WSJ editorial misrepresented Senate findings on Niger uranium to defend Bush, attack Wilson

A February 23 Wall Street Journal editorial misrepresented the Senate Intelligence Committee's conclusions regarding Iraq's alleged efforts to purchase uranium from Niger in order to defend President Bush's now-infamous “16 words” from the 2003 State of the Union address and attack former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, whom the CIA sent to Niger to investigate the allegation.

The Journal claimed that “both a British and a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee probe found that the White House had been accurate [about Iraq and Niger] and that it was Mr. Wilson was the one who hadn't told the truth.” In fact, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that the Bush administration's Niger-uranium claim was unfounded. The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee's conclusion complemented the Central Intelligence Agency's own admission that the claim should not have been in Bush's speech because the agency lacked confidence in it. By contrast, the committee reached no conclusion about whether Wilson “told the truth” in a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed describing his CIA-sponsored fact-finding mission to Niger -- which led him to conclude that the Niger-uranium allegation was baseless -- and accusing Bush of “manipulat[ing] intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion.”

Neither the CIA nor the Senate Intelligence Committee has definitively stated (in public) whether it believes Iraq did in fact seek uranium from Niger, but following the International Atomic Energy Agency's revelation in March 2003 that documents purporting to chronicle such efforts were forgeries, no one has publicly produced additional evidence to support this allegation.

Rather than proving the White House was “accurate,” the 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee's "Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq" suggested the opposite: that by the time the president delivered his State of the Union address in January 2003, it was no longer supportable to claim, as he did, that “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The committee wrote: “Until October 2002 when the Intelligence Community obtained the forged foreign language documents on the Iraq-Niger uranium deal, it was reasonable for analysts to assess that Iraq may have been seeking uranium from Africa based on Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reporting and other available intelligence” (PDF p. 82).

Similarly, then-Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet publicly stated in July 2003 that "[t]hese 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the President."

By contrast, the committee report drew no conclusions on the veracity of Wilson's own conclusion based on his findings in Niger or his indictment of the Bush administration. Rather, the report explained how Wilson's trip affected various U.S. intelligence agencies' judgments regarding whether Iraq had indeed sought uranium in Africa:

The report on the former ambassador's trip to Niger, disseminated in March 2002, did not change any analysts' assessments of the Iraq-Niger uranium deal. For most analysts, the information in the report lent more credibility to the original Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports on the uranium deal, but State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) analysts believed that the report supported their assessment that Niger was unlikely to be willing or able to sell uranium to Iraq. [PDF p. 83]

The British inquiry into prewar assessments of Iraq's weapons program, known as the Butler report , did conclude that Bush's statement was “well-founded,” but the report produced no new evidence that Iraq had indeed sought uranium in Africa, and Tenet's statement explained that the CIA disagreed with British intelligence on this issue at the time of Bush's speech. Here's what the Butler report stated:

499. We conclude that, on the basis of the intelligence assessments at the time, covering both Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the statements on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa in the Government's dossier, and by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, were well-founded. By extension, we conclude also that the statement in President Bush's State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that:

The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa

was well-founded.

But the Butler report did not identify the basis for the crucial “intelligence assessments at the time.” Moreover, the CIA explained that "[i]n September and October 2002 before Senate Committees, senior intelligence officials in response to questions told members of Congress that we differed with the British dossier on the reliability of the uranium reporting." Bush's claim amounted to rejecting U.S. intelligence in favor of British intelligence.

The Financial Times reported (registration required) on June 28, 2004, that unnamed “European intelligence officers” had disclosed the existence of independent “human and electronic intelligence sources from a number of countries” on Iraqi dealings with Niger that is untainted by the forged documents that allegedly corroborated the Niger-uranium claim. The article reported: “These intelligence officials now say the forged documents appear to have been part of a 'scam', and the actual intelligence showing discussion of uranium supply has been ignored.” But the article provided no substantive information on the intelligence itself, presumably because its unnamed sources did not provide such details.

Moreover, a subsequent report (registration required) on August 1, 2004, by the Times of London severely undermined the credibility of the Financial Times' unnamed intelligence sources. The Times of London reported that SISMI, the Italian intelligence agency, had produced the forged documents itself, according to the middleman who allegedly received them from a SISMI agent and passed them on to an Italian journalist, Elizabeth Burba. Burba in turn handed them to the U.S. embassy in Rome. The Financial Times' “European intelligence officers” had alleged that the middleman was the forger. But the middleman, who would not speak to the Financial Times, provided details to the Times of London about SISMI's alleged responsibility for the forgeries. Given that the Financial Times itself reported that the middleman “is understood to be planning to reveal selected aspects of his story to a US television channel,” it appears likely that the Financial Times' “European intelligence officers,” who insisted that untainted evidence existed for Iraq's efforts to procure uranium, were, in fact, Italian intelligence officers attempting to advance the “scam” theory in order to preempt the middleman's revelations and cover their tracks.