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Dispute Continues Over Whether Iraq Sought Uranium from Niger

July 20, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Ever since President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, these 16 words have been the fodder for fierce debate over the intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

MARGARET WARNER: Administration officials said the president was relying on intelligence reports that Iraq had tried to purchase so-called “yellow cake,” a uranium extract that can be used in nuclear weapons. The controversy deepened last July, when former Ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote a “New York Times” op-ed piece saying, “Some of the intelligence used by the Bush administration was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”

To back up his charge, Wilson revealed that he had been dispatched by the CIA in 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq tried to buy yellow cake in the West African nation of Niger. Wilson said he spent eight days there meeting with current and former government officials and uranium business people Afterwards, he wrote, he reported to the CIA, “It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.”

Three days after Wilson’s article appeared, Secretary of State Colin Powell said President Bush should not have made the Iraq-Niger assertion.

COLIN POWELL: At the time it was put into the state of the union, my best understanding of this is that it had been seen by the intelligence community and vetted. But on subsequent examination, it didn’t hold up, and we have acknowledged that.

MARGARET WARNER: A week after Wilson’s piece, syndicated columnist Robert Novak, citing “two senior administration officials,” wrote that Wilson had been sent to Niger at the suggestion of his wife, Valerie Plame, “an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.”

Wilson denied his wife had played a role. He also charged the administration with leaking his wife’s covert identity to intimidate him and others who disagreed with White House policy. A special prosecutor is investigating the leak. The Niger controversy re-erupted ten days ago with publication of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s prewar intelligence on Iraq.

The unanimous report said different U.S. intelligence agencies had disagreed over whether Saddam was trying to buy uranium in Niger. On balance, the report concluded, “The October 2002 national intelligence estimate that ‘Iraq also began vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellow cake’ overstated what the intelligence community knew about Iraq’s possible procurement attempts.”

But three committee Republicans issued a separate statement attacking Wilson’s credibility. As for Wilson’s Africa trip, they said, “The Committee found that, for most analysts, the former ambassador’s report lent more credibility, not less, to the reported Niger-Iraq uranium deal.” Wilson wrote an angry letter to the Republicans, disputing their charges. Sunday, appearing on Face the Nation, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie joined the fray.

ED GILLESPIE: I’ll tell you what, we just talked about the Senate Intelligence Committee report, which found that Joe Wilson, who led the attack against the vice president and the president for more than a year, has been entirely discredited– bipartisan fashion, by the way, unanimously, by the Democrats and the Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

They found that he fabricated stories, that he talked about seeing documents that he never even saw. He says that he used a little literary flair; pretty serious business to be using a little literary flair about.

MARGARET WARNER: Separately, a British inquiry into prewar intelligence last week supported the president’s remark. Lord Butler released the findings.

LORD BUTLER: Assessments that Iraq sought uranium from Africa were well founded on intelligence.

MARGARET WARNER: Butler said Britain was relying on information from “several different sources.”

MARGARET WARNER: And we pick up the debate now with former Ambassador Joseph Wilson– he’s written a book about his role in this controversy called “The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies That Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity”– and Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he was one of the Republicans who signed a supplementary statement questioning Wilson’s credibility. Welcome to you both.

Sen. Bond, I’d like to begin with you. Is the upshot of all of this that you now believe that President Bush was right when he made the assertion he did in the state of the union address?

SEN. KIT BOND: Clearly, the British intelligence review conducted by Lord Butler concluded, as you’ve just noted, that the British intelligence at the time was well founded in saying that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger and from Africa.

And they said by extension we conclude that the statement in President Bush’s state of the union address Jan. 28, 2003, the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, close quote, was well founded. So it is clear that there was adequate basis in intelligence for what the president said in his state of the union address.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, that there was adequate basis for the president to say that at least the British intelligence had concluded this?

JOSEPH WILSON: Sure. With all due respect to senator bond, the day after my opinion piece appeared in the New York Times, the president’s spokesman came out and said that the 16 words did not merit inclusion in the state of the union.

The secretary of state said it should never have been in there, in addition to that in the body of the Senate report there are a number of references to differences between the U.S. and British intelligence on this specific issue– in particular on Oct. 2, 2002, three months before the state of the union address, in which the assertion was made, the deputy director of central intelligence testified to the Senate Select Committee that one of the areas where we think that the British stretched beyond where we would stretch is on the points where Iraq is seeking uranium from various African locations.

In addition, on Oct. 6, George Tenet called the deputy national security advisor and said that he did not want the president to be a fact witness on this issue, because his analysts had told him the reporting was weak.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just interrupt you. Your point is that because U.S. intelligence had doubts about the credibility, the president should not have been citing British intelligence?

JOSEPH WILSON: Well, absolutely. The U.S. intelligence budget is roughly 20 times the size of British intelligence. The British, at the very highest level of corporate intelligence community, the director of Central Intelligence, was clearly saying on several occasions, both in written form and by telephone, the president should not be a witness of fact on this particular assertion.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get this to Sen. Bond. Do you think it was appropriate for the president when his own intelligence community was at the very least divided over it to be citing the British intelligence in the state of the union?

SEN. KIT BOND: Let me point out a couple of facts that Ambassador Wilson ignores. After the question was raised in October on six different occasions, the White House sent to the CIA for clearance a document speech in which they stated that intelligence sources indicated that the Iraqi government was seeking to get uranium from Africa. And they cleared the state of the union message.

Now, after the question was raised, Ambassador Wilson went to Niger. And we looked into that, and our Senate Intelligence Committee examination of all the pre-Iraq War conclusions, and conclusions number 13 on the Ambassador Wilson’s trip, said that the report, which he disseminated on 2002, did not change any analysts’ assessment of the Iraq-Niger uranium deal.

For most analysts, the information in that report lent more credibility, because the ambassador himself came back and said that in 1999, Iraqi government officials visited Niger and sought commercial contacts. Now, since three-quarters of their exports are yellow cake, and the other leading exports are mung beans and goats, it was reasonable for the CIA intelligence to include that this was a… this was more evidence.

And there were other sources which the British recapitulation cites, suggesting that Iraq was seeking to get uranium from Africa. That’s the point the president made. And he was supported at the time he made it by the CIA.

When the CIA later said, well, maybe we shouldn’t have said it, it had… he had already said it. Right now, we think, based on what the Intelligence Committee found and what the British Butler report found, that he was correct the first time around when he said the best evidence that the intelligence community had was that Iraq was seeking yellow cake uranium from Africa.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Wilson, weren’t you in fact told that Iraqis did come to Niger seeking a meeting, and that the former prime minister said to you, when they said, well, it’s to expand commercial contacts, that he did assume they wanted to talk about some kind of yellow cake uranium deal?

JOSEPH WILSON: The meeting to which the senators and you are referring actually took place outside of Niger on the margins of an international organization meeting. And indeed, when a Niger businessman came to the prime minister and said he wanted him to do him a favor and meet with this Iraqi delegation, the prime minister’s initial reaction was, they’ll probably want to talk about uranium. And therefore he granted them a courtesy call, and during the course of that courtesy call, the subject of uranium was not broached. And that was reported back to the CIA.

It is hard for me to fathom how you make the leap from the 16 words in the state of the union address– in other words, that Iraq was attempting to purchase significant quantities of uranium from Africa– from a conversation in which the word uranium was never raised.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator, did your committee ever find evidence that in fact the subject was raised at this meeting?

SEN. KIT BOND: Well, what I said was the only new piece of information that Ambassador Wilson gathered from his trip to Niger was that there had been a contact, and they had raised the prospect of commercial relations. The fact that they did not mention uranium in that meeting was not necessarily… did not necessarily discount the credibility of that evidence.

The only evidence that he had that was right on point was that there had been the visit, and that the prime minister had assumed that they would ultimately be talking about uranium. And when you go back to what the British report said, that there are… the British government has intelligence from several different sources indicating that the visit was for the purpose of acquiring uranium.

And I, quite frankly, think, on the basis of this, that Ambassador Wilson owes the president and the vice president an apology, because he has gone out and called them liars, and said he debunked it on the basis of his trip and his analysis, which was far from comprehensive and did not reflect the body of knowledge in the intelligence community.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you owe them an apology?

JOSEPH WILSON: Well, regrettably, I think my opinion piece was not part of the report. Perhaps it’s not been brought to the attention of the senator, but what I did say in my opinion piece in the New York Times was that I played a small role.

There were, in fact, three reports in the files of the U.S. Government, one by the sitting ambassador there and one by a four-star Marine Corps general, who concluded, as I did, that this transaction that I had been asked to go out and look at could not have taken place.

MARGARET WARNER: Is the situation here really that the U.S. intelligence community is still divided over this, that it just isn’t sure whether it’s true, but that the British intelligence is very sure, Ambassador? And if so, why, why is there such a difference?

JOSEPH WILSON: As I read the body of the report, the situation is that the senior leadership of the Central Intelligence Agency determined that the reporting on this issue was too weak to make the case, and the president should not be a fact witness, and that the director of central intelligence four months before the state of the union address believed that there was… that there were big differences in the credibility of intelligence that the British, in fact, my understanding is, did not offer the details of.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator?

SEN. KIT BOND: Well, the simple fact is, when the president submitted six different reports, his speechwriters submitted them, and then submitted the state of the union address in which the 16 words were included, at that point the Central Intelligence Agency cleared that report.

MARGARET WARNER: May I just…

SEN. KIT BOND: So all the president has to go on. Now the ambassador is going around on the John Kerry Web site and saying the president misled the nation. I’m told that he has written that the president lied. And that is an egregious political charge. It’s not a literacy flair. It’s a hoax and a fraud.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Senator, let me just ask you. You did sign onto the main report which said the intelligence estimate– I don’t want to beat this horse to death– but was an overstatement of what the intelligence community knew. Would you concede that this is still an open question, or do you think it’s settled?

SEN. KIT BOND: Well, I’ll read you the conclusions. It was reasonable conclusion number 12. It was reasonable for an analyst to assess that Iraq may have been seeking uranium from Africa based on Central Intelligence Agency reporting and other available intelligence. That’s a conclusion signed on by the bipartisan members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Sen. Edwards.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask you one final question, and then get Ambassador Wilson to respond. You also signed a separate statement that really questioned Ambassador Wilson’s credibility. What was your evidence for that?

SEN. KIT BOND: The fact that he made a major… he made a major point of calling the president a liar when the CIA had approved the language which Ambassador Wilson claims at the time was a lie, and there was not such evidence.

The ambassador has said that his wife had nothing to do with recommending him. And when we interviewed… our committee interviewed his wife, she then… she was asked specifically if she had… who had recommended the ambassador go. And she said that “I can’t remember exactly whether I recommended him or my boss did.” And other people… other agents reported that it was on her recommendation that the ambassador was sent.

MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, Ambassador Wilson, there was a memo cited by her or written by her in which she basically, to her boss, touted your contacts in Niger. You didn’t consider that a suggestion that they…

JOSEPH WILSON: My understanding… and let me just go back here. On July 14, Mr. Novak exposed my wife’s identity and made the allegation that she had suggested me for the job. On July 22, the CIA said to a couple of reporters who asked about that, she did not recommend her husband to undertake the Niger assignment.

They… the officers who did ask him to check the uranium story were aware of who she was married to, which is not surprising. She did not recommend her husband to undertake the…

MARGARET WARNER: You don’t consider that memo a suggestion?

JOSEPH WILSON: I have not seen the memo. I don’t know what transpired, if her supervisor asked her to list my qualifications. My bona fides were well established, having made a trip out to Niger in 1999, in addition to 23 years service for my country, most of which was in Africa, including a stint at the National Security Council, where I helped the Niger government work through two military dictatorships back to civilian government.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Ambassador Wilson, Sen. Bond, thank you both.