Sorry everyone, but Iraq did go uranium shopping in Niger.
In the late 1980s, the Iraqi representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency—Iraq's senior public envoy for nuclear matters, in effect—was a man named Wissam al-Zahawie. After the Kuwait war in 1991, when Rolf Ekeus arrived in Baghdad to begin the inspection and disarmament work of UNSCOM, he was greeted by Zahawie, who told him in a bitter manner that "now that you have come to take away our assets," the two men could no longer be friends. (They had known each other in earlier incarnations at the United Nations in New York.)
At a later 1995 U.N. special session on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Zahawie was the Iraqi delegate and spoke heatedly about the urgent need to counterbalance Israel's nuclear capacity. At the time, most democratic countries did not have full diplomatic relations with Saddam's regime, and there were few fully accredited Iraqi ambassadors overseas, Iraq's interests often being represented by the genocidal Islamist government of Sudan (incidentally, yet another example of collusion between "secular" Baathists and the fundamentalists who were sheltering Osama Bin Laden). There was one exception—an Iraqi "window" into the world of open diplomacy—namely the mutual recognition between the Baathist regime and the Vatican. To this very important and sensitive post in Rome, Zahawie was appointed in 1997, holding the job of Saddam's ambassador to the Holy See until 2000. Those who knew him at that time remember a man much given to anti-Jewish tirades, with a standing ticket for Wagner performances at Bayreuth. (Actually, as a fan of Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung in particular, I find I can live with this. Hitler secretly preferred sickly kitsch like Franz Lehar.)
In February 1999, Zahawie left his Vatican office for a few days and paid an official visit to Niger, a country known for absolutely nothing except its vast deposits of uranium ore. It was from Niger that Iraq had originally acquired uranium in 1981, as confirmed in the Duelfer Report. In order to take the Joseph Wilson view of this Baathist ambassadorial initiative, you have to be able to believe that Saddam Hussein's long-term main man on nuclear issues was in Niger to talk about something other than the obvious. Italian intelligence (which first noticed the Zahawie trip from Rome) found it difficult to take this view and alerted French intelligence (which has better contacts in West Africa and a stronger interest in nuclear questions). In due time, the French tipped off the British, who in their cousinly way conveyed the suggestive information to Washington. As everyone now knows, the disclosure appeared in watered-down and secondhand form in the president's State of the Union address in January 2003.
If the above was all that was known, it would surely be universally agreed that no responsible American administration could have overlooked such an amazingly sinister pattern. Given the past Iraqi record of surreptitious dealing, cheating of inspectors, concealment of sites and caches, and declared ambition to equip the technicians referred to openly in the Baathist press as "nuclear mujahideen," one could scarcely operate on the presumption of innocence.
However, the waters have since become muddied, to say the least. For a start, someone produced a fake document, dated July 6, 2000, which purports to show Zahawie's signature and diplomatic seal on an actual agreement for an Iraqi uranium transaction with Niger. Almost everything was wrong with this crude forgery—it had important dates scrambled, and it misstated the offices of Niger politicians. In consequence, IAEA Chairman Mohammed ElBaradei later reported to the U.N. Security Council that the papers alleging an Iraq-Niger uranium connection had been demonstrated to be fraudulent.
But this doesn't alter the plain set of established facts in my first three paragraphs above. The European intelligence services, and the Bush administration, only ever asserted that the Iraqi regime had apparently tried to open (or rather, reopen) a yellowcake trade "in Africa." It has never been claimed that an agreement was actually reached. What motive could there be for a forgery that could be instantly detected upon cursory examination?
There seem to be only three possibilities here. Either a) American intelligence concocted the note; b) someone in Italy did so in the hope of gain; or c) it was the product of disinformation, intended to protect Niger and discredit any attention paid to the actual, real-time Zahawie visit. The CIA is certainly incompetent enough to have fouled up this badly. (I like Edward Luttwak's formulation in the March 22 Times Literary Supplement, where he writes that "there have been only two kinds of CIA secret operations: the ones that are widely known to have failed—usually because of almost unbelievably crude errors—and the ones that are not yet widely known to have failed.") Still, it almost passes belief that any American agency would fake a document that purportedly proved far more than the administration had asked and then get every important name and date wrapped round the axle. Forgery for gain is easy to understand, especially when it is borne in mind that nobody wastes time counterfeiting a bankrupt currency. Forgery for disinformation, if that is what it was, appears at least to have worked. Almost everybody in the world now affects to believe that Saddam Hussein was framed on the Niger rap.
According to the London Sunday Times of April 9, the truth appears to be some combination of b) and c). A NATO investigation has identified two named employees of the Niger Embassy in Rome who, having sold a genuine document about Zahawie to Italian and French intelligence agents, then added a forged paper in the hope of turning a further profit. The real stuff went by one route to Washington, and the fakery, via an Italian journalist and the U.S. Embassy in Rome, by another. The upshot was—follow me closely here—that a phony paper alleging a deal was used to shoot down a genuine document suggesting a connection.
Zahawie's name and IAEA connection were never mentioned by ElBaradei in his report to the United Nations, and his past career has never surfaced in print. Looking up the press of the time causes one's jaw to slump in sheer astonishment. Here, typically, is a Time magazine "exclusive" about Zahawie, written by Hassan Fattah on Oct. 1, 2003:
The veteran diplomat has spent the eight months since President Bush's speech trying to set the record straight and clear his name. In a rare interview with Time, al-Zahawie outlined how forgery and circumstantial evidence was used to talk up Iraq's nuclear weapons threat, and leave him holding the smoking gun.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.