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Context of 'March 4, 2003: France Informs US that Previous French Assessment Regarding Africa-Uranium Allegation Was Based on Forged Documents'

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Wissam al-Zahawie, Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican, sets off on a trip to several African countries as part of an effort to convince African heads of state to visit Iraq. Saddam Hussein hopes that these visits will help break the embargo on flights to Iraq and undermine the UN sanctions regime. Zahawie’s first stop is Niger, where he meets with the country’s President Ibrahim Bare Mainassara for one hour. Mainassara promises that he will visit Baghdad the following April. (He is assasinated before he has an opportunity to do this.) [Sunday Herald (Glasgow), 7/13/2003; Independent, 8/10/2003; Time, 10/2/2003; New Yorker, 10/27/2003] In early 2002, the Italian military intelligence service, SISMI, will allege in a report (see February 5, 2002) sent to the US that the motive behind the visit is to discuss the future purchase of uranium oxide, also known as “yellowcake” (see October 15, 2001). [New Yorker, 10/27/2003] However, no one at this time suggests that the trip’s motives have anything to do with acquiring uranium. Zahawie’s trip is reported in the local newspaper as well as by a French news agency. The US and British governments are aware of the trip and show no concern about Niger, which is actively seeking economic assistance from the United States. [New Yorker, 10/27/2003] In 2003, al-Zawahie will tell British reporters: “My only mission was to meet the president of Niger and invite him to visit Iraq. The invitation and the situation in Iraq resulting from the genocidal UN sanctions were all we talked about. I had no other instructions, and certainly none concerning the purchase of uranium.” [Independent, 8/10/2003]

Entity Tags: Wissam al-Zahawie, Ibrahim Bare Mainassara

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

An official of the Embassy of Niger in Rome returns to the embassy to find that it has been burglarized some time over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. The embassy offices are located in a large apartment and office building near the Piazza Mazzinni. Little of value seems to be missing: a wristwatch, some perfume, bureaucratic documents, embassy stationery, and some official stamps bearing the seal of the Republic of Niger. The documents and materials stolen from the embassy will be used to create forged documents alleging a secret plan for Iraq to buy uranium from Niger (see Between Late 2000 and September 11, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 18, 2001, November 20, 2001, February 5, 2002, March 1, 2002, Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002, and Late June 2002). [Vanity Fair, 7/2006, pp. 150; Unger, 2007, pp. 189-190] It appears that the people involved in the break-in also searched through and took some of the embassy’s documents and files. [Newsweek, 7/28/2003; La Repubblica (Rome), 10/24/2005] The first comprehensive report on the burglary will come from a 2005 series of reports in Italy’s La Repubblica news daily. The series is based on interviews with SISMI director Nicolo Pollari, former SISMI agent and document peddler Rocco Martino (see March 2000, Late June 2002, Afternoon October 7, 2002, and Summer 2004), and others. Martino will deny participating in the burglary himself, and will claim he only became involved after SISMI had its agent in the embassy, Laura Montini, deliver to him documents secured from the embassy. “I was told that a woman in the Niger embassy in Rome had a gift for me” (see Early 2000), he will later recall. “I met her and she gave me documents.” [London Times, 8/1/2004; Unger, 2007, pp. 207] Italian police will later suspect that the break-in was staged to provide an explanation for how a collection of mostly forged documents (which play an important role in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq) came into being. [Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 88]

Entity Tags: Laura Montini, Rocco Martino, Nicolo Pollari

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

The CIA contacts France’s intelligence agency, the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure, with a request that it investigate the security of Niger’s uranium. Niger, a former French colony, has two large uranium mines that are operated by a French Consortium. According to sources interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, the cause for the CIA’s concerns is increased chatter from sympathizers of US-designated terrorist groups. [La Repubblica (Rome), 12/1/2005; Los Angeles Times, 12/11/2005]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Greg Thielmann, director for strategic proliferation and military affairs at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), reviews Iraq’s alleged WMD programs for Secretary of State Colin Powell. Thielmann’s review concludes that Italian reports of a possible uranium deal between Iraq and Niger (see Between Late 2000 and September 11, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 18, 2001, November 20, 2001, February 5, 2002, Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002, and Late June 2002) are completely false. Thielmann will later recall: “A whole lot of things told us that the report was bogus. This wasn’t highly contested. There weren’t strong advocates on the other side. It was done, shot down” (see March 1, 2002). [Unger, 2007, pp. 229]

Entity Tags: Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Colin Powell, Greg Thielmann, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

While most US military and intelligence professionals dismiss the Iraq-Niger uranium deal as sheer fabrications that have been repeatedly discredited (see Between Late 2000 and September 11, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 18, 2001, November 20, 2001, February 5, 2002, March 1, 2002, Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002, and Late June 2002), neoconservatives in the Pentagon keep the reports alive. They “delighted in telling people, ‘You don’t understand your own data,’” former DIA analyst Patrick Lang will later recall. “‘We know that Saddam [Hussein] is evil and deceptive, and if you see this piece of data, to say just because it is not well supported it’s not true, is politically naive.’” [Unger, 2007, pp. 239]

Entity Tags: Patrick Lang, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Neoconservative Influence, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Though the CIA has chosen not to add anything about the Iraq-Niger allegations (see Between Late 2000 and September 11, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 18, 2001, November 20, 2001, February 5, 2002, March 1, 2002, Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002, and Late June 2002) to the President’s Daily Briefing, it issues a new report on the purported deal, including what it calls “verbatim text” of the agreement between Iraq and Niger (see February 5, 2002). The neoconservatives in the Pentagon (see Early 2002), in author Craig Unger’s words, “pounce… on the new material, and quickly begin working on their own reports that will allege Iraqi attempts to buy enough uranium to make nuclear weapons.” [US Congress, 7/7/2004; Unger, 2007, pp. 239]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Craig Unger, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Neoconservative Influence, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) issues “a finished intelligence product” summarizing the February 5, 2002 SISMI report (see February 5, 2002). The report, entitled “Niamey Signed an Agreement to Sell 500 Tons of Uranium a Year to Baghdad,” states as irrefutable fact that Iraq intends to buy weapons-grade uranium from Niger (see Between Late 2000 and September 11, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 18, 2001, November 20, 2001, February 5, 2002, March 1, 2002, Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002, and Late June 2002). It concludes, “Iraq probably is searching abroad for natural uranium to assist in its nuclear weapons program.” It does not comment on the credibility of the sourcing. The report is sent directly to Vice President Dick Cheney. Within hours, Cheney directs the CIA (see February 5, 2002) to investigate the claims. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2004 report on Iraqi WMD (see July 9, 2004), CIA and DIA analysts find the subsequent reports more informative and believable than the first, more sketchy reports (see February 5, 2002). The CIA’s Directorate of Operations tells one agency analyst that the report comes from a “very credible source.” Analysts with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) continue to find the reports unconvincing. [US Congress, 7/7/2004; Unger, 2007, pp. 239] Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern will later describe Cheney’s receipt of this document as “odd.” “[I]n more than two years of briefing then-Vice President George H. W. Bush every other morning, not once did he ask a question about a DIA report or even indicate that he had read one,” McGovern will note. “That this particular report was given to Cheney almost certainly reflects the widespread practice of ‘cherry picking’ intelligence.” [AfterDowningStreet (.org), 7/25/2005]

Entity Tags: Defense Intelligence Agency, Ray McGovern, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

In part due to pressure from Vice President Cheney, the CIA sends a cable to France’s intelligence agency, the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure (DGSE), communicating concerns about intelligence suggesting that Iraq is attempting to purchase uranium from Niger. (Another cable had been sent the year before (see Summer 2001).) Specifically, the CIA says it is concerned about an alleged agreement between Iraq and Niger on the sale of 500 tons of uranium that was signed by Nigerian officials. (In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, DGSE official Alain Chouet will note that the details of this agreement matched those of the forged documents.) [Los Angeles Times, 12/11/2005; Unger, 2007, pp. 241] Niger is a former French colony, and the French keep a tight rein on Niger’s uranium production. Hence, the CIA turns to French intelligence to vet the claim of Nigerien uranium going to Iraq. “The French were managing partners of the international consortium in Niger,” former US ambassador Joseph Wilson will later say. “The French did the actual mining and shipping of [uranium].” [Unger, 2007, pp. 208-209] The CIA asks for an immediate answer about the authenticity of the information. [La Repubblica (Rome), 12/1/2005] In response, the DGSE sends its head of security intelligence, Chouet, to look into the uranium deal. The initial information Chouet receives from the CIA is vague, he will later recall, except for one striking detail: Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican, Wissam al-Zahawie, made an unusual trip to four African countries in 1999, including Niger. CIA analysts fear the trip may have been a prelude to the uranium deal. But Chouet soon learns that the al-Zawahie trip (see February 1999) had not been secret, as the CIA avers, but had been well covered by, among other news outlets, the local Nigerien press. In addition, French, British, and US intelligence had received routine reports on al-Zawahie’s visits. Chouet, head of a 700-person intelligence unit specializing in weapons proliferation and terrorism, sends an undercover team of five or six men to Niger to check on the security of Niger’s uranium. The investigation produces no evidence that al-Zawahie had even discussed uranium with the Nigeriens. [La Repubblica (Rome), 12/1/2005; Los Angeles Times, 12/11/2005; Unger, 2007, pp. 208-209] Chouet will later recall, “[O]nce back, they told me a very simple thing: ‘the American information on uranium is all bullsh_t.’” [La Repubblica (Rome), 12/1/2005] The French summarize the results of their investigation in a series of formal cables they send to CIA offices in Langley and Paris. Chouet will later tell the Times that they communicated their doubts about the claims in no uncertain terms. “We told the Americans, ‘Bullshi_t. It doesn’t make any sense.’” [La Repubblica (Rome), 12/1/2005; Los Angeles Times, 12/11/2005] Choeut’s formal reports to the CIA use less coarse language, but he later describes them as candid. “We had the feeling we had been heard,” he will recall. [Unger, 2007, pp. 241] The DGSE considers the issue closed. [Unger, 2007, pp. 208-209]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Joseph C. Wilson, Central Intelligence Agency, Alain Chouet, Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, Wissam al-Zahawie

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

White House chief of staff Andrew Card forms the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, which aims to “educate the public” about the alleged threat from Iraq. WHIG is formed concurrently with the Office of Special Plans (see September 2002). A senior official involved with the group will later describe it as “an internal working group, like many formed for priority issues, to make sure each part of the White House was fulfilling its responsibilities.” [Washington Post, 8/10/2003] According to White House deputy press secretary Scott McClellan, the WHIG is “set up in the summer of 2002 to coordinate the marketing of the [Iraq] war,” and will continue “as a strategic communications group after the invasion had toppled Saddam [Hussein]‘s regime.” McClellan, who will become a full-fledged member of the WHIG after rising to the position of senior press secretary, will write: “Some critics have suggested that sinister plans were discussed at the WHIG meetings to deliberately mislead the public. Not so. There were plenty of discussions about how to set the agenda and influence the narrative, but there was no conspiracy to intentionally deceive. Instead, there were straightforward discussions of communications strategies and messaging grounded in the familiar tactics of the permanent campaign.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 142] Author Craig Unger will sum up the WHIG’s purpose up more bluntly: “to sell the war.” Members of the group include White House political advisers Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, James R. Wilkinson, and Nicholas E. Calio, and policy advisers led by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, her deputy Stephen Hadley, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby. They meet weekly in the White House Situation Room. A “strategic communications” task force under the WHIG is charged with planning speeches and writing position papers. [Washington Post, 8/10/2003; Unger, 2007, pp. 241]
Marketing Fear, Idea of Invasion as Reasonable - After Labor Day 2002—and after suitable test marketing—the group launches a full-fledged media marketing campaign. The images and storyline are simple and visceral: imminent biological or chemical attack, threats of nuclear holocaust, Saddam Hussein as a psychopathic dictator who can only be stopped by American military force. A key element of the narrative is forged documents “proving” Iraq sought uranium from Niger (see Between Late 2000 and September 11, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 18, 2001, November 20, 2001, February 5, 2002, March 1, 2002, Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002, and Late June 2002). One of the main objectives is to swing the dialogue ever farther to the right, creating the assumption in the public mind that war with Iraq is a thoughtful, moderate, well-reasoned position, and delegitimizing any opposition. To that end, Cheney stakes out the “moderate” position, with statements like “many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon” (see August 26, 2002), and neoconservatives such as Michael Ledeen pushing the extremes ever rightward with calls to invade not only Iraq, but Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia (see September 20, 2001, August 6, 2002, and September 4, 2002). The real push is delayed until the second week of September. As Card reminds the group, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August” (see September 6, 2002). The first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is a perfect opportunity to launch the new campaign (see September 8, 2002). [Unger, 2007, pp. 250-251] Wilkinson, the group’s communications director, is tasked with preparing one of the group’s first public releases, a white paper that will describe the “grave and gathering danger” of Iraq’s “reconstituted” nuclear weapons program. Wilkinson will claim that Iraq “sought uranium oxide, an essential ingredient in the enrichment process, from Africa.” [CounterPunch, 11/9/2005]
'Push[ing] the Envelope' - According to an intelligence source interviewed by the New York Daily News in October 2005, the group, on “a number of occasions,” will attempt “to push the envelope on things.… The [CIA] would say, ‘We just don’t have the intelligence to substantiate that.’” [New York Daily News, 10/19/2005] In 2003, three unnamed officials will tell a Washington Post reporter that the group “wanted gripping images and stories not available in the hedged and austere language of intelligence,” what author and reporter Charlie Savage will call “a stark display of the political benefits that come with the power to control information.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 357] In 2008, McClellan will write of “the heightened rhetoric on Iraq, including unequivocal statements that made things sound more certain than was known.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 137]
Using Friendly Media Outlets - An important part of the WHIG strategy is to feed their messages to friendly journalists, such as New York Times reporter Judith Miller. James Bamford, in his book A Pretext for War, will write: “First OSP [Office of Special Plans] supplies false or exaggerated intelligence; then members of the WHIG leak it to friendly reporters, complete with prepackaged vivid imagery; finally, when the story breaks, senior officials point to it as proof and parrot the unnamed quotes they or their colleagues previously supplied.” [Bamford, 2004, pp. 325]

Entity Tags: Stephen J. Hadley, Scott McClellan, Saddam Hussein, Nicholas E. Calio, White House Iraq Group, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Condoleezza Rice, Mary Matalin, Andrew Card, Craig Unger, James Bamford, Charlie Savage, Karen Hughes, James R. Wilkinson, Karl C. Rove

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Vice President Cheney and his staff have become increasingly reliant on intelligence from Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress (INC—see Early 2003). Cheney’s senior aide John Hannah, the liaison between Cheney and the INC, has become increasingly invested in the exile group. “He relied on Ahmed Chalabi for insights and advice,” a Bush administration official will later recall. Cheney has himself become an increasingly vocal Chalabi advocate. At a meeting of President Bush’s National Security Council, the State Department and Pentagon officials argue over whether to increase funding to the INC. Cheney, a former NSC staffer will recall, “weighed in, in a really big way. He said, ‘We’re getting ready to go to war, and we’re nickel-and-diming the INC at a time when they’re providing us with unique intelligence on Iraqi WMD.’” The fact that no one else, particularly the CIA, could confirm anything the INC was providing was merely proof that the CIA was recklessly disregarding INC intelligence. The administration official will say that before long, “there was something of a willingness to give [INC- provided intelligence] greater weight” than that offered by the intelligence community. In return, Cheney’s aides tried to inject their intelligence into the CIA’s own conduits. One CIA analyst will recall that both Cheney and his chief of staff, Lewis Libby, “come out there loaded with crap from OSP [the Office of Special Plans—see September 2002], reams of information from Chalabi’s people” on both terrorism and WMD. One of the main channels into the CIA for Cheney and his staff is Alan Foley, the director of the CIA’s Nonproliferation Center. Cheney’s office inundates Foley with questions about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, particularly about Iraq’s supposed attempts to purchase uranium from Niger (see Between Late 2000 and September 11, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 18, 2001, November 20, 2001, February 5, 2002, March 1, 2002, Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002, and Late June 2002). At first, Foley attempts to push back by “stressing the implausibility of it,” a colleague of Foley’s will recall. But as Cheney and his aides keep pressing, Foley begins to give in. “He was bullied and intimidated,” one of his friends will recall. The pressure on Foley and other analysts is both relentless and hostile. One retired CIA analyst close to current analysts will recall: “It was done along the lines of: ‘What’s wrong with you bunch of assh_les? You don’t know what’s going on, you’re horribly biased, you’re a bunch of pinkos.’” A current analyst later explains, “It gets to the point where you just don’t want to fight it anymore.” [New Republic, 11/20/2003]

Entity Tags: Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Alan Foley, Ahmed Chalabi, Bush administration (43), John Hannah, Central Intelligence Agency, Office of Special Plans, Iraqi National Congress, National Security Council, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, US International Relations

British Prime Minister Tony Blair gives a speech to Parliament concurrent with the just-released dossier on Iraqi WMD (see September 24, 2002). Blair combines fact—such as Iraq’s lengthy defiance and deception of UN weapons inspections since the 1991 Gulf War, the possible existence of tons of chemical and biological weapons material left unaccounted for in 1998, and the attempts by Iraq to subvert the UN’s Food for Oil program—with speculation that Saddam Hussein’s “chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons program is not an historic leftover from 1998.… His WMD program is active, detailed, and growing. The policy of containment is not working. The WMD program is not shut down. It is up and running.”
Unverified Claims - Blair calls the dossier “extensive, detailed, and authoritative,” and says that according to intelligence data used to compile it: “Iraq has chemical and biological weapons.… Saddam has continued to produce them… he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes, including against his own Shi’a population, and … he is actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability.” Only the “45-minute” strike capability is not sourced from the dossier (see September 28, 2002). Blair makes a number of patently false allegations about Iraq’s nuclear weapons, including the disputed aluminum tubes claim (see Between April 2001 and September 2002, April 11, 2001, July 25, 2002, September 24, 2002, October 1, 2002, Between December 2002 and January 2003, January 11, 2003, and March 7, 2003) and the tale about Iraq attempting to purchase uranium from Niger (see Between Late 2000 and September 11, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 18, 2001, November 20, 2001, February 5, 2002, March 1, 2002, Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002, and Late June 2002). “[W]e know Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa, though we do not know whether he has been successful,” Blair says. He tells the assembled lawmakers: “There will be some who dismiss all this. Intelligence is not always right. For some of this material there may be innocent explanations. There will be others who say, rightly, that, for example, on present going, it could be several years before he acquires a usable nuclear weapon. Though, if he were able to purchase fissile materiel illegally, it would only be a year or two. But let me put it at its simplest: on this 11-year history; with this man, Saddam; with this accumulated, detailed intelligence available; with what we know and what we can reasonably speculate: would the world be wise to leave the present situation undisturbed; to say, despite 14 separate UN demands on this issue, all of which Saddam is in breach of, we should do nothing; to conclude that we should trust not to the good faith of the UN weapons inspectors but to the good faith of the current Iraqi regime?”
Regime Change - After all of this buildup, Blair says that he is not necessarily calling for military action against Iraq, but “the case for ensuring Iraqi disarmament… is overwhelming.” He then makes the case for regime change, citing the need for a new leader “who can bring Iraq back into the international community where it belongs, not languishing as a pariah. Someone who can make the country rich and successful, not impoverished by Saddam’s personal greed. Someone who can lead a government more representative of the country as a whole, while maintaining absolutely Iraq’s territorial integrity. We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people. Liberated from Saddam, they could make Iraq prosperous and a force for good in the Middle East. So the ending of regime would be the cause of regret for no one other than Saddam.” Blair says, “our purpose is disarmament,” not military action, but it is hard to conceive how the regime change he advocates could be effected without military action. [10 Downing Street, 9/24/2002] Two years later, Blair will admit that the claim is erroneous (see October 13, 2004).

Entity Tags: Tony Blair, Saddam Hussein

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

According to a later investigation by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director for Nonproliferation informs US State Department officials that France is in possession of intelligence suggesting that Iraq made an unsuccessful attempt to purchase uranium from Niger. [US Congress, 7/7/2004] The US reportedly learns that this assessment (see March 4, 2003) is based on the forged documents. However, according to French intelligence official Alain Chouet, by this time, French intelligence has already dismissed the intelligence and communicated this to Langley (see Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002).

Entity Tags: France, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

French officials are shocked by the claims Bush made in his state of the union speech (see 9:01 pm January 28, 2003) concerning Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium from Africa. One government official will later recall in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that French experts considered Bush’s claim, which he attributed to the British, as “totally crazy because, in our view, there was no backup for this.” Notwithstanding, the French launch another investigation (see Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002) and again, find no evidence supporting the US and British claim. [Los Angeles Times, 12/11/2005]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

The US learns that an earlier French intelligence assessment (see November 22, 2002) suggesting that Iraq attempted to procure uranium from Niger had been based on the same collection of mostly forged documents the US provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency. [US Congress, 7/7/2004]

Entity Tags: France, United States

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

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