Uranium Mania!

The issue of Iraq seeking uranium in Africa has been interesting to me. The now infamous sixteen words in the State of the Union speech have caused untold controversy in the past few weeks, as the Bush Administration attempted to respond to critics (poorly, I might add – this is seemingly an exercise in what not to do when responding to a potential scandal). I’ve done a lot of reading, arguing, and head scratching in the past few weeks, and I thought I’d try and collect some of the pertinent information and perhaps some commentary I found particularly convincing.

To start, I’d like to go back to original sources. As usual, media accounts are varied and contradictory, so I find that going back to the transcripts is usually an enlightening experience. So here are some important transcripts and document excerpts (some of which have just recently become available… to me, at least):

First things first, the infamous 16:

“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Now I’m going to try and summarize the general questions and the administration’s answers. The administration has done a poor job answering the questions and when compounded with the media’s contradictory accounts, the picture has become somewhat muddled. I encourage you to read all of the information in the transcripts above, especially the White House background briefing and to form an opinion of your own. I am certainly not the authority on this matter, I just thought a summary was due.

Has the British government learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa?

The September 2002 British dossier was the source for the infamous 16 words, and has not yet been shown to be false. Much of the controversy hinges on a set of forged documents obtained by U.S. intelligence (these documents allegedly came from an Italian source. The forgeries, as published by the Italian paper La Repubblica, were posted at Cryptome.org). When these were shown to be false, it was assumed that the British intelligence was also false or based on the same forged documents. However, the British government maintains to this day that it’s intelligence is reliable and completely separate from the forged documents. The British intelligence came from at least one, possibly 2, outside intelligence services. British intelligence is bound by bilateral agreements not to share this information without the originator’s permission. There is some speculation that the French are behind the British intelligence, as Niger is a former French colony and its uranium mines are run by a French company that comes under the control of the French Atomic Energy Commission. Given the U.S. government’s relationship with the French government over the past year, it would be easy to see why France would not want to grant the permission to share such intelligence, but this is again just speculation. Obviously, I have not seen the British reports, and thus cannot comment on it authoritatively.

So did Bush lie or not?

It appears that he did not. His statement in the SOTU was a general one, and it was referencing the September 2002 British dossier. The statement was based on a “body of evidence,” not any single piece of information. The British information appeared to match up with the information in the October 2002 NIE. The statement did not say that Iraq had actually succeeded in purchasing uranium ore, nor did it specifically mention Niger. It said that Iraq “sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Wait, if Bush did not lie, then why has the administration acknowledged a mistake was made? What, precisely, was the mistake?

Despite this question being asked several times, I am still somewhat confused by the specifics given by administration officials (an example of how poorly they’ve communicated in the past few weeks). There appears to have been a communications breakdown within the CIA or between the CIA and the White House. That seems to be what they are apologizing for. As near as I can tell, in September of 2002, when the British government released their dossier, the CIA expressed some doubts to the British as to the authenticity of the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. The British insisted that their intelligence was genuine, and apparently the matter was dropped. George Tenet testified that he should have taken this into consideration when approving the SOTU, despite the fact that he was apparently unaware of the complaint (I’m not sure I have that right, however). Also, it has been said that in hindsight, what is now known about the forged documents would have played a larger part in the decision.

If this information was in the October 2002 NIE, why did the SOTU reference the British dossier?

The SOTU obviously goes through many drafts. In an early draft, the section regarding Iraq’s weapons programs made a series of assertions (“We know Saddam has X. We know Saddam has Y.” etc…). Apparently what happened was, as they went from one draft to the next, they thought “it would be much more credible, much more explanatory to the American people to explain how [they] knew these things.” So the administration asked the speechwriters to fill in the sources of this information. Naturally, they wanted to use public sources if they were available, including UN information, IAEA information, and Iraqi defectors’ information. In this particular case, there were two sources available: The October 2002 NIE, which was still highly classified at the time, and the British dossier which had already been made public. Given that choice, they cited the British document.

Is it not true that George Tenet asked the speechwriters for a speech Bush delivered in Cincinnati to remove this information? If so, why did he fail to remove it from the SOTU?

The information that was to be included in the Cincinnati speech was very specific to a specific intelligence report. It was a “foreign-based, single-sourced intelligence source.” Tenet’s objection was that the President shouldn’t cite specifics that are based on a single source. Intelligence is often backed up by multiple sources of information and he felt that that was not appropriate to include a reference to specific quantities mentioned in a single source.

But if the information was so flawed that it was prudent to remove it from the Cincinnati speech, why was it included in the SOTU?

It was not known at the time that the information was flawed (or, at least, that was not the reason it was removed from the speech). That was shown later by the forged documents. The reason it was removed from the Cincinnati speech was because it was based on a single source and it referenced specific amounts, not because it was flawed and that is a critical distinction.

So what’s the big deal?

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about the matter. The account outlined above may not be entirely true, its just what I have been able to glean from the administration (and there is more to it than what is outlined above, of course – I did not even get into Ambassador Wilson’s visit to Niger, for example). Those who are truly concerned about the matter are not so much concerned solely by the uranium line, but they think there was an effort to mislead the public by presenting ambiguous intelligence as fact. What matters to critics is whether the Bush administration went beyond ethical bounds in manipulating the intelligence information they had to sell the war. Certainly a worthwhile effort, but in my opinion the shame of the uranium debacle is that it is not really indicative of a malicious effort to sell the war, and thus a lot of good questions are not garnering the attention they deserve.

To conclude, I’m going list out a few links with commentary about the issue. If you find something that you feel should be linked here, feel free to email me or post a comment below.

  • Glenn Reynolds over at InstaPundit has been routinely collecting links and commentary about the affair and has proven to be a valuable resource for the debate.
  • As I mentioned above, the amount of time and attention paid to the uranium claim only serves to lessen the credibility of what is surely an important debate. The Democrats have pounced on the claim, but again, this will only serve to strengthen them in the short term, if at all. Especially given that there are plenty of things the Democrats could be focusing on, even with regards to national security.
  • Porphyrogenitus has made a few excellent posts about the situation: His Ten Real Lies (?) We Were Told About Iraq is a little snarky and satirical, but his follow up is an excellent summary of the situation, one of the best I’ve seen yet. A quote:

    So one looks at things like the Uranium intel, which some don’t see as conclusive (a much fairer way of putting things than “lie”, by the way, but the Propaganda Model is driven by things that will whip people into a frenzy, and “it wasn’t conclusive but they decided to put it in anyhow and they took it seriously in light of the other information they had” simply isn’t as melodramatic as “BUSH LIED! BUSH OFFICIALS ADMITTED THEY LIED!! LIES EXPOSED!!!” to paraphrase Tim Noah’s Slate article.)

    Its an excellent post. Read the whole thing, as they say. What the hell, here’s another quote, just for good measure:

    The point I was making is that intelligence is imperfect and even wrong intel does not amount to a lie. It could even be asserted, fairly (I’m not sure if it would be true, but it would be fairer accusation than the “Bush Lied” meme) that the Bush administration really wanted to believe this was true and so were inclined to accept at face value something that was more dubious than should have been given credence; groupthink happens. But that, too, would not serve the Propaganda Model as well (it’s harder to whip people into a frenzy over an administration that’s prepared to think the worst of a man like Saddam Hussein. IMO it’s more deplorable for people to be prepared to give a man like Saddam Hussein the benefit of every doubt and cast everything done by Bush and Blair in the most malevolent light possible).

  • As I mentioned, the Democrats are pouncing on this. Here are statements from:
    • Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) listed out problematic assertions involving intelligence on Iraq in a floor statement on 7/15/03
    • Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), apparently among the first and biggest critics of the uranium story, wrote a long letter to the House Intelligence Committee outlining his view of the “four categories of unanswered questions” that the story presents (the letter, along with some other correspondence is included in that link).
    • Rep. David Obey (D-WI) questioned the role and structure of defense intelligence in a 7/8/03 floor statement.
    • Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) made a statement on 6/24/03 regarding the subject.

    I had already linked to the Byrd statement a few weeks ago, and I think my main criticism still holds, and to a certain extent can be applied to other Congressional critics. Essentially, it seems somewhat ironic that Congress is choosing now to examine the intelligence that was brought before them, rather than examining it in October, before they authorized war…

  • As you may have noticed, FAS’s Intelligence Resource Program has also been and indispensible resource in keeping track of the situation. CNN also has a decent transcript service, though I’ve had some trouble finding some transcripts that I would like to have seen…

Well, that about wraps it up for now. I’m probably going to try and collect some more links, especially for the “Bush Lied!” crowd, as they are somewhat underrepresented above. Again, if you have any information that you think I should include, post it below or send me an email.