We have long believed that it is almost certainly true that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. We explained why here. Briefly, Iraq sent one of its biggest advocates of nuclear weaponry on a trade mission to Niger. Niger exports virtually nothing except uranium; its second biggest export is animal hides. But the ridiculous Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame have obscured what seems to be a rather obvious inference, and the Bush administration, beating a retreat as usual, has apologized for referring to the African connection in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech.
Now the Financial Times is resurrecting the story, pointing out that that the famous forged documents are more or less irrelevant, and there has been solid intellligence, for several years, supporting the theory that Niger conspired to export uranium to Iraq and other rogue states:
The FT has now learnt that three European intelligence services were aware of possible illicit trade in uranium from Niger between 1999 and 2001. Human intelligence gathered in Italy and Africa more than three years before the Iraq war had shown Niger officials referring to possible illicit uranium deals with at least five countries, including Iraq.
This intelligence provided clues about plans by Libya and Iran to develop their undeclared nuclear programmes. Niger officials were also discussing sales to North Korea and China of uranium ore or the “yellow cake” refined from it: the raw materials that can be progressively enriched to make nuclear bombs.
The raw intelligence on the negotiations included indications that Libya was investing in Niger’s uranium industry to prop it up at a time when demand had fallen, and that sales to Iraq were just a part of the clandestine export plan. These secret exports would allow countries with undeclared nuclear programmes to build up uranium stockpiles.
The Bush administration has known this all along. So why did it withdraw the Niger claim, rather than defending it? Who knows. It’s too late now, in any event. If the administration thinks it can pull this chestnut out of the fire at this late date, it is mistaken. What Bush said was true, but the facts ceased being important long ago.