In their partisan haste to denounce President Bush as a “liar” – not to mention rehabilitate their embarrassing opposition to the successful liberation of Iraq – Democratic leaders have inflated charges that Bush based 16 words of his State of the Union Address on forged documents. Although the sentence in question was at best a digression from the substance of President Bush’s case against Saddam, the Democrats have attempted to morph these 16 words into a scandal of Nixonian dimensions. The strategy has had limited success, particularly in the media (no surprise), where a feeding frenzy continues this week. However, the president’s accusers may soon have to eat their words. A growing number of sources demonstrate President Bush’s words were accurate and based on intelligence that originated . . . with the French.
The claim that Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium ore from Niger made its way into U.S. hands from the British intelligence service, the MI6. When George Tenet publicly apologized for allowing President Bush to mention the African connection in his State of the Union, the Brits objected. Although forged documents played a role in America’s own intelligence, these did not come from the British. In fact, according to officials in the MI6, the English did not know of the existence of these documents until after the public flap over them. In other words, the British intelligence claim was based on something else. British intelligence was passed some convincing documentation from a source it trusted This points, ironically enough, to the French intelligence service, the DGSE – the Directorate-General of External Safety. France is the former colonial power in Niger, and the uranium company is run by French nationals. Obviously, France is well placed to know the facts. Moreover, the Financial Times recently disclosed what that two “Western European” nations were the source of the intelligence, specifically naming France and Italy (although Germany and Spain may have as easily played a role; see below).
Both nations have predictably denied the report. However, Michael Smith of The London Daily Telegraph has reported that France itself tried to keep the MI6 from passing on intelligence that nation’s intelligence operatives gathered on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions in Africa. According to a July 14th Telegraph article written by Smith, “MI6 had more than one ‘different and credible’ piece of intelligence to show that Iraq was attempting to buy the ore, known as yellowcake, British officials insisted. But it was given to them by at least one and possibly two intelligence services and, under the rules governing cooperation, it could not be shared with anyone else without the originator's permission.”
The British did pass on the credible evidence it had, which was not based in any way on forged documents. But American intelligence could not know the source of the intelligence forwarded by the British: under internal rules the MI6 did not, indeed could not, name its source. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, however, stands by the British dossier, saying, "We believe in the veracity of the intelligence . . . it just happens to be one of the rules of liaison with foreign intelligence services that they own the intelligence.” It seems incongruous that France could move to keep England from passing along information to the United States if France had not collected the facts itself.
Not that collection of the facts matters quite as much as their veracity. Iraq undeniably tried to purchase uranium from Niger. The prime minister of Niger, Hama Hamadou has gone on record as saying that Iraq did try to purchase uranium from it in the 1980s, but he said the offer had been been turned down by the then-president of Niger Seyni Kountche. Current president Hamadou said that his government, which has been in place only since January 2000, had never been approached by Iraq for uranium and added, "Iraq has never bought uranium from Niger, and the Niger Government has never discussed selling uranium to Iraq.” Which source would you believe?
Niger's two uranium mines are run by French, Spanish, Japanese, German and Nigerian interests. If the government wanted to remove uranium from a mine, it would have to notify the consortium, which in turn is strictly monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In other words, there is simply too much oversight over too small an industry for an undetected sale to have transpired. That does not, however, mean no attempt was made, and if the French (and Germans and Spanish) had partial control of the mines, they may have easily heard of the Iraqi offer and passed on that information to credible intelligence sources.
The key is, what did France know and when did it know it? It is possible France passed on information as early as the early 1980s, when France sold Saddam the Osirik nuclear reactor. Britain's famous dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which was released last September, says that Saddam Hussein tried to get "significant quantities of uranium from Africa," but it doesn’t say when.
Both France and Britain have a long history of espionage in the Middle East and without question they, along with the Israeli Mossad, are the most sophisticated intelligence services in the region. Unlike the United States, France and Britain take on unsavory individuals as agents. American candidates for espionage have to have a clean record and a degree; the Brits and the French take on whoever can get the job done. At one time during the Clinton era, the American secret services did not have a single agent who spoke fluent Arabic in the Middle East. Clearly, if you’re lurching around speaking in a foreign accent and carrying a well-thumbed dictionary, no matter how neatly pressed your djellabah, the local shady characters will be less than forthright. Britain and France employ many an operative who, were he not working in intelligence would be serving a life sentence without possibility of parole. The pragmatism of the approach renders these two countries effective, and cooperative, gatherers of critical information. It appears together, they uncovered undeniable evidence that Iraq attempted to build a nuclear weapons program with Nigerian yellowcake uranium ore. But there’s the rub! Jacques Chirac can never admit to having that information; for his standing on the world’s stage (not to mention his Nobel Peace Prize candidacy) to remain strong, he must deny these charges as scurrilous. What other path does he have? Having directed everyone’s attention to the omnipotent will of the United Nations Security Council, then spiking Security Council calls for a vote by its allies, Chirac finally set about bribing three Third World countries who had temporary seats on the SC to vote the French way (Non!). Jacques Chirac moved heaven and earth to get the war against French trading partner Saddam Hussein aborted. This being the case, why would French intelligence suddenly admit handing Tony Blair the evidence he needed to convince British appeaseniks in the government to back the war? How could Chirac expose himself as one so craven as to oppose a war against a homicidal madman with known nuclear ambitions simply because of financial contracts? That question demonstrates why France must deny the veracity of this intelligence, some of it possibly gathered as long as 20 years ago – even though France collected the information itself.