David Corn takes on Christopher Hitchens.

David Corn takes on Christopher Hitchens.

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.

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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,

Saddam Husayn ended the nuclear program in 1991 following the Gulf war. ISG found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program.

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According to the Duelfer report, Saddam had no need for tons of uranium from Niger in 1999.

Perhaps Hitchens might argue that a prudent Zahawie was in Niger shopping in advance for uranium—looking ahead to some time in the future when Saddam might revive a nuclear program. But for Hitchens to promote this notion to proven fact, he must ignore other facts. Foremost, there's this: Duelfer—who was quite the hawk when it came to Saddam and WMD before the war—reported that the "ISG has uncovered no information to support allegations of Iraqi pursuit of uranium from abroad in the post-Operation Desert Storm era." Let me emphasize that: "no information." (Duelfer, of course, was aware of the Zahawie trip.)

The Duelfer report did note that the ISG discovered that in 2001, a Ugandan businessman approached the Iraqis with an offer to sell Baghdad uranium, reportedly from the Congo. But the Iraqi Embassy in Nairobi turned the fellow away.

And there's this fact: The flawed National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMD, produced in September 2002, reported that Iraq already had "about 500 metric tons of yellowcake and low enriched uranium." Duelfer's ISG noted that Iraq had purchased 485 tons of uranium from Portugal and Niger from 1980 through 1982.

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The question then becomes, why would Zahawie travel to Niger in pursuit of uranium when Iraq had no program that could use it, no plans to revive the program, and already possessed stocks of yellowcake? (In an April 10, 2006, column, Hitchens gladly cited the Duelfer report regarding the 1981 Niger transaction, but he neglected to mention the report's more relevant conclusion that there was no evidence that 18 years later Iraq eyed Niger as a source for more uranium.) It's theoretically possible—in the anything-is-possible realm—that Zahawie and Iraq were up to something in Niger. But nothing backs up Hitchens' assertion. The International Atomic Energy Agency obtained excerpts of Zahawie's travel report, and these records contained no reference to any talks about uranium.

Hitchens' case is an air ball. Even the Republicans of the Senate intelligence committee in a recent report approvingly referenced the Duelfer report's conclusions that Saddam had no nuclear weapons program after the first Persian Gulf War and that there's no evidence Iraq sought uranium in Africa or anywhere else after 1991. Hitchens' Zahawie-centric tale rests upon nothing but speculation and is undermined by established facts that he disregards in favor of his own hypothesis.

Hitchens further argues that Bush was correct to say in his January 2003 State of the Union speech that Iraq had been looking to obtain uranium in Africa—because Bush's speechwriters attributed this claim to a British intelligence report. But as our book details, the speechwriters initially placed the uranium-in-Niger charge into the speech on the basis of intelligence contained in the National Intelligence Estimate. And this intelligence was based on the forged documents. Though this allegation had appeared in the NIE, the CIA (as the Senate intelligence committee documented) had repeatedly warned the White House not to use the unsubstantiated charge in any presidential speeches. Yet Bush's speechwriters—eager to concoct as frightening a case against Saddam as they could—included it in the draft of the State of the Union address.

In the final phase of the speechwriting process, the line was changed to attribute the charge to a British white paper that had been released in September 2002. But on Oct. 2, 2002, John McLaughlin, the CIA's No. 2, had testified to the Senate intelligence committee that "we've looked at those [British] reports [claiming Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa] and we don't think they are very credible." So, whether that one sentence in Bush's State of the Union speech was predicated on the British white paper or on the Niger documents, it was tied to flimsy intelligence doubted by the government's experts.

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A few more words about the phony Niger documents: the fact that the U.S. intelligence reporting on the purported Niger connection was based on these poorly forged papers has led most observers and experts—including IAEA investigators—to dismiss the Niger charge as total bunk. Hitchens has another take. In the aforementioned April 10 column, he suggested the documents were not forged merely for financial gain by grifters working in the Niger Embassy in Italy (the conclusion reached by FBI investigators, as our book reports). Instead, Hitchens alleged that the documents were fabricated (badly, on purpose) so they would be used to discredit the real Niger-Iraq connection (established during Zahawie's trip). Yes, the forgeries were cleverly crafted by these same scammers to distract all (but Hitchens). What's his evidence that the fraudulent documents were actually sophisticated disinformation? Oh, that's a fool's question. Isn't it obvious?

Hitchens has also taken a swipe at me for my earlier writings about the CIA leak affair, claiming that I promoted the "delusion" that the leak was an act of political payback. Let's debunk that attack as well.

Convinced he has proved that Saddam (via Zahawie) was looking for uranium in Niger, Hitchens has assailed Joseph Wilson for not returning from Niger in 2002 with information confirming (as Hitchens wrote on July 17, 2006) "that Iraqi officials had visited Niger in search of uranium." Consequently, he belittles Wilson's mission to Africa and the subsequent outing of his wife. In an Aug. 29, 2006, article, he labeled as a "delusion" my assertion from July 2003 that the disclosure of Valerie Wilson's CIA identity showed that Bush aides "used classified information and put the nation's counter-proliferation efforts at risk merely to settle a score." (Valerie Plame, as our book reveals, was operations chief for the Joint Task Force on Iraq, a unit in the clandestine Directorate of Operations that mounted spying operations in search of intelligence on Iraq's supposed WMD programs.)

What makes my previous statement a fantasy? Hitchens points to the disclosure in Hubris that Richard Armitage was the initial source for Novak—as if this erases all else that transpired. Armitage was most likely not part of a White House campaign to undermine or discredit Wilson. But Hitchens is cherry-picking from our book (an appropriate tactic for a supporter of this war). It is a matter of public record that Karl Rove confirmed the Armitage leak for Novak, and that he leaked the same classified information to Time magazine's Matt Cooper before the Novak column appeared. It is also known that Scooter Libby leaked information about Valerie Wilson Plame and her CIA employment to Judith Miller of the New York Times and confirmed Rove's tip to Cooper before the Novak column appeared. All this leaking went on while Rove and Libby were mounting a fierce campaign against Joe Wilson.

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In the July 17, 2006, column, Hitchens wrote (before our book was out) that were Armitage to be confirmed as Novak's original source, such a revelation would "annihilate" the charge that Wilson and Plame "were targets of an administration vendetta." Why is it so difficult for Hitchens (and his fellow war-backers who have made this case) to see that two things occurred at once? Armitage leaked. So, too, did Rove and Libby. They were clearly set on undermining Joe Wilson. In one court filing, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald referred to a "plan to discredit or punish Mr. Wilson or Ms. Wilson." Fitzgerald noted that by disclosing information about Wilson's wife, Libby had been "undercutting Mr. Wilson's credibility," and that there was "a strong desire by many, including people in the White House, to repudiate Mr. Wilson." In our book, we disclose new details about that effort and how intense it was—information that Hitchens skates past. One White House aide is quoted by name in Hubris noting that in the days following Wilson's op-ed piece, "Scooter was going nuts."

The book shows that Rove and Libby leaked information on Valerie Wilson Plame while frantically defending Bush's use of the Niger charge—at a time when no WMDs were turning up in Iraq and the White House was under fierce attack for having misled the public about the threat Saddam posed. According to an e-mail Cooper wrote immediately after Rove told him about Wilson's wife, Rove had said to him that the Iraqis "were probably seeking Niger uranium," and that documents to be declassified within days would show this to be true and prove Wilson wrong. (In fact, the information that would be released in the next 10 days would demonstrate that the Niger charge had not been solid, and that the CIA had told the White House not to use it.)

Rove and Libby leaked because they sought to discredit Wilson (a noble cause, as far as Hitchens sees it), behaving as if they were engaged in a political campaign. For instance, Isikoff and I report that after MSNBC host Chris Matthews got off a phone call with Rove during the Wilson imbroglio, he told colleagues that Rove had said to him that the Wilsons "were trying to screw the White House so the White House was going to screw them back." No vendetta there?

It pains me to engage in this sort of tussle with Hitchens. Twenty-five years ago, we shared an office, and I learned much from him (and watched in awe as he socialized around the clock and still managed to file perfect-prose copy the morning after). In the years since Hitchens so publicly defected from my home base, The Nation, I've resisted invitations to comment publicly upon his unusual journey and his subsequent writings. But now that I have a book out and Hitchens has trained his poison darts upon it, reluctance yields to self-preservation (and, yes, self-promotion).

For more than two decades, I have seen Hitchens weave facts and assertions into stylistically brilliant copy as he attempts to intuit great truths. But when he comes to believe that he can outthink the facts, he ends up enwrapped in creative conspiratorial fantasies. This past February, I participated in a radio debate with him on whether the Bush administration had misguided the nation into war. Hitchens largely avoided the question at hand and instead argued the necessity of the invasion. When he did address the issue of the absent WMDs in Iraq, he took a strange turn. "Doesn't anything ever strike you as odd," he said, "about the figure of zero for [WMD] deposits found in Iraq? ... Isn't it odd that none after all this? None? Doesn't that suggest a crime scene that has been pretty well dusted in advance, the fingerprints wiped? Well, it does to me." Read that quote carefully. It is revealing. Hitchens was saying that the fact that no weapons had been uncovered in Iraq (after nearly three years of searching) was evidence that there had been weapons. How can one argue with a person of such intellectual prowess that he can turn absence into presence by mere deduction?

On the Niger and Plame matters, his accounts rely on the same conceit: that his deductions, as Byzantine as they might be, trump the known facts. In this manner, Hitchens has become a full-fledged ally of the reality-defying advocates of the Iraq invasion. I sadly count that as another casualty of the war.

Click  here  to read Christopher Hitchens' response.