David Corn takes on Christopher Hitchens.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Sept. 26 2006 7:40 AM

Sorry, Hitch—You're Wrong About Niger

Plus: Christopher Hitchens responds.

Click  here  to read Christopher Hitchens' response.

In mid-October 2002, a nuclear analyst named Simon Dodge in the State Department's intelligence division was forwarded copies of documents purporting to outline a recent sale of 500 tons of yellowcake uranium—which can be enriched for use in nuclear weapons—from the impoverished African nation of Niger to Iraq. As he reviewed the papers—which had been handed to the U.S. Embassy in Italy by an Italian journalist who had received them from a not-so-credible paid source—Dodge zeroed in on a bizarre companion document. It described a secret 2002 meeting at the home of the Iraqi ambassador in Rome of representatives of the world's outlaw states—Iraq, Iran, Sudan, and Libya (and Pakistan, too). The purpose of this session was to form a clandestine alliance against the West and to concoct a "plan of action" for "Global Support."

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Iran and Iraq in a secret pact to create a partnership of rogue states? This was something out of James Bond—or Austin Powers. Dodge considered it "completely implausible," as he later told congressional investigators. Yet this memo bore the same "funky" (as he saw it) embassy of Niger stamp that appeared on the uranium-deal papers. That was, for Dodge, a telltale sign. If the uranium-agreement papers were coming from the same source as the outlandish rogue-state alliance memo (and bearing the same suspect markings), they, too, must be fishy. He concluded that the entire set of papers from Italy was likely fraudulent and e-mailed that assessment to colleagues within the intelligence community. Three months later, he reiterated his concerns in a Jan. 12, 2003, e-mail to other intelligence-community analysts and warned that the uranium-purchase agreement "probably is a hoax."

As the new book I co-wrote with Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, shows, Dodge's evaluation should have ended all talk within the Bush administration about Saddam Hussein's supposed pursuit of uranium in Niger. For about a year, the allegation that Iraq had been uranium-shopping in Niger had been included in U.S. intelligence reports, which were predicated on an Italian intelligence report on the uranium-deal papers. No one in the U.S. intelligence community had seen the actual documents until Dodge did. But despite Dodge's sharp-eyed analysis, the charge stayed alive and became part of George W. Bush's Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address, which essentially outlined the case for the coming war with Iraq.

Bush's claim that Iraq had "recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa"—one sentence in his speech—led to controversy and scandal. It begot the op-ed by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (whom the CIA sent to Niger to check out this report) that accused the White House of having misrepresented the prewar WMD intelligence. That op-ed begot the Robert Novak column that outed Wilson's wife as a CIA operative. And that article begot the criminal investigation that targeted the White House and produced an indictment of Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, for allegedly lying to the FBI and a grand jury.

It's now accepted by the U.S. intelligence community that there was nothing to the Niger charge. Even the White House in July 2003 disavowed its use of the allegation. Proponents of the war in Iraq no longer cite it as justification for the invasion. But there is one holdout: Christopher Hitchens. In a series of Slate columns, this champion of the war in Iraq has asserted that Iraq unquestionably did seek uranium from Niger in the late 1990s. He is wrong—that is, if one bothers to consider the actual evidence.

Why does this one slice of Bush's prewar case—which was, as our book demonstrates, entirely wrong—matter so much? Hitchens waves the Niger flag in an effort to prove that the accusation that Bush aides falsified the case for war and the subsequent Plame leak scandal are nothing but folly. The Niger charge is his linchpin. But the facts do not support his campaign. They destroy it.

Hitchens bases his entire Niger case essentially on one fact: that in 1999, Wissam al-Zahawie, Iraq's ambassador to the Vatican, paid a call on the prime minister of Niger. The rest of his argument is supposition, and his chief deduction is that there was only one matter that could have prompted Zahawie's trip to Niger: Saddam's desire to stock up on the single major export of that African country—yellowcake uranium.

For what it's worth, Zahawie says he has a simple explanation for the trip: He'd traveled to four African nations—not just Niger—hoping to convince the leaders of these countries to visit Saddam in Iraq to end the Iraqi dictator's diplomatic isolation. Hitchens does not buy this. Not because he has evidence to the contrary, but because years earlier Zahawie was an Iraqi envoy for nuclear matters. Ipso facto, Hitchens charges, Iraq was, beyond any doubt, surreptitiously seeking uranium in Niger in 1999. End of story. All else is rubbish.

But Hitchens leaves out of his supposition-driven narrative other relevant (and undeniable) facts. First, there's the question of whether Saddam had a need for this yellowcake. The 2004 report of Charles Duelfer, the final head of the Iraq Survey Group (which the Pentagon and the CIA created to search for Iraq's WMDs after the invasion), concluded that Iraq's WMD capability "was essentially destroyed in 1991." Specifically on Iraq's nuclear program, Duelfer noted,

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