The truth about the Iraqi-Niger "yellowcake" nexus.
Now that Joseph and Valerie Wilson's fantasies of having been persecuted by high officials in the administration have been so thoroughly dispelled by Robert Novak (and now that it seems the prosecutor has determined that there was no breach of the relevant laws to begin with), we may return to the more important original question. Was there good reason to suppose that Iraqi envoys visited Niger in search of "yellowcake" uranium ore?
In a series of columns, I have argued that the answer to this is "yes," and that British intelligence was right to inform Washington to that effect. Iraq—despite having yellowcake of its own—had bought the material from Niger as early as 1981 and had not at that time informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (weapons inspectors effectively stopped Iraq's domestic yellowcake production after 1991). On Oct. 31, 1998, Iraq announced the end of its cooperation with the U.N. inspectors, who were effectively barred from the country. A few days later, the U.N. Security Council condemned this move in Resolution 1205, dated Nov. 5, 1998. The following month, the Clinton administration ordered selective strikes in and around Baghdad. A few weeks after that—on Feb. 8, 1999, to be precise—an Iraqi delegation visited Niger. It was headed by the improbable figure of Saddam Hussein's ambassador to the Vatican. But the improbability becomes more intelligible when it is understood that this diplomat, Wissam al-Zahawie by name, was a very experienced Iraqi envoy for nuclear-related matters.
I shall quote here, with his permission, from a letter I have received from Ambassador Rolf Ekeus. Ambassador Ekeus, currently high commissioner for national minority questions for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, is a founder of the renowned Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, has been Sweden's envoy both to the United Nations and the United States, and won great acclaim for his effective defanging of Iraq when he was the first chairman of UNSCOM after the first Gulf War in 1992. (When it was proposed 10 years later that the U.N. inspectors be sent back to Iraq, Kofi Annan actually renominated Ekeus for the job but was overruled by France and Russia, who wanted the more conciliatory Hans Blix.) Ekeus writes to me as follows, having known Zahawie in a professional capacity and having read the posting, apparently from him, in Slate's "Fray":
One of my colleagues remembers Zahawie as Iraq's delegate to the IAEA General Conference during the years 1982-84. One item on the agenda was the diplomatic and political fall-out of Israel's destruction of the Osirak reactor (a centerpiece of Iraq's nuclear weapons ambitions). Zahawie in his response [to Slate] appears to confirm that he was Iraq's delegate, though not the Permanent delegate, to the IAEA (the General Conference) and therefore clearly not foreign to the nuclear issues, especially as he was the under-secretary of the foreign ministry selected by Baghdad to represent Iraq on the most sensitive issue, the question of Iraq's nuclear weapons ambitions. His participation as leader of the Iraqi delegation to the 1995 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference merely confirms his standing as Iraq's top negotiator on nuclear weapons issues. [italics mine]
He confirms that he was Iraq's ambassador to the Vatican, a not unimportant position given that all Iraq's [other] embassies in the West lacked senior or ambassadorial leadership and that all Western embassies in Iraq were closed. His modesty in this case is puzzling if you don't take into account that a resident ambassador in Rome was ideally placed to undertake discreet and sensitive missions, especially as he was fully plugged into the intricacies of nuclear-weapons diplomacy.
Zahawie furthermore confirms his trip to Niger. The question remains, why Iraq's top man on nuclear weapons diplomacy and negotiations would travel to Niger: with all respect, not the dream-place for a connoisseur of Mozart and Italian bel canto, though no longer of Wagner.
(Ambassador Ekeus' allusion in that last sentence is to Zahawie's affecting claim that he was posted to Rome in virtual semiretirement and mainly for the music. This is as credible as his claim, made to Hassan Fattah—then of Time magazine—that when he visited Niger he did not know that it exported yellowcake—which is famously just about the only thing that it does export.)
Let me now introduce a second corroborative witness, whose acknowledged expertise in the field is hardly less than that of Ekeus. Thérèse Delpech is the director for strategic studies at the French Atomic Energy Commission and also a senior research fellow at CERI, the Center for International Studies and Research, at Sciences-Po, the national political-science university in Paris. Until fairly recently, she was also a board member of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission chaired by Hans Blix. She has since resigned from this body. According to a letter from her to me, at a meeting of the WMDC in Cairo in February 2005, Wissam Zahawie attended one closed session of the commission. Delpech:
asked the Chair [Blix] to get him out of the room in the following ten minutes if he wanted me to stay. This was done in writing (a note). Since this was not done, I left the room myself. The intervention of another member was then necessary to have him out at the coffee break. In my letter of resignation, I have indicated to Hans Blix that this incident was one of the three reasons for my resignation.
When I asked her on the telephone why she reacted so strongly to Zahawie's presence, Delpech told me that she had been the adviser to the French envoy to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty "extension conference" at the United Nations in New York in 1995 and had recognized Saddam's ambassador to the Vatican. She commented dryly that "the French ambassador to the Holy See does not go on official visits to West Africa." When I told her of Zahawie's claim that he didn't know Niger made and exported uranium yellowcake and described this claim as "unlikely to be true," she responded that " 'unlikely to be true' is a very British understatement."
To summarize, then: In February 1999 one of Saddam Hussein's chief nuclear goons paid a visit to Niger, but his identity was not noticed by Joseph Wilson, nor emphasized in his "report" to the CIA, nor mentioned at all in his later memoir. British intelligence picked up the news of the Zahawie visit from French and Italian sources and passed it on to Washington. Zahawie's denials of any background or knowledge, in respect of nuclear matters, are plainly laughable based on his past record, and he is still taken seriously enough as an expert on such matters to be invited (as part of a Jordanian delegation) to Hans Blix's commission on WMD. Two very senior and experienced diplomats in the field of WMDs and disarmament, both of them from countries by no means aligned with the Bush administration, have been kind enough to share with me their disquiet at his activities. What responsible American administration could possibly have viewed any of this with indifference?
The subsequent mysteriously forged documents claiming evidence of an actual deal made between Zahawie and Niger were circulated well after the first British report (and may have been intended to discredit it) and have been deemed irrelevant by two independent inquiries in London. The original British report carefully said that Saddam had "sought" uranium, not that he had acquired it. The possible significance of a later return visit—this time by a minister from Niger to Baghdad in 2001—has not as yet been clarified by the work of the Iraq Survey Group.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photo of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.