Our man in Niger

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: Jul 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Democrats are trying to stir up a scandal because in his State of the Union address President Bush cited a British intelligence report that a man named Joseph C. Wilson does not agree with. The real scandal, however, is how Wilson's opinion on this matter came to be of such consequence.

That is not a Bush administration scandal. It is a scandal for which the Clinton administration and the Republican Congresses of the 1990s share blame.

They decimated U.S. intelligence capabilities in Africa. Now we are paying for it. Joe Wilson's experience merely dramatizes it.

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," Bush said in the State of the Union.

Because this statement ended up in Bush's speech, wrote Joe Wilson last week in The New York Times, "I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

So, who is this Wilson? He's our man in Niger.

Well, almost. Wilson is a retired State Department official. As charge d'affaires in Iraq in 1990, he was the last American diplomat to meet with Saddam. Later, he served as ambassador to Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe. His most important credential for this controversy dates to the mid-1970s, when he served as a diplomat in Niger. In the late 1990s, as an official with President Clinton's National Security Council, he made a return visit to Niger.

These experiences apparently made Wilson America's greatest expert on Nigerien uranium exports.

As Wilson told it in the Times, the Central Intelligence Agency asked him last year to visit Niger to check out a report that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium there.

To put Wilson's mission in context it is important to know a bit about Niger.

It is, according to the CIA, a landlocked, mostly desert nation roughly twice the size of Texas. It borders Libya and Algeria. Of 10 million Nigeriens, 80 percent are Muslim. Only 70,000 hold wage-paying jobs. In 2002, the government budget was $320 million; $134 million came from foreign sources. In 2001, it exported a paltry $246 million in goods; in 1998, uranium accounted for 65 percent of exports. The rest was concentrated in cowpeas, onions and livestock products.

A man with pockets as deep as Saddam's could buy many friends in Niger.

And, yes, a French company heads the consortium that runs Niger's uranium mines.

Wilson arrived there last February. "I spent the next eight days," he writes, "drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people; current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place."

Wilson returned and gave the CIA an oral briefing.

On July 11, five days after Wilson's piece in the Times, CIA Director George Tenet issued a response.

"In an effort to inquire about certain reports involving Niger, CIA's counter-proliferation experts, on their own initiative, asked an individual with ties to the region to make a visit to see what he could learn," said Tenet. "He reported back to us that one of the former Nigerien officials he met stated that he was unaware of any contract signed between Niger and rogue states for the sale of uranium during his tenure in office. The same former official also said that in June 1999 a businessman approached him and insisted that the former official meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss 'expanding commercial relations' between Iraq and Niger. The former official interpreted the overture as an attempt to discuss uranium sales."

Well, maybe. Or maybe the Iraqis were interested in buying Nigerien cowpeas, onions or livestock products.

Documents alleged to demonstrate a uranium deal between Iraq and Niger, which were part of the basis of the British report, turned out to be forged.

But the real scandal isn't whether the British were right or wrong about Iraq's interest in buying Nigerien uranium (the British stand by their conclusion). The real scandal is why the CIA had to rely on a retired State Department official to travel to Niger to double-check British intelligence about Niger's uranium.

If proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a significant security risk to the United States, then mines in Africa that produce uranium that can be used in weapons of mass destruction should be significant targets of U.S. intelligence gathering.

They haven't been.

After a July 15 press conference, in the presence of other reporters, I asked House Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., if the diminution of CIA personnel in Africa in the 1990s hurt our ability to track Niger's uranium industry.

"Yes, that's part of the problem," Goss said.

Jeffrey: "Part of the problem is that we diminished our CIA presence in Africa?"

Goss: "Yes, that is absolutely accurate."

Jeffrey: "During the Clinton years?"

Goss: "Yes. It happened to be in those years when he was the president. That is correct."

Jeffrey: "Did that impact our ability to monitor the uranium industry in Niger?"

Goss: "Yes."

Jeffrey: "And that is why we had to send Joe Wilson over there, a retired State Department -- "

Goss: "I don't know about that. I do tell you that our coverage in the continent of Africa is abysmal because we made a decision to pull out our assets in Africa. It was also compounded by the scrub that was done during the . . . John Deutch DCI-ship, the scrub of assets. We basically denuded ourself of capability in the Hum-Int (Human Intelligence) world and we're paying for that. There was nothing sinister about it. That was the judgment of the day. We were a nation at peace and prosperity and that was what society said was OK to do. We did it. We did it at our peril."

Jeffrey: "But it did diminish our ability to monitor uranium sales out of Niger?"

Goss: "Not only uranium sales, I'd say all mischief. And there's been more than uranium sales mischief out of Niger, as you know."

Another reporter asked Goss if he thought the British report cited by the president might be correct. "I think that is a very fair question to ask the British," he said. "I have no reason to doubt the British report. . . . But I need to caution you I am not through with my investigation."