Of all the controversies surrounding the non-discovery of WMD in Iraq, none has dominated the news cycle over the past year as much as the Niger uranium hullabaloo-and none has been so misconstrued by experts and pundits alike. A year ago, revelations by Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador sent to Niger to investigate whether Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Iraq, forced the administration to recant its public statements on the subject. Now, with the Butler inquiry's conclusion that the British intelligence judgment was "well-founded" and the Senate Intelligence Committee's claim that Wilson's report had little impact on officials, some are calling for Wilson to publicly apologize. A little common sense shows that a Niger uranium sale-even if attempted-was always highly improbable and was never a serious threat.
In late September, a British white paper judged that "Iraq has . . . sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite having no active civil nuclear power programme that could require it." In December 2002 and January 2003, several administration officials, including Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld, repeated the allegation-without citing the British report. In his January State of the Union address, President Bush said the now-infamous sixteen words, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Iraq purchased uranium from Niger, Portugal and Brazil during the early stages of its nuclear program in the 1970s, but by the next decade halted these imports because it became self-sufficient in uranium production. In March 2003, Iraq had an inventory of over 500 tons of natural uranium and almost two tons of low-enriched uranium. This uranium was kept under IAEA seal and checked annually by the nuclear agency-theoretically unavailable to the Iraqi regime for use in a nuclear program.
No unclassified CIA assessment prior to 2002 discussed Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium from Africa, although most noted, "A sufficient source of fissile material remains Iraq's most significant obstacle to being able to produce a nuclear weapon." The now-declassified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) claimed, however, that Iraq "began vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake," reportedly in Niger, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The NIE said that "foreign government service" reports indicated that in early 2001 Niger and Iraq "reportedly were still working out arrangements for this deal, which could be for up to 500 tons of yellowcake," although the NIE said it could not confirm the reports on possible Iraqi uranium procurement. (The Department of State's intelligence bureau, INR, noted in a separate dissent: "the claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are . . . highly dubious.")
The primary evidence for the Niger uranium claim was a series of documents purporting to show a uranium purchase deal with Iraq. On March 7, 2003, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei concluded that the documents provided to the IAEA by the United States were unsubstantiated and likely forged. He told the UN Security Council, "Based on thorough analysis, the IAEA has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents, which formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transaction between Iraq and Niger, are in fact not authentic. We have therefore concluded that these specific allegations are unfounded."
It was not until July 2003, however, that the administration acknowledged the problems with the forged documents-when Joseph Wilson revealed that he had visited Niger at the CIA's request in February 2002 to investigate the alleged uranium sale. Wilson said that he not only found the allegation "bogus and unrealistic," but said that his conclusions were likely forwarded to the vice president, who made the initial inquiry in a CIA briefing.
Then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet said on July 11, "These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the President .This was a mistake." On July 22, Deputy National Security Advisor Steven Hadley said that he deleted a reference to Iraq's attempts to purchase uranium in Africa from President Bush's October 7, 2002 Cincinnati speech based on a telephone call from DCI Tenet and two CIA memos sent to himself-one of which was also sent to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Hadley said that this second memo detailed
some weakness in the evidence, the fact that the effort was not particularly significant to Iraq's nuclear ambitions because the Iraqis already had a large stock of uranium oxide in their inventory. The memorandum also stated that the CIA had been telling Congress that the Africa story was one of two issues where we differed with the British intelligence . . . based on what we now know, we had opportunities here to avoid this problem. We didn't take them . . . having been taken out of Cincinnati, it should have been taken out of the State of the Union.
The British Push Back
At the time, the British government continued to defend the Niger statement. Tony Blair said in July, "The evidence that we had that the Iraqi government had gone back to try to purchase further amounts of uranium from Niger did not come from so-called 'forged' documents. They came from separate intelligence."
This additional intelligence appears to involve an alleged visit to Niger in 1999 by Iraqi officials. According to the Butler report, in 2000 the British intelligence agencies "judged that Iraqi purchase of uranium ore could have been the subject of discussions" because uranium accounted for three-quarters of Nigerian exports, "[p]utting this together with past Iraqi purchases of uranium ore from Niger, the limitations faced by the Iraqi regime on access to indigenous uranium ore and other evidence of Iraq seeking to restart its nuclear programme." (This visit is said to be separate from a 1999 discussion during an international meeting, where Iraqis, as reported by Ambassador Wilson, expressed their interest in Niger "commodities.") Although the Butler report said that additional evidence surfaced in 2002 to support this judgment, disagreements among the intelligence community about the alleged sale persisted. The report says that the intelligence on the uranium claim was "inconclusive."
Citing these additional reports, many now claim that the administration was correct in its statements because additional evidence beyond the forged documents existed. But why did the U.S. administration backtrack on the Niger uranium claim in July 2003 if this was true? It is significant that then-Iraq Survey Group (ISG) chief David Kay did not mention the Niger uranium controversy in his October 2 testimony to the Senate and House Select Intelligence Committees. To reporters, however, Kay said, "With the yellowcake issue we have found no conclusive proof of attempts. We have found one other offer of uranium to them from another African country. Not [Niger]. But we're still investigating that. So far we have no evidence that it moved beyond what's probably an unsolicited offer, at least the document we have in hand looks like an unsolicited offer."
The Numbers Tell
So, as far as concrete evidence is concerned, the claim appears shaky at best, hardly the stuff that should make up presidential decisions. But could Iraqi interest have been converted into an actual deal? Three memos from officials on the ground said no-reports from the U.S. Ambassador to Niger Barbaro Owens-Kirkpatrick, Marine Corps General Carleton Fulford and Ambassador Wilson all concluded a deal was highly unlikely. Here is why:
Niger has two uranium mines, both owned by a French multi-national consortium (COGEMA) that receives all of Niger's ore for processing. With annual yellowcake production around 2,900 tons, Niger has the third-highest uranium production in the world behind Canada and Australia. Almost all of this yellowcake is exported to France, Japan, and Spain (the countries that make up the COGEMA consortium).
To obtain 500 tons of yellowcake as outlined in the NIE, Iraq would have had to: 1) import one-sixth of the uranium that Niger produces in an entire year, and 2) hide these imports from the consortium that tightly controls the mines and pre-sells the uranium to its members before it is even mined. These are not trivial matters. Even on a much smaller scale, French, international or U.S. authorities would certainly have detected such activity-especially after Niger signed a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA in June 2002.
The numbers tell us that Iraq's alleged interest in Niger uranium - even if true - never represented an immediate or significant threat to the United States. Simple math and common sense confirm that the claim should never have appeared in administration statements as evidence of an Iraqi nuclear weapon program.
Joseph Cirincione is director for non-proliferation and Alexis Orton is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Both are co-authors with Jessica Mathews and George Perkovich of WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications.