The UK on Niger

Given that most of the countries whose intelligence services thought Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger were working off the same set of forged documents, one key issue is what was the United Kingdom basing their assessment that this happened on. Today we get the British version of the Senate intelligence inquiry which has this rather unenlightening summary of the situation (paragraph 503):

From our examination of the intelligence and other material on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa, we have concluded that:

a. It is accepted by all parties that Iraqi officials visited Niger in 1999.

b. The British Government had intelligence from several different sources indicating that this visit was for the purpose of acquiring uranium. Since uranium constitutes almost three-quarters of Niger’s exports, the intelligence was credible.

c. The evidence was not conclusive that Iraq actually purchased, as opposed to having sought, uranium and the British Government did not claim this.

d. The forged documents were not available to the British Government at the time its assessment was made, and so the fact of the forgery does not undermine it.

So that doesn’t tell us anything as to what the basis of this intelligence was. Since Iraq did not, in fact, acquire any uranium from Niger, if they did seek it, it would be nice to know why they didn’t wind up getting it. Depending on what this story is, that could be something that tends to make us more fearful of the Iraqi threat (if they failed for reasons that seem highly contingent or that were likely to change in the near future) or it might make us less fearful (if they failed for fundamental reasons that were unlikely to change, and would thus give us confidence that irrespective of what Saddam wanted, he couldn’t get it).

Now what’s very odd is that this conclusion is at odds with both the IAEA and the US government’s thinking on the issue. Britain seems to have “shared” its intelligence in this manner in the sense that it’s said, “hey, we’ve got intelligence saying it happened” but since other agencies haven’t been able to find any non-forged evidence to back up this conclusion, they say it didn’t happen. Now I had always understood that US and UK intelligence shared a very close working relationship so it’s hard to see why the UK isn’t being more forthcoming.

It seems possibly relevant at this point to note that the SSCI Report identifies four defector-provided sources of Iraqi HUMINT that it regards as having been unreliable. One of these sources has his name redacted in the report specifically because he is still being used as a source by British intelligence. That’s a pretty serious divide between the agencies in question, if one is writing him up as a cause of intelligence failures and the other is using him as an ongoing source of information. The guy in question was being used for information related to Iraqi BW programs, so it probably has nothing to do with the uranium issue per se, but does tend to indicate that there’s a more complicated story about the international difference of opinion on Iraq-related questions (it’s notable, for example, that before the war German intelligence was the one painting the most threatening picture of Iraqi activities, their government’s anti-war views and Iraq’s ties to German business notwithstanding).

Stepping back, I should add that this African (the report seems to indicate that intelligence suggesting efforts to buy uranium from the Congo was more solid) uranium business doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me in light of the discrediting of the aluminum tube story and other reports that the nuclear program had been discredited. Uranium ore doesn’t get you any closer to a bomb if you’re not building the facilities in which to enrich it. What’s more, Iraq already had uranium ore from its program in the 1980s, albeit in country under IAEA supervision. And it had the capability of acquiring more ore domestically, which is how it got that old ore.