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Context of 'January 26, 2003: Colin Powell Asserts Iraq Trying to Obtain Uranium and Equipment to Produce Nuclear Weapon'

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A set of documents is forged implicating Iraq in an attempt to purchase 500 tons of uranium oxide, also known as “yellowcake,” from Niger. [Agence France-Presse, 7/19/2003; Reuters, 7/19/2003; New Yorker, 10/27/2003; Talking Points Memo, 10/31/2003; La Repubblica (Rome), 10/24/2005] It is possible that official stamps and letterhead stolen from the Niger embassy in Rome (see January 2, 2001) are used to fabricate the documents, though a subsequent police investigation suggests that the break-in may have been staged to provide a cover story for the origins of the documents. [Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 88] Material gleaned from real Italian intelligence (SISMI) documents dating back to the 1980s concerning Iraq’s yellowcake purchases from Niger during that period are also incorporated into the set of forged documents. [La Repubblica (Rome), 10/24/2005; San Francisco Chronicle, 10/30/2005] But it is unclear who exactly is responsible for the forgeries. In August 2004, the Financial Times will report that according to Rocco Martino, the Italian information peddler who later tries to sell the documents, the documents are fabricated by SISMI, which passes them on to Martino through embassy employee Laura Montini, a paid SISMI asset. [Financial Times, 8/2/2004] In October 2005, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica will suggest the forgery is done by Montini and fellow embassy employee Zakaria Yaou Maiga under the guidance of Martino and Antonio Nucera, the deputy chief of the SISMI center in Viale Pasteur in Rome. [La Repubblica (Rome), 10/24/2005] In 2006, an official investigation will add support to this account, concluding that Montini and Maiga, motivated by money, were indeed the forgers of the documents. [Sunday Times (London), 4/9/2006] SISMI director Nicolo Pollari will later acknowledge that Martino had worked as a SISMI agent in the past, but deny any SISMI involvement in the Iraq-Niger affair. “[Nucera] offered [Martino] the use of an intelligence asset [Montini]—no big deal, you understand—one who was still on the books but inactive—to give a hand to Martino,” Pollari will explain. Author Craig Unger will observe that the issue is, if Pollari is to be believed, just one friend helping another friend by loaning him an intelligence asset to help disseminate forged documents. Martino has a different explanation: “SISMI wanted me to pass on the documents, but they didn’t want anyone to know they had been involved.” The information is quite contradictory. The Italian newspaper La Repubblica will call Martino “a failed carabiniere and dishonest spy,” and a “double-dealer” who “plays every side of the fence.” But Unger will later note that assets like him are valuable precisely because they lack credibility. “If there were a deep-cover unit of SISMI, it would make sense to hire someone like Rocco,” says former DIA analyst Patrick Lang. “His flakiness gives SISMI plausible deniability. That’s standard tradecraft for the agencies.” Until Martino stops talking to journalists in 2005, he will insist he believed the documents were authentic (see Summer 2004). “I sell information, I admit,” he will tell a London reporter. “But I only sell good information.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 236]

Entity Tags: Rocco Martino, Nicolo Pollari, Laura Montini, La Repubblica, Zakaria Yaou Maiga, Antonio Nucera, Craig Unger, SISMI, Patrick Lang

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Photo of Iraqi aluminum tube, misidentified as a component for a nuclear reactor.Photo of Iraqi aluminum tube, misidentified as a component for a nuclear reactor. [Source: CIA]The CIA writes at least 15 reports (only seven of which have been identified; see, e.g., June 20, 2001, June 30, 2001, September 2004-September 2006, November 24, 2001, December 15, 2001, June 14, 2001, April 10, 2001) about Iraq’s interest in purchasing 7075-T6 aluminum tubes. Several of the assessments are distributed only to high-level policy makers, including President Bush, and are not sent to other intelligence agencies for peer review. According to a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigation, all the assessments rely on the same evidence and they all fail to note that the opinions of leading centrifuge experts at the Energy Department conflict with the CIA’s view. [US Congress, 7/7/2004, pp. 59; New York Times, 10/3/2004]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, George W. Bush, US Department of Energy

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

While former ambassador Joseph Wilson is still in Africa learning about the supposed Iraq-Niger uranium deal (see February 21, 2002-March 4, 2002), Douglas Rohn, an analyst for the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), writes an intelligence assessment, titled “Niger: Sale of Uranium to Iraq Is Unlikely,” that disputes recent Italian intelligence reports (see October 15, 2001 and February 5, 2002) suggesting that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Niger. The assessment reiterates INR’s view that France controls the uranium industry and “would take action to block a sale of the kind alleged in a CIA report of questionable credibility from a foreign government service.” It adds that though “some officials may have conspired for individual gain to arrange a uranium sale,” Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja’s government would have been unlikely to risk relations with the US and other key aid donors. And it cites the logistical difficulties of a secret transaction requiring “25 hard-to-conceal 10-ton trailers” that would have had to travel 1,000 miles and cross one international border before reaching the sea. “A whole lot of things told us that the report was bogus,” Greg Thielmann, a high-ranking INR official, will later explain to Time magazine. “This wasn’t highly contested. There weren’t strong advocates on the other side. It was done, shot down.” The assessment, drafted in response to interest from the vice president’s office (see (February 13, 2002)), is sent to the White House Situation Room and Secretary of State Colin Powell. [Time, 7/21/2003; US Congress, 7/7/2004, pp. 59; Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 96-97; Unger, 2007, pp. 241]

Entity Tags: Mamadou Tandja, US Department of State, Joseph C. Wilson, Douglas Rohn, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Greg Thielmann, Colin Powell

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

The Office of Africa Analysis in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) argues in a memo that the alleged uranium deal between Iraq and Niger is “unlikely” for a number of reasons. It notes that France—which jointly owns the country’s only two uranium mines and is dependent on them for forty percent of its uranium—“unequivocally controls the overall operation” and would not permit such a transaction to take place. “There are managers and engineers at every point in the mining, milling, and transportation process,” the memo says. Even if Niger did manage to obtain 500 tons of uranium from the mines, transporting it to Iraq (in two phases, as specified in the orginal forged documents) would have required “25 hard-to-conceal 10-ton tractor-trailers” journeying 1,000 miles to the sea and crossing at least one international border. “Moving such a quantity secretly over such a distance would be very difficult,” the memo notes. Furthermore, Niger officials would have deemed such an arrangement too risky because they “understand the value of good relations with the US and other aid donors.” “A payoff from Iraq of $50 million or even $100 million would not make up for what would be lost if the donor community turned off the taps to Niger.” [US Department of State, 3/4/2002 pdf file] The memo is distributed at senior levels by the office of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and by the Defense Intelligence Agency. [New York Times, 1/18/2006] (Note the similarity between this memo and the one INR released three days earlier (see March 1, 2002). It is not clear how they are related or if indeed they are actually the same)

Entity Tags: Defense Intelligence Agency, Bureau of Intelligence and Research

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

Simon Dodge, an Iraq nuclear analyst from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), writes in an email to other intelligence community analysts that the “uranium purchase agreement probably is a hoax.” He adds that the document (see October 15, 2002) suggesting that Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, and Pakistan had met to discuss forming an anti-West coalition was “clearly a forgery.” [US Congress, 7/7/2004; Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 164] A July 2003 memo from the INR’s Carl Ford will note that on the same day as Dodge’s email, the bureau “expressed concerns to the CIA that the documents pertaining to the Iraq-Niger deal were forgeries.” [Carl W. Ford, Jr, 7/7/2003]

Entity Tags: Simon Dodge

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

Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a speech before the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, asks, “Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium and the special equipment needed to transform it into material for nuclear weapons?” [Washington Post, 8/8/2003] Author Craig Unger will later write, “In referring to the Niger deal (see Between Late 2000 and September 11, 2001) and the aluminum tubes (see Between April 2001 and September 2002), Powell was actually betraying his own State Department analysts who had rejected these two key pieces of ‘evidence’ against Saddam” Hussein (see March 1, 2002, March 4, 2002, and January 12, 2003). [Unger, 2007, pp. 276]

Entity Tags: Colin Powell, Craig Unger

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

US Secretary of State Colin Powell reluctantly accepts the task of making the administration’s case for war to the United Nations Security Council. He assigns his close friend and chief of staff Larry Wilkerson to go to the CIA and put together a team to craft a presentation. Though Powell has long harbored deep misgivings about the war, in public he has consistently and staunchly promoted the war, even when it came to repeating claims he knew to be false (see January 23, 2008). Powell also gives Wilkerson a 48-page report from the White House on Iraq’s alleged arsenal of banned weapons. The report is meant to serve as the basis for Powell’s upcoming speech to the UN (see February 5, 2003). Powell, skeptical of the report’s data, instructs Wilkerson to have it looked over by the CIA. The dossier was written primarily by two senior aides to Vice President Cheney, John Hannah and I. Lewis Libby (see January 25, 2003). [Bamford, 2004, pp. 368; Vanity Fair, 5/2004, pp. 281; Unger, 2007, pp. 275] The analysts at CIA will quickly determine that the documents are based on unreliable sources (see January 30-February 4, 2003). Speculation is already rampant throughout the State Department and among well-informed observers as to why Powell became such a reliable spokesman for the administration’s war plans. A State Department official will echo the opinion of others in saying that Powell is “completely aware of the machinations going on,” but wants to avoid any sort of public dispute among top White House officials—and Powell wants to keep relations with Vice President Dick Cheney on an even keel. Author Craig Unger will later note, “Regardless of what he really believed, Powell ultimately accommodated the White House to such an extent that he became the most articulate spokesman for the war effort” (see January 26, 2003). [Unger, 2007, pp. 275]

Entity Tags: Lawrence Wilkerson, US Department of State, Colin Powell, Craig Unger, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell tells reporter Robert Scheer that neither he nor any of the State Department’s top experts believed that Iraq ever posed an imminent nuclear threat, contrary to the statements of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other top White House officials. Powell says that Bush followed the advice of Cheney and the CIA (see October 1, 2002) in making the claim (see Mid-January 2003 and 9:01 pm January 28, 2003) and taking the country to war in Iraq. Scheer asks Powell why, in light of the State Department’s own intelligence bureau correctly concluding that the claims that Iraq attempted to buy uranium from Niger were false (see March 1, 2002, March 4, 2002, Mid-October 2002, and January 12, 2003), Bush ignored that information in making his case for war? Powell responds: “The CIA was pushing the aluminum tube argument heavily (see March 7, 2003) and Cheney went with that instead of what our guys wrote. That was a big mistake. It should never have been in the speech. I didn’t need [former ambassador Joseph] Wilson to tell me that there wasn’t a Niger connection. He didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. I never believed it” (see January 26, 2003). Powell adds that the responsibility for pressing the argument that Iraq was a nuclear threat was not Bush’s; rather, “That was all Cheney.” In his article, Scheer asks, “Why was this doubt, on the part of the secretary of state and others, about the salient facts justifying the invasion of Iraq kept from the public until we heard the truth from whistle-blower Wilson, whose credibility the president then sought to destroy?” [Truthdig, 4/11/2006]

Entity Tags: Robert Scheer, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Colin Powell, US Department of State, Joseph C. Wilson, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

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