Iraq: Yellowcake Aside, How Real was the Rest?

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The Niger yellowcake uranium imbroglio concerns a piece of intelligence Washington knew was bad that was nonetheless restated in President Bush's State of the Union address. A bureaucratic snafu, says the Bush Administration, and one which doesn't detract at all from the case for war; in fact it was hardly a significant part of that case in the first place. Indeed. But three months after taking control of Iraq, the deeper question looming on the horizon is less how one item of bad intelligence slipped into a keynote speech than how so much of the intelligence the Administration had believed was solid appears to have been rather liquid, even gaseous.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has attempted to ride out the yellowcake crisis by defending Bush and at the same time clearing his own name by making clear that he never repeated that particular untruth. Combining those two objectives can be tough. "At the time of the president's State of the Union, a judgement was made that was an appropriate statement for the president to make," he told reporters in South Africa last week, referring to the Niger allegation. "When I made my presentation to the United Nations and we really went through every single thing we knew about all of the various issues with respect to weapons of mass destruction, we did not believe that it was appropriate to use that example anymore. It was not standing the test of time. And so I didn't use it, and we haven't used it since." The test of time?! Exactly eight days passed between the president's speech and the secretary's UN presentation.

Powell doesn't get off that easily, because it's not only the President's Niger claim that is now under a shadow of doubt. The Secretary of State began his February 5 presentation to the UN Security Council — supposedly the best-scrubbed version of the indictment against Saddam — with the promise that "every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence." Three months after coalition forces have taken control of Iraq, it's worth asking how many of Powell's facts have stood the test of time. For example: "While we were here in this Council chamber debating Resolution 1441 last fall," Powell told the Council, "we know, we know from sources that a missile brigade outside Baghdad was dispersing rocket launchers and warheads containing biological warfare agent to various locations, distributing them to various locations in western Iraq. Most of the launchers and warheads had been hidden in large groves of palm trees and were to be moved every one to four weeks to escape detection." These days, President Bush likes to tell us that when all is said and done, we will "realize that Saddam had a weapons program." In other words that he harbored the intent and some of the means to build weapons of mass destruction at some point in the future, and had, as we all know, done so in the past. But in making its case for war, as Powell's UN testimony shows, the Administration was claiming a lot more — it told us, for example, that Saddam was at that moment hiding missiles carrying biological warheads in the palm groves of Western Iraq. And that's a very different order of menace.

If these bio-tipped missiles did, in fact exist, then the failure to find them must surely rank as the most frightening screw-up of the war. If they're still out there, then the 150,000 U.S. personnel currently in Iraq are presumably in considerable danger, and the likelihood of bio-weapons finding their way into terrorist hands would have increased rather than decreased as a result of Saddam's ouster. Finding them would also presumably be the first and absolute priority of the coalition forces, which it doesn't exactly seem to be. That's if they're still out there. Of course, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld would have us believe that Saddam may have destroyed illegal weapons on the eve of the invasion, although it's hard to imagine why the Iraqi leader would have. Indeed, if as Powell says, he was hiding these bio-tipped missiles, it's safe to presume he wanted to hang onto them. It's worth asking whether the "sources" Powell cited for this claim have been asked to point coalition forces to forensic evidence to back their allegations.

The missiles in the palm groves are but one example. Although Powell claims those mobile labs found in northern Iraq vindicate his claims, British intelligence disputes the claim and even the State Department's own intelligence wing says the evidence is not definitive. Those aluminum tubes supposedly showing a uranium-enrichment centrifuge program? The International Atomic Energy Agency investigated and pooh-poohed the claim — the centrifuge parts revealed as having been buried under the rosebush of a Baghdad scientist since 1991 certainly show that Saddam had a decade earlier squirreled away components to allow him to restart a program at some point in the future, but also, perhaps, that this had not been done by the time of the invasion. The IAEA inspectors had concluded in March 2003 on the basis of unfettered inspections that there was no evidence that Iraq had restarted its nuclear program. The Washington Post's Walter Pincus, exploring the Administration's claim that the yellowcake allegation was but one of many indicators that Saddam was trying to reconstitute his nuclear program, concludes in fact that one reason the Niger story remained in the State of the Union address was that it was one of the few claims that hadn't already been publicly repudiated by the time of the speech.

Then there are the claims of an al-Qaeda link with Iraq, which are being challenged by former U.S. intelligence officials. Powell handled those carefully, avoiding some of the sweeping generalities of other administration officials. He focused narrowly on Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist who had received medical treatment in Baghdad. Powell described Zarqawi as "an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants." But European intelligence gathered through interrogating some of Zarqawi's own lieutenants suggests that Zarqawi was more of a rival to bin Laden than an associate. And so on.

The Bush Administration and its British counterparts assure us that given time, they will find evidence of a weapons program in Iraq. But evidence of a program is two degrees of separation from actual weapons of mass destruction, which was the reason they gave for going to war. Vice President Cheney last August told an audience of U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." The Vice President went even further in a March appearance on NBC?s meet the press, declaring that "we believe (Saddam) has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."

So the Administration's credibility problem on prewar claims over Iraq may turn out to be a lot deeper than the yellowcake from Niger. But part of the importance of the yellowcake saga may be what it reveals about the inner workings of the Bush Administration as it geared up for war. The reason CIA director George Tenet has some explaining to do on Capitol Hill is not simply that he signed off on a speech that contained a claim based on bogus intelligence. It's that he did so three months after his own agency had warned the Brits against making the same claim in their dossier on Saddam's weapons. Democrats looking to make hay from the imbroglio will be asking whether anyone in the administration was leaning on the CIA to endorse the case for war. One question, in particular, that Tenet may have to answer on the Hill is just what transpired during Cheney's visits, reported as "multiple" and "unusual," to CIA headquarters last summer.

If most Iraqis had, as the hawks predicted, embraced U.S. soldiers as liberators; if the number of U.S. troops required there had been low and the duration of their stay short; and if the Iraq war had been a relatively low-cost affair it's likely that nobody would even be asking questions about the evidence against Saddam. Unfortunately, the hawks' postwar scenarios have proved hopelessly na´ve. Which could mean the revisiting of prewar intelligence has only just begun.