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: