In their zeal to retroactively rebut the argument for the Iraq war, critics of President Bush have tried to discredit a British intelligence report -- cited by the president in his State of the Union address -- that concluded Iraq sought to buy uranium in Africa.
The most important evidence against the British report is the undisputed conclusion by Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that documents purporting to show an Iraq-Niger uranium deal were forgeries.
What Bush's critics have ignored is that ElBaradei and the IAEA also presented evidence that tends to support the British report -- and that the IAEA may not have adequately investigated.
On March 7, ElBaradei appeared at the U.N. Security Council to report on the IAEA's investigation of Iraq's nuclear-related activities. It was here he revealed that the Iraq-Niger documents were "not authentic." But at the same time he also revealed -- in vague terms -- that Iraq had sent an official to Niger in 1999.
"For its part," said ElBaradei, "Iraq has provided the IAEA with a comprehensive explanation of its relations with Niger, and has described a visit by an Iraqi official to a number of African countries, including Niger, in February 1999, which Iraq thought might have given rise to the reports (of a uranium deal)."
ElBaradei did not name the official Saddam sent to Niger. He did not reveal who in Saddam's regime explained the trip, or whether Saddam had handed over "authentic" documents to back up the explanation. Nor did he reveal whether the IAEA had interviewed Saddam's emissary to Niger, or under what conditions such an interview had taken place.
These are important questions for at least two reasons. First, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission, Niger exported only $260 million in goods in 2000 and $251 million in 2001. Its only export likely to interest Saddam is uranium (its other top exports, according to the CIA, are livestock, cowpeas and onions). Secondly, as ElBaradei himself pointed out, IAEA interviews with Iraqis were conducted within Iraq, and were often done in the presence of an Iraqi government monitor or were tape-recorded by the subject in lieu of a monitor.
If Iraq's emissary to Niger sought trade, the implication is obvious: Did Saddam want Niger uranium, or did he want Niger cows or cowpeas?
I contacted IAEA Senior Information Officer Melissa Fleming. On July 22, in response to my written questions, she provided written answers that she said were "to the best of my knowledge and to the degree I am authorized to provide internal information." Here they are:
Q: "Who was the Iraqi official who went to Niger in 1999?"
A: "He was Ambassador to Rome, Ambassador Al Zahawie. He retired in August 2000."
Q: "Was he the only Iraqi official who went to Niger in the 1999 to 2001 time frame?"
A: "I don't know. But he was the one named in the forged documents as having visited Niger and carried out the transaction, so he was most interesting to our inspectors."
Q: "Why did the Iraqi government send him to Niger?"
A: "They said his visit was a part of a trade mission and also he was accredited to Niger as Ambassador (some country's (sic) Ambassadors cover a number of countries in a region)."
Q: "Who in the Iraqi government provided the IAEA with the explanation for this Iraqi's trip to Niger?"
A: "IAEA inspectors worked with counterparts at the liaison body in Baghdad, The National Monitoring Directorate."
Q: "Did the Iraqi government back up their explanation with documentation?"
A: "They provided information on its relations with Niger as well as information on a 1980 purchase of uranium (known to the IAEA) from Niger."
Q: "Did the IAEA request an interview with the Iraqi official who went to Niger?"
A: "Yes, he was interviewed in Baghdad by IAEA inspectors."
Q: "Did the IAEA get to interview the Iraqi official who went to Niger?"
A: "See above."
Q: "If so, did they get to do an interview with him in private, without a monitor from the Iraqi government, and without a tape recording being made by the interviewee? Was the interview inside or outside the territory of Iraq?"
A: "The interview was monitored."
Q: "Has the IAEA previously publicly documented the information sought by these questions? If so, where and when?"
A: "Much of this information is in the public domain. Not sure in which media."
Bottom line: Saddam sent a trade mission to a nation that exports uranium. The IAEA interviewed Saddam's emissary -- who also had been accredited as Saddam's ambassador to Niger -- in Iraq in the presence of an Iraqi monitor. ElBaradei went to the Security Council and revealed that the Iraq-Niger documents were forgeries, and that an Iraqi official had gone to Niger in 1999, but he did not say that the Iraqi went to this uranium-exporting nation as (in Ms. Fleming's words) "part of a trade mission."
CIA Director George Tenet in a July 11 statement said an outside investigator the CIA sent to Niger (whom former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson identified as himself in a New York Times op-ed) talked to a former Niger official who "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."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said at the White House last week: "(L)et me just say this on the issue to do with Africa and uranium. The British intelligence that we have we believe is genuine."
Who struck closer to the truth here, the Brits or the IAEA? The jury's still out, but don't bet against the Brits.