relationship with Baghdad it surely would have been highly secretive. Uranium trade with Iraq was illegal after all; you could not expect to get a straight answer from anyone involved in it. Moreover, the wounds of 9/11 were still fresh, and this was only a few months after Coalition forces had swiftly overthrown the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. What country was going to freely admit to selling illegal WMD material to the only ruler in the world who openly praised the attacks on the Twin Towers? As noted, Wilson came away with no evidence that the 1999 uranium sale had taken place. But over the last few months, particularly since Wilson’s New York Times piece, this very narrow finding has been taken as proof that Iraq never even tried to obtain uranium. That was not the question Wilson was sent to Niger to answer, and his investigation certainly never came close to being that thorough. Yet the press reflexively cites this brief visit as the basis for the definitive answer on the entire Niger uranium controversy. Wilson’s purported influence has been inflated to the point where otherwise sensible people (and some not-so) are alleging that the inner circles of the White House had to resort to felonious leaking to discredit him.
The flap about the putative outing of Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame as a CIA employee is not the important story in this affair as far as I am concerned. The only reason this incident has any legs is the eagerness of the press to set themselves on scandal autopilot. “”It seems like the good old days, doesn’t it?” CNN’s Aaron Brown said, hoping perhaps to bring back the good old ratings. But the props have been knocked out from under this manufactured conspiracy. Robert Novak clarified that the information about Ms. Plame was not exactly leaked but arose in the natural course of his interview process. It also appears that she was not an “operative” (a term that Novak innocently misused, implying she was a clandestine service officer), but an analyst, which there is no crime in revealing. So we are left with a leak that wasn’t a leak, about a secret agent who was evidently neither secret nor an agent. As for the explosive charge that Karl Rove was the mischievous mastermind behind the whole affair, the Honorable Mr. Wilson simply flat out lied about that one. He blames an “excess of exuberance” at an August 21 forum on intelligence failure, where he stated, “It’s of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs. And trust me, when I use that name, I measure my words.” Measured words indeed — measured, inflammatory, and false. I have to echo Senator Schumer; it was a dastardly, despicable thing.
While the Justice Department is spending taxpayer money to placate the president’s critics — who of course will never be placated — perhaps they could come up with answers to some truly salient questions, such as why was Wilson chosen for this mission, and who at CIA chose him? His experience in the country was certainly a qualifying factor, but shouldn’t a critical intelligence mission of this nature be entrusted to someone with more investigatory experience? And what else was being done (if anything) to attempt to corroborate the suspected 1999 uranium sale? The U.S. government had an extraordinary array of technical and human resources at its disposal to disentangle the many facets of the alleged uranium connection. “Guy at pool-side” is only one of the many techniques. Finally, assuming the 1999 transfer of uranium did not take place, was Iraq putting out feelers to Niger in the last few years to reopen the channel, as British intelligence concluded? Wilson’s cursory, candid, and unclassified investigation did not disprove this allegation, or even pretend to. In my opinion, the only scandal here is the lack of sophistication with which the Niger uranium question was addressed. This was amateur hour. It is no way to run a war.