Saturday, January 20, 2018

How US Intelligence Failed, The Iraq-Niger Uranium Story

Within the U.S. intelligence community that story that Iraq tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger was never very important. It was a considered a secondary claim to other reports that Iraq had restarted its nuclear program. It would later become a huge controversy when it was included in the president’s 2003 State of the Union address, and then Vice President Dick Cheney tried to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson who disputed the story. That embarrassing episode was only the public face of a larger example of the intelligence failure America suffered from in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The Niger story started with an Italian intelligence dealer connected to Rome’s Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare (SISMI). Rocco Martino sold stories to intelligence agencies and reporters, and had a relationship with Colonel Antonio Nucera, the deputy head of SISMI’s counterproliferation division. In 1999 Nucera put Martino in contact with a clerk at the Niger Embassy in Rome. They started meeting in 2000 and the clerk began giving Martino information about the embassy. On January 1, 2001, there was a break-in at the embassy. Italian police thought the robbery was staged to provide a background story for how Martino got ahold of documents claiming that Niger tried to sell yellowcake uranium to Iraq in July 2000. The FBI later believed the clerk and the embassy’s first counselor forged the documents so that Martino could sell them. The FBI didn’t rule out that Nucera was involved as well. Martino gave the fake papers to SISMI who then passed them onto the CIA and England’s MI6. Martino also sold them to France’s La Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure (DGSE). These forged papers would become one part of the American belief that Iraq had restarted its nuclear program. It would take two years before the origins of the documents was revealed.

The CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) would write about the story from late-2001 to 2002. The first report came on October 15, 2001 by the CIA, which said that the story was based upon a foreign intelligence agency, SISMI, that the deal was approved in late-2000 by Niger, and that the reporting was very limited and more information was needed. On February 5, 2002, another CIA report said that it received a text of the deal from a foreign service, SISMI again, that said Iraq was going to buy 500 tons of yellowcake. The CIA and DIA thought the text added the details that it was looking for. Another piece of intelligence was that Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican visited Niger in February 1999 asking about better trade ties, which analysts thought was about buying uranium. The DIA wrote its own report on the matter on February 12, 2002. What was at first a simple raw intelligence report, was now believed to be much stronger given the details of the text, and the visit by the Iraqi ambassador. There was no effort to analyze or check the claim such as asking whether Niger was capable of selling 500 tons, consulting with Niger, etc.

The only dissent within the U.S. intelligence agency over the Niger story was the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). The CIA, DIA, and the Energy Department all thought the story was possible, it was only the State Department’s INR that was suspicious. For example, on November 20, 2001, the U.S. Embassy in Niger said the French led consortium that controlled the country’s uranium industry denied any deal with Iraq was made. When the text of the reported deal arrived in early 2002, the State Department said that needed to be looked into. At the same time, INR pointed out that the 500 tons in the text was more than Niger produced in all of 2001. Later, the U.S. Ambassador to Niger told State that the Niger Foreign Minister and Prime Minister both denied they had made any sales to Iraq.  All that led to an INR memo on March 1, 2002 that assessed the Iraq-Niger deal was unlikely. The INR was the only dissenting opinion on the matter. With the rest of the American intelligence community seeing merit in the report, it would continue to be repeated, and gain the attention of the White House.  

The February 2002 DIA report on the Iraq-Niger deal caught the eye of Vice President Dick Cheney, which would lead to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson making a trip to Niger for the CIA. When Cheney read the DIA paper he asked his CIA daily briefer for more information. That led the CIA to ask former Ambassador Joseph Wilson who had worked in Niger, to make travel there. Wilson left on February 21, 2002, met with various Niger officials along with the U.S. Ambassador all of which denied the story. The CIA debriefed Wilson on March 5, and wrote a report on it on March 8. While Wilson came away believing the claim had been disproved, he did mention that Iraq’s Ambassador to the Vatican had visited Niger in 1999 asking for better trade relations, which Niger thought was about buying uranium. The DIA and CIA did not think Wilson’s trip changed anything. In fact, the Iraqi ambassador’s trip was considered supporting evidence. Wilson would later go public with his Niger experience claiming a much larger role in the affair than he played, leading the Vice President to launch a campaign to discredit him.

Within the intelligence community the Iraq-Niger story would continue to be used. The CIA would repeat the story in March and May, and the DIA in September. In July, the Energy Department would use the Niger story as one of three indicators Iraq had restarted its nuclear program, even though it had no evidence that Iraq had ever received the uranium and that the 500 tons was far more than Iraq needed. The story was still a minor one as seen by the fact that in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) produced at the request of Congress, Niger was not included in the major conclusions because it was unconfirmed. The INR was the only one to object to the story being included in the NIE. As a result, it was given its own dissent section that went over the problems with Niger deal and other issues. There was no issue including the claim in the NIE as it was just one report. It was not given a prominent position either because there were still questions about it, and the State Department was able to include its differing opinion.

The CIA would also point out the limited information behind the Niger story. On October 2, 2002, the Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he disagreed with the British using the uranium story in its September 2002 dossier because he didn’t think it was strong enough. Two days later, the National Intelligence Officer told the Senate committee the same thing. That same day, the CIA asked the White House to remove reference to Iraq trying to buy uranium from Africa in a draft of a speech the president was planning on giving. Again, the Niger story was not considered a very important one, but just another piece in the puzzle in trying to figure out what Iraq was doing with its nuclear program. It was repeated throughout reports, but it was not given a significant position as the CIA’s actions in October highlighted.

There was some secondary reporting that the U.S. received as well, that disputed the Niger story, but did not change the majority view within the intelligence community. On November 25, a U.S. naval officer reported that a large amount of Niger uranium was at a warehouse in Benin. The warehouse was examined, and nothing was there. That was not reported until February 2003 however. That was why the warehouse story was included in a DIA and then a CIA report in January. This was another intelligence failure. A piece of information arrived that appeared that Niger had actually sent uranium to Iraq. It was investigated and found false, but it took months for that to be circulated within the intelligence community, and even then, it did not have any real impact upon the veracity of the story. Instead, this disproven claim was used as evidence for the Niger deal.

The Niger story finally began to unravel when the United States got its hands on the fake documents that Rocco Martino made. On October 7, 2002, Martino met a reporter for an Italian magazine who agreed to buy the documents from him if they proved real. She passed them onto the U.S. Embassy to try to confirm them. The Embassy sent the documents onto the CIA and INR. The latter immediately found problems with them. The CIA on the other hand, did nothing with the papers feeling that it had already seen them when it received the text of the deal from SISMI. Also, because the agency did not think the Niger story that important, it did not put a priority on the documents. On January 13, 2003, an INR analyst sent an email to others in the intelligence community saying he did not believe the Iraq-Niger deal happened because the felt like the documents were fakes. Two CIA analysts saw problems with them, but did not believe they were forgeries. On February 7, the CIA finally got translated copies of the papers, and on February 11, its senior African analyst wrote a report that the documents were in fact fakes. Despite this revelation, the intelligence community did not change its opinion of the report. The White House then decided to go public with the Niger story because it was not kept up to date on the twists and turns within the intelligence agency. The administration read the claim in the British dossier on Iraq’s WMD from September and then the October NIE, and went ahead and used it in its case against Iraq.

December 2002 was the first time the Iraq-Niger story was made public in the U.S. A State Department factsheet on Iraq’s weapons declaration to the U.N. mentioned that Baghdad did not mention trying to buy uranium from Niger. In January, the White House gave a report to Congress on Iraq’s non-compliance with U.N. resolutions and another paper on how Iraq was trying to hide its WMD, which included Niger. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Secretary of State Colin Powell all talked about Niger in opinion pieces in the New York Times, and speeches at the Council on Foreign Relations and the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. That was topped off by President Bush saying that Iraq was interested in uranium from Africa in his 2003 State of the Union speech. The Bush administration used Niger as just one small piece of its Iraq public relations campaign. It was never a major piece, and not used as much as other things such as Iraq trying to buy aluminum tubes allegedly for centrifuges to enrich uranium to build a bomb. The White House went through intelligence reports, and used whatever it could find to argue that Saddam should be overthrown.

It wasn’t until March 2003 that the Niger story was completely discredited. On January 6, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was part of the U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq, asked the State Department for information on Niger. A month later, the U.S. sent copies of the Iraq-Niger documents to the IAEA, and on February 17, it found that they were fakes. That was announced to the U.N. Security Council on March 7. The DIA was resistant to this conclusion. In a March 8 report, it said that the IAEA was using unverified documents to dismiss the Niger story, that former Ambassador Wilson found that Iraq was interested in buying uranium from Niger, that the shipment was in a warehouse in Benin, and that a Somali businessman had set up the delivery of the uranium. The problem was that the documents had been confirmed as forgeries, that there was nothing in the warehouse, and the Somali businessman never mentioned Iraq, Niger or uranium. The CIA on the other hand wrote a March 11 assessment that did not dispute the IAEA’s findings on the documents. In April, the National Intelligence Community came to the same conclusion. The DIA was still holding out with a June memo to Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz that said while the intelligence community was with the IAEA there were unconfirmed reports that it did happen, which was a reference to the disproven Benin warehouse report. Finally, in August the White House officially said it was a mistake to the use the story in the State of the Union since it was not true. Niger didn’t go away however as it took on a life of its own with the Vice President’s campaign against Ambassador Wilson that would eventually lead to Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby being convicted in 2005 of perjury and making false statements about the affair.  

The Niger story should have been investigated and disproved when it was first reported in October 2001. A simple check on the Niger uranium industry would show that 500 tons was far too large for it to deliver. Also, that Iraq did not need that much, and that the French consortium and Niger government would have never approved it. Instead it was repeated, and then added to with other stories such as Iraq’s Vatican ambassador travelling to Niger and the uranium being in a Benin warehouse. These secondary stories were used as confirmation rather than checking much more authoritative and easily confirmed sources. Even when the documents the whole story were based upon were finally acquired the majority of the U.S. intelligence community seemed uninterested, and did not listen to the warnings of the INR. Instead, Niger ended up going public, then embarrassing the White House, and becoming a scandal for being used and the actions against Wilson. A claim that was not even considered that important by American intelligence suddenly captured headlines for years. If simple analysis had been used at the beginning it could have been completely avoided, but this was an institutional problem as later investigations found about intelligence overall on Iraq’s WMD and nuclear programs.


Battle, Joyce, “The Iraq War – PART I: The U.S. Prepares for Conflict, 2001, Timeline,” National Security Archive, 9/22/10

Iraq Survey Group, “Final Report,” 9/30/04

Isikoff, Michael and Corn, David, Hubris, The Inside Story Of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, New York: Crown Publishers, 2006

Pincus, Walter, “Bush Team Kept Airing Iraq Allegation,” Washington Post, 8/8/03

Select Committee On Intelligence United States Senate, “Report On The U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments On Iraq,” 7/7/04

Silberman, Laurence Robb, Charles, “The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction,” 3/31/05


opit said...

U.S. Intelligence was scarcely involved. The NIE was secret- convenient in alleged contents were the stuff of dreams. Cheney's office was busy ginning up desired 'reports' to support the WMD narrative. Scooter Libby ended up in jail for 2 years for 'blowing' the Brewster-Jennings intelligence network by revealing Joe Wilson's wife Valerie ( Plame ) was the CIA agent responsible for the nuclear threat desk ; blinding 'intelligence.' The aluminum tubes were used for processing yellowcake into fertilizer. Supply from Nigeria was a joke. Iraq was lousy with the stuff.

Joel Wing said...

Unfortunately your claims don't stand up to the evidence. You can read the source material in the Senate Intel Committee's review of US pre-war intel on Iraq here:

Iraq’s Oil Exports And Revenue Drop In May

In May Iraq suffered a drop in international oil prices. Its exports dipped as well.