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Context of 'June 1999: Iraqi Delegation Reportedly Discusses ‘Expanding Commercial Relations’ with Niger'

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A businessman reportedly approaches Nigerien Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki and insists that he meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss “expanding commercial relations” between Niger and Iraq. Mayaki reportedly interprets “expanding commercial relations” to mean that Iraq is interested in discussing uranium sales. According to Mayaki, he does meet the delegation but avoids discussion of trade issues because of UN sanctions on the country. They reportedly never discuss what the businessman had meant when he said Iraq was interested in “expanding commercial relations.” [US Congress, 7/7/2004] A US embassy official later tells former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who himself will visit Niger to determine the facts behind American concerns that Iraq is attempting to secure Nigerien uranium (see Fall 1999), that Mayaki is extremely wary of dealing with Iraq, and keeps the conversations on very general levels. The Iraqi may have wanted to discuss uranium, the embassy official later recalls, but nothing is ever said on the subject. Wilson later learns from the official that Mayaki speaks to the Iraqi information minister, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, disparagingly called “Baghdad Bob” by the Americans. At the time, Wilson is not aware of the Iraqi’s identity, so he does not include the name in his report to the CIA. [Wilson, 2004, pp. 27-28] Alan Foley, the director of the CIA’s Nonproliferation Center (see February 5, 2003), will later tell a reporter that an item in Wilson’s report (see March 4-5, 2002) leads him to believe that there may be some truth to the Iraq-Niger allegations. Writing about Foley’s assertion in 2004, Wilson says he believes that Foley is referring to the 1999 conversation between the embassy official and al-Sahhaf. Wilson will ask, “Could it be that we went to war over a conversation in which the word ‘uranium’ was not spoken at all?” The Nigerien official later tells Wilson that he wondered if al-Sahhaf might have intended to ask about a possible uranium deal in subsequent conversations. “Was that the smoking gun that could supposedly have become a mushroom cloud?” Wilson will ask. “And so is it possible that, because of that non-conversation, [thousands of] Americans have been killed, and [billions] of national treasure spent?” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 424]

Entity Tags: Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, Joseph C. Wilson, Ibrahim Mayaki, Alan Foley

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who has spent much of his political career representing the US in West Africa, visits Niger at the behest of the CIA to investigate what a Senate investigation (see July 9, 2004) will later call “uranium-related matters.” Wilson is chosen in part because his wife, covert CIA official Valerie Plame Wilson, suggested that since he was going to Niger on business in the near future, he “might be willing to use his contacts in the region” to obtain information. The CIA is interested in a meeting between Niger’s former prime minister, Ibrahim Mayaki, and a delegation from Iraq to discuss “expanding commercial relations” between the two nations. Wilson will later say that the subject of uranium never comes up in a meeting he has with Mayaki (see May 2, 2004). However, CIA analysts will interpret Wilson’s information to mean that Mayaki “interpreted ‘expanding commercial relations’ to mean that the [Iraqi] delegation wanted to discuss uranium yellowcake sales.” The CIA will believe that Wilson’s report bolsters its own suspicions that Iraq is attempting to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger. An intelligence officer will later report that Mayaki indicated that the Iraqis had expressed an interest in buying uranium from Niger. [FactCheck (.org), 7/26/2004; FactCheck (.org), 7/22/2005]

Entity Tags: Ibrahim Mayaki, Central Intelligence Agency, Valerie Plame Wilson, Joseph C. Wilson

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Joseph Wilson.Joseph Wilson. [Source: public domain]The CIA sends Joseph C. Wilson, a retired US diplomat, to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from that country (see February 13, 2002). The CIA pays Wilson’s expenses for the trip, but does not pay him in any other respect. The identity of the party who requests the mission is later disputed. While Wilson will claim the trip was requested directly by Dick Cheney’s office, other sources will indicate that the CIA had decided (see February 19, 2002) that a delegation to Niger was needed in order to investigate questions raised by one of Dick Cheney’s aides (see (February 13, 2002)). [New York Times, 5/6/2003; Washington Post, 6/12/2003 pdf file; Independent, 6/29/2003; New York Times, 7/6/2003; US Congress, 7/7/2004]
Reason behind Request - Former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman will later note that “Wilson was asked to go to Niger for one specific purpose. It was the CIA’s idea to get Cheney off their backs. Cheney would not get off their backs about the yellowcake documents. They couldn’t get Cheney to stop pressing the issue. He insisted that was the proof of reconstitution of [Iraq’s nuclear] program.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 214]
Normal Skepticism - Wilson goes into the situation with a healthy dose of skepticism. “My skepticism was the same as it would have been with any unverified intelligence report, because there is a lot of stuff that comes over the transom every day,” he will recall in 2006. Wilson knows nothing of the influence of the Pentagon neoconservatives (see July 8, 1996, January 26, 1998, July 1998, September 2000, Late December 2000 and Early January 2001, Shortly after January 20, 2001, and Shortly After September 11, 2001) or the growing rift in the intelligence community over the reports: “I was aware that the neocons had a growing role in government and that they were interested in Iraq,” he will recall. “But the administration had not articulated a policy at this stage.” He is not given a copy of the Niger documents before leaving for Africa, nor is he told of their history. “To the best of my knowledge, the documents were not in the possession of the [CIA] at the time I was briefed,” he will recall. “The discussion was whether or not this report could be accurate. During this discussion, everyone who knew something shared stuff about how the uranium business worked, and I laid out what I knew about the government in Niger, what information they could provide.” With this rather sketchy preparation, Wilson leaves for Niger. [Unger, 2007, pp. 240; Wilson, 2007, pp. 113] Wilson’s wife, senior CIA case officer Valerie Plame Wilson, will later write, “He figured that if the vice president had asked a serious and legitimate question, it deserved a serious answer and he would try to help find it.” [Wilson, 2007, pp. 111]
No Trouble Finding Information - Wilson, who knows the Nigerien government and many of its officials, has little trouble finding the information he needs in the following week. In 2006, he will recall: “Niger has a simplistic government structure. Both the minister of mines and the prime minister had gone through the mines. The French were managing partners of the international consortium [which handles Niger’s uranium]. The French mining company actually had its hands on the project. Nobody else in the consortium had operators on the ground.” Wilson also personally knows Wissam al-Zahawie, Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican who supposedly negotiated the uranium deal with Niger (see February 1999). Wilson will later observe: “Wissam al-Zahawie was a world-class opera singer, and he went to the Vatican as his last post so he could be near the great European opera houses in Rome. He was not in the Ba’athist inner circle. He was not in Saddam [Hussein]‘s tribe. The idea that he would be entrusted with the super-secret mission to buy 500 tons of uranium from Niger is out of the question.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 240-241] Wilson meets with, among other officials, Niger’s former minister of mines, Mai Manga. As later reported by the Senate Intelligence Committee (see July 9, 2004), Manga tells Wilson “there were no sales outside of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) channels since the mid-1980s,” and he “knew of no contracts signed between Niger and any rogue states for the sale of uranium.” Manga says a “French mining consortium controls Nigerien uranium mining and keeps the uranium very tightly controlled from the time it is mined until the time it is loaded onto ships in Benin for transport overseas,” and, “it would be difficult, if not impossible, to arrange a special shipment of uranium to a pariah state given these controls.” [CounterPunch, 11/9/2005]
Meeting with US Ambassador - Wilson arrives in Niger on February 26, two days after Marine General Carlton W. Fulford Jr.‘s meeting (see February 24, 2002) with Nigerien officials. Wilson first meets with US Ambassador to Niger Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, a veteran Foreign Service official, whom Wilson will later describe as “crisp” and well-informed. Over tea in the US Embassy offices in Niamey, Niger’s capital, Owens-Kirkpatrick tells Wilson that she has already concluded that the allegations of uranium sales to Iraq are unfounded. “She had already debunked them in her reports to Washington,” Wilson will later recall. “She said, yeah, she knew a lot about this particular report. She thought she had debunked it—and, oh, by the way, a four-star Marine Corps general had been down there as well—Carlton Fulford. And he had left satisfied there was nothing to report.” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 20-22]
Details of Alleged Uranium Production - Niger extracts uranium from two mines, both located in remote locations in the Sahara Desert. It takes well over a day to drive from the mines to Niamey. The mines are owned by a consortium of foreign companies and the Nigerien government, and managed by a French mining company, COGEMA. Because of a recent upswing in the production of Canadian uranium, Niger’s uranium is mined at a net loss, and its only customers are consortium members. Wilson will later write, “[T]he Nigerien government has sold no uranium outside the consortium for two decades.” If Iraq had bought 500 tons of uranium, as the story is told, that would have represented a 40 percent production increase. “There is no doubt,” Wilson will later write, “that such a significant shift from historic production schedules would have been absolutely impossible to hide from the other partners, and most certainly from the managing partner, COGEMA. Everyone involved would have known about it.” Any Nigerien government decision to produce such an amount of uranium would have involved numerous government officials and many well-documented meetings. Because the transaction would have been to a foreign country, Niger’s Foreign Ministry would also have been involved in the decision. To sell Iraq uranium during that time would have been a violation of international law and of UN sanctions against Iraq, a weighty decision that would have ultimately been made by the president of Niger in conjuction with the foreign minister and the minister of mines. Such a decision would have been published in the Nigerien equivalent of the Federal Register and would have dramatic tax and revenue implications. The unexpected huge infusion of cash from the sale would have had a strong impact on the Nigerien economy, and would have been much anticipated and talked about throughout the Nigerien business community. [Wilson, 2004, pp. 22-25]
Off-the-Books Production Virtually Impossible - It is conceivable that such an enormous operation could have been conducted entirely “off the books,” Wilson will write, but virtually impossible to pull off. True, a military junta was in power at the time of the alleged sale, one that felt no responsibility or accountability to the Nigerien people. But even a secret transaction would have been impossible to conceal. Such a transaction would have involved thousands of barrels of clandestinely shipped uranium, extensive and complex adjustments to shipping schedules, and other ramifications. “It simply could not have happened without a great many people knowing about it, and secrets widely known do not remain hidden for long. And again, COGEMA, as the managing partner, would have had to know and be complicit.” Add to that Niger’s dependence on US foreign economic aid and its unwillingness to threaten the loss of that aid by secretly shipping uranium to a country that the US considers a dangerous rogue nation. All told, Wilson concludes, the possibility of such a clandestine operation is remote in the extreme. [Wilson, 2004; Wilson, 2004]
1999 Meeting with Iraqi Official - While speaking with a US Embassy official, Wilson learns about a 1999 meeting between the embassy official and an Iraqi representative in Algiers, perhaps in concert with a similar meeting between Iraqi officials and Niger’s prime minister (see June 1999). [Wilson, 2004, pp. 27-28]
Confirmation that Allegations are Unrealistic - After spending several days talking with current government officials, former government officials, and people associated with the country’s uranium business, Wilson concludes the rumors are completely false. He will later call the allegations “bogus and unrealistic.” [Washington Post, 6/12/2003 pdf file; Knight Ridder, 6/13/2003; Independent, 6/29/2003; New York Times, 7/6/2003; CBS News, 7/11/2003; Vanity Fair, 1/2004; Wilson, 2004, pp. 20-28, 424; Vanity Fair, 5/2004, pp. 282; Wilson, 2007, pp. 113]

Entity Tags: Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, Wissam al-Zahawie, Carlton W. Fulford, COGEMA, Mai Manga, Valerie Plame Wilson, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, Melvin A. Goodman, Central Intelligence Agency, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Joseph C. Wilson

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

A few days after the State Department determines that the reported secret uranium deal between Iraq and Niger is “unlikely” (see March 1, 2002), former ambassador Joseph Wilson returns from his fact-finding trip to Niger (see February 21, 2002-March 4, 2002). Wilson tells CIA officials that he found no evidence to show that any such deal ever took place. [Unger, 2007, pp. 241] Wilson’s wife, senior CIA case officer Valerie Plame Wilson, will later write that the debriefing actually begins shortly after Wilson’s arrival in the US, with “two clean-cut CIA officers, one of whom was the reports officer who had suggested sending Joe to Niger in the first place” (see February 13, 2002), arriving at the Wilson home, “clearly eager to debrief Joe so they could immediately write up an intelligence report on his trip.” Plame Wilson deliberately absents herself from the debriefing taking place in her living room, though she joins her husband and the two CIA officers for a late dinner of takeout Chinese food, where they discuss general subjects. [Wilson, 2004, pp. 29; Wilson, 2007, pp. 112] Based on Wilson’s information, the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (DO)‘s case officer writes a draft intelligence report and sends it to the DO reports officer, who adds additional relevant information from his notes. [US Congress, 7/7/2004] The report will be distributed by March 8, 2002 (see March 8, 2002). [Wilson, 2007, pp. 370]

Entity Tags: Valerie Plame Wilson, Joseph C. Wilson, Central Intelligence Agency

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

The CIA sends a one-and-a-half-page cable to the White House, the FBI, the Justice Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, with news that a CIA source sent to Niger has failed to find any evidence to back claims that Iraq sought uranium from that country (see February 21, 2002-March 4, 2002). The cable contains an initial report of the source’s findings in Niger. [Knight Ridder, 6/12/2003; ABC News, 6/12/2003; Knight Ridder, 6/13/2003; Washington Post, 6/13/2003; BBC, 7/8/2003; BBC, 7/8/2003; US Congress, 7/7/2004] The agency rates the quality of the information in the report as “good,” with a rating of 3 out of 5. [CounterPunch, 11/9/2005]
Caveats and Denials - The report does not name the CIA source or indicate that the person is a former ambassador. Instead it describes the source as “a contact with excellent access who does not have an established reporting record” and notes that the Nigeriens with whom he spoke “knew their remarks could reach the US government and may have intended to influence as well as inform.” A later Senate report on the US’s pre-war intelligence on Iraq will state: “The intelligence report indicated that former Nigerien Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki was unaware of any contracts that had been signed between Niger and any rogue states for the sale of yellowcake while he was prime minister (1997-1999) or foreign minister (1996-1997). Mayaki said that if there had been any such contract during his tenure, he would have been aware of it.” Mayaki, according to the report, also acknowledged a June 1999 visit (see June 1999) by a businessman who arranged a meeting between Mayaki and an Iraqi delegation to discuss “expanding commercial relations” between Niger and Iraq. The intelligence report says that Mayaki interpreted “expanding commercial relations” to mean that the delegation wanted to discuss purchasing uranium. The meeting did take place, but according to the report, “Mayaki let the matter drop due to UN sanctions on Iraq.” The intelligence report also says that Niger’s former Minister for Energy and Mines, Mai Manga, told Wilson that there have been no sales outside of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) channels since the mid-1980s. Mai Manga is also reported to have described how the French mining consortium controls Nigerien uranium mining and keeps the uranium very tightly controlled from the time it is mined until the time it is loaded onto ships in Benin for transportation overseas. Manga said he believed it would be difficult, if not impossible, to arrange a special clandestine shipment of uranium to a country like Iraq. [US Congress, 7/7/2004]
White House: Report Left Out Details, Considered Unimportant - Bush administration officials will say in June 2003 that the report left out important details, such as the trip’s conclusions. And consequently, the Washington Post will report in June 2003, “It was not considered unusual or very important and not passed on to Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, or other senior White House officials.” [Washington Post, 6/12/2003 pdf file; Washington Post, 6/13/2003; Knight Ridder, 6/13/2003]
CIA Source Doubts White House Claims - But the CIA source who made the journey, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, will find this explanation hard to believe. “Though I did not file a written report [he provided an oral briefing (see March 4-5, 2002)], there should be at least four documents in United States government archives confirming my mission,” he will later explain. “The documents should include the ambassador’s report of my debriefing in Niamey, a separate report written by the embassy staff, a CIA report summing up my trip, and a specific answer from the agency to the office of the vice president (this may have been delivered orally). While I have not seen any of these reports, I have spent enough time in government to know that this is standard operating procedure.” [New York Times, 7/6/2003]
Senior CIA Case Officer Backs Up Source - In 2007, Wilson’s wife, senior CIA case officer Valerie Plame Wilson, will write of the report (see March 4-5, 2002) that if standard protocol has been followed, the report is distributed to “all the government departments that have intelligence components, such as the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), the National Security Agency (NSA), the Pentagon, and the overseas military commands. All of us had every reason to believe that their finished report would indeed be sent to the vice president’s office as part of the established protocol.” According to Plame Wilson, who read the report when it was completed (see (March 6, 2002)), much of the report focuses on “Niger’s strict, private, and government controls on mining consortia to ensure that no yellowcake went missing between the uranium mines and the marketplace.” She will write in 2007 that her husband’s report “corroborated and reinforced what was already known.” Both she and her husband assume that the allegations are sufficiently disproven and will not be heard of again. [Wilson, 2007, pp. 112-114]
Little New Information - According to intelligence analysts later interviewed by Congressional investigators, the intelligence community does not believe the trip has contributed any significant information to what is already known about the issue, aside from the details of the 1999 Iraqi delegation. [US Congress, 7/7/2004]

Entity Tags: Condoleezza Rice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ibrahim Mayaki, Defense Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, US Department of Justice, Mai Manga, Bush administration (43), Valerie Plame Wilson, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph C. Wilson

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

Alan Foley, director of the CIA’s Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control Center (WINPAC), tells a former colleague that the allegations being made by Powell in his speech (see February 5, 2003) to the UN Security Council are not backed by evidence. The former colleague tells reporter James Risen, “I talked to Foley on the day of Powell’s UN speech, and he said, we just don’t have it. It’s not very good.” [Risen, 2006, pp. 183-184]

Entity Tags: Alan Foley

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

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