CIA Doubted Uranium Report
By Knut Royce
July 11, 2003
Washington -- The CIA "from day one" was highly skeptical of reports that Iraq had been shopping for uranium ore in Africa, and the State Department also was highly suspicious, according to intelligence officials.
A key reason for the CIA's skepticism, according to a senior intelligence officer, was, "What do they need this [the ore] for? They've got tons of it already in Iraq."
Yet in an October National Intelligence Estimate the CIA understated its suspicions while the State Department, in a lengthy dissent in back of the 80-page report, concluded that the claims were probably bogus, the intelligence officials said. It was that document the White House says it relied on for a passage in President George W. Bush's State of the Union address in January. The White House conceded this week that the document was based on forgeries.
The National Intelligence Estimate, a special report on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that reflected a consensus of the intelligence community, repeated a claim published by the British government in the previous month that Niger had "planned to send" uranium ore to Iraq. The estimate also mentioned that there were other bits of intelligence suggesting that Iraq had been shopping for the ore in two other African countries.
But rather than reporting that it found these claims to be suspect, the estimate simply said that U.S. intelligence "cannot confirm" that Iraq had actually succeeded in buying the ore, also known as yellow cake, according to the intelligence officials.
So in his State of the Union address in January, Bush declared that the British government "has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
It was the British and Italian intelligence services that first alerted the CIA in late 2001 that they had obtained letters -- later determined to be forgeries -- between Iraq and Niger reportedly indicating the two countries were negotiating the sale of yellow cake.
Asked why the CIA didn't bother to obtain a copy of the letters until this spring, the senior intelligence official said that the agency "had serious questions about [the claims] from day one."
"We had accounts of them [the letters] and that was close enough," he said. "We didn't take it that seriously to begin with. ... We didn't put a lot of stock in these reports from Niger we didn't rush around to get the actual documents."
He said that although Iraq's existing stockpile of uranium ore was under International Atomic Energy Agency jurisdiction, "It's not real hard to divert enough to make something go boom."
After Vice President Dick Cheney indicated interest in following up on the claims early last year, the CIA dispatched former diplomat Joseph Wilson to Niger. He concluded that the information was false and the CIA sent a cable to several agencies, including the National Security Council at the White House, reporting that officials in Niger had said the allegations were false.
Though the National Intelligence Estimate makes scant note of the alleged attempted purchases of uranium ore in Africa, it gives a great deal of attention to other intelligence indicating Iraq may be reconstituting its nuclear program.
Among the reports, the senior intelligence official said, was that Iraq was seeking to purchase aluminum tubes and ring magnets to manufacture centrifuges for enriching the uranium. These claims, too, have been challenged by nuclear experts and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which say the specification for the tubes indicate they were intended to be used in manufacturing rockets.
The intelligence official said that the CIA could have done a better job of conveying to policymakers, including the White House, its skepticism about Iraq shopping for uranium ore. "We probably didn't convey it well enough for them to understand it," he said. "We probably should have smacked them between the eyes."
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