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Context of 'December 17, 2002: DHS Team Investigates Claim that Uranium in Benin Port Bound for Iraq; Team Concludes the Allegation Is False'

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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

The US Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) in Marseilles, France issues a report stating that there is reportedly a large quantity of uranium being held in a warehouse in Cotonou, Benin bound for Iraq. The source of the report is a phone call that was received by the NCIS from an individual describing himself as a “West African businessman.” The man claimed to be the person responsible for coordinating the transaction and said there were 20 barrels of Niger yellowcake at the warehouse that had been sold to Iraq by the president of Niger. The man leaves his name and telephone number with the NCIS. When the CIA catches wind of the report, it contacts French intelligence as well as the country’s internal security agency, the Directorate of Territorial Security (DST). French intelligence then sends a team to Africa to check the warehouse and other sites. (This investigation is possibly the same as the one that takes place after Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address (see After (9:30 pm) January 28, 2003).) The French find nothing. “They both gave assurances from the French government that the material sitting in the port was under French control and wasn’t going anywhere else,” a former CIA officer later tells the Los Angeles Times. The CIA’s Directorate of Operations (DO) never attempts to contact the businessman. A CIA official later tells Senate investigators that the agency saw no reason to contact him. In fact, “no one even thought to do that,” the official says. The Department of Homeland Security also decides against contacting the businessman after a DHS team sent to the warehouse on December 17, 2002 (see December 17, 2002) finds nothing but bales of cotton. [Los Angeles Times, 2/17/2004; US Congress, 7/7/2004, pp. 59] As some observers later note, the information provided by this source corresponds exactly to the information contained within three of the forged Niger documents, suggesting that this individual must have been in some way linked to those documents. [ERiposte, 3/3/2006]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Territorial Security, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, US Department of Homeland Security

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

The Department of Homeland Security sends a team to investigate claims (see November 25, 2002) that there are several tons of uranium sitting in a Benin warehouse awaiting shipment to Iraq. According to a later Senate investigation, they see “only what appear[s] to be bales of cotton in the warehouse.” The agency publishes its finds in a report on February 10, 2003. [US Congress, 7/7/2004, pp. 59]

Entity Tags: US Department of Homeland Security

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

The CIA reports that a foreign government service has determined that the uranium being stored at a warehouse in Cotonou, Benin is destined for France, not Iraq, as was alleged in a recent report (see November 25, 2002) by the US Naval Criminal Investigative Service. [US Congress, 7/7/2004, pp. 64]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency

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

Iraqi bomb allegedly containing botulism toxin.Iraqi bomb allegedly containing botulism toxin. [Source: CIA]President Bush gives his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, making several false allegations about Iraq. [US President, 2/3/2003] An empty seat is left open to symbolize the lives lost during the 9/11 attacks. Author Craig Unger will later characterize Bush’s delivery as somber and effective. He will be interrupted some 70 times by thunderous applause from the assembled lawmakers in the House chambers. One of his biggest applause lines is his statement about the US’s war on “international terrorism:” “The war goes on, and we are winning.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 269-270]
African Uranium - He says: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities.… He clearly has much to hide.” [US President, 2/3/2003; White House, 4/18/2003; Independent, 6/5/2003] The British allegation cited by Bush concerns a SISMI (Italy’s military intelligence) report (see Mid-October 2001) based on a set of forged documents. Months after the speech, with evidence mounting that the statement was completely false, the administration will retract this claim (see 3:09 p.m. July 11, 2003).
Aluminum Tubes - Bush alleges that a shipment of aluminum tubes imported by Iraq was intended to be used in the country’s alleged nuclear weapons program. “Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.” [US President, 2/3/2003]
Biological Agents - Bush lists a parade of agents: “anthrax, botulinum toxin, Ebola, and plague,” many of which Iraq has never been accused of possessing, and warns against “outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical, and builogical weapons… blackmail, terror, and mass murder.” He then moves from the general to the specific, accusing Iraq of having enough material “to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax—enough doses to kill several million people… more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin—enough to subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure… as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent.” [US President, 2/3/2003; Unger, 2007, pp. 270-271]
False Testimony from Iraqi Scientists - Bush alleges: “Iraqi intelligence officers are posing as the scientists inspectors are supposed to interview. Real scientists have been coached by Iraqi officials on what to say.” [US President, 2/3/2003] But Hans Blix, the chief UNMOVIC weapons inspector, tells the New York Times in an interview that he knows of no evidence supporting this claim. [New York Times, 1/31/2003]
Defector Allegations - Bush, citing intelligence provided by “three Iraqi defectors,” says, “We know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile weapons labs… designed to produce germ warfare agents and can be moved from place to a place to evade inspectors.” One of the defectors referred to by Bush is ‘Curveball,’ whom the CIA station chief in Germany warned was not reliable the day before (see January 27, 2003). German intelligence officials watching Bush’s speech are “shocked.” One official later recalls: “Mein Gott! We had always told them it was not proven.… It was not hard intelligence.” [Los Angeles Times, 11/20/2005] Another source for the claim was Mohammad Harith, whom the Defense Intelligence Agency had labeled a “fabricator” the previous May (see May 2002).
Torture, Murder, and 9/11 - Bush accuses Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein of routinely torturing his own people, using such techniques as “electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape.” He then connects Hussein, the torturer, murderer, and terrorist supporter, to the 9/11 attacks, saying: “[I]magine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans—this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.” He invites “all free nations” to join him in ensuring no such attack ever happens, but notes that “the course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others.” After another long burst of applause, Bush continues, “Whatever action is required, whatever action is necessary, I will defend the freedom and security of the American people.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 270-271]
'Direct Personal Threat' - Bush states what former ambassador Joseph Wilson later writes can only be interpreted by Hussein “as a direct personal threat,” saying: “Tonight I have a message for the brave and oppressed people of Iraq: Your enemy is not surrounding your country, your enemy is ruling your country. And the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation.” Wilson will later write: “Not simply promising the disarmament of Iraq as he had in his recent speeches, the president now stated outright his intention to rout Saddam from power, and to kill or capture him. It was an unwise thing to say. It made whatever strategy we adopted for Iraq that much more dangerous because it so blatantly telegraphed our next move and our ultimate goal.” [US President, 2/3/2003; Wilson, 2004, pp. 315]
Defending America - To America’s soldiers, he says: “Many of you are assembling in or near the Middle East, and some crucial hours lay ahead. In these hours, the success of our cause will depend on you. Your training has prepared you. Your honor will guide you. You believe in America, and America believes in you.” In 2007, Unger will write: “A few years earlier, Bush had confided that he thought to be a great president meant being a great commander in chief. Now George W. Bush was leading his nation into war.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 270-271]

Entity Tags: Hans Blix, George W. Bush, Joseph C. Wilson, ’Curveball’, Saddam Hussein, Craig Unger, Mohammad Harith

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 National Intelligence Council issues a Sense of the Community Memorandum (SOCM) expressing doubt that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Niger. “We judge it highly unlikely that Niamey has sold uranium yellowcake to Baghdad in recent years. The IC agrees with the IAEA assessment that key documents purported showing a recent Iraq-Niger sales accord are a fabrication. We judge that other reports from 2002—one alleging warehousing of yellowcake for shipment to Iraq, a second alleging a 1999 visit by an Iraqi delegation to Niamey—do not constitute credible evidence of a recent or impending sale.” The SOCM report notes also that “the current government of Niger [redacted in source] probably would report such an approach by the Iraqis, especially because a sale would violate UN resolution 687.” [US Congress, 7/7/2004, pp. 71]

Entity Tags: Naval Criminal Investigative Service

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

The Defense Intelligence Agency sends an information memorandum to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, responding to questions he has about Iraq’s alleged nuclear program. The memo states that “while the Intelligence Committee agrees that documents the IAEA reviewed were likely ‘fake,’ other unconfirmed reporting suggested that Iraq attempted to obtain uranium and yellowcake from African nations after 1998.” The memo also informs Wolfowitz of a November 2002 Navy report (see November 25, 2002) alleging that uranium held in a Benin warehouse was destined for Iraq. But the DIA fails to mention that this allegation was debunked two months earlier in a memo published by the National Intelligence Council (see April 5, 2003). [US Congress, 7/7/2004, pp. 71]

Entity Tags: Paul Wolfowitz, Defense Intelligence Agency

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

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