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Nigerian Yellow Cake

Facts and Fiction

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Updated October 25, 2005
As the grand jury investigating a possible leak of a CIA operative nears its close, I'm examining the facts and fiction surrounding those events.

The primary source for this essay is the Senate Iraq Report, July 2004 (pdf) ; citation page numbers (n) are included. Any newspaper sources are hyperlinked. Emphasis is added, unless otherwise noted.

1999

An Algerian businessman, Baraka, allegedly arranged a trip for the Iraqi Ambassador to the Vatican, Niger and other African countries. (38)

2001

On 11 September 2001, terrorists attacked the United States.

On 15 October 2001, the CIA issued a report, credited to a foreign government service, that Niger planned to sell several tons of uranium to Iraq.

On 18 October 2001, the CIA wrote a finished intelligence report that said, in part (36-37)
    According to a foreign government source, Niger as of early this year planned to send several tons of uranium to Iraq under an agreement concluded last year.

    Iraq and Niger had been negotiating the shipment since at least early 1999, but the state court of Niger only this year approved it, according to the service.
    • There is no corroboration from other sources that such an agreement was reached or that uranium was transferred.
    • United Nations Security Council (UNSF) Resolution 687 prohibits Iraq from purchasing uranium, although the transfer would not require the application of safeguards.
    • In view of the origin, the uranium probably is in the form of yellowcake and will need further processing to be used in an uranium enrichment plant. Iraq has no known facilities for processing or enriching the material.
    • The quantity of yellowcake to be transferred could support the enrichment of enough uranium for at least one nuclear weapon.
On 20 November 2001, the Director General of Niger's French-led consortium said "there was no possibility" that Niger had diverted any of the 3,000 tons of yellowcake produced in its two uranium mines. (37)

2002

On 5 February 2002, the CIA issued another intelligence report from the same foreign government service. This report included more detail and indicated that the agreement between Iraq and Niger totalled 500 tons of uranium a year. (37)

In a 15 February 2002 report, the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) aserts: "Iraq probably is searching abroad for natural uranium to assist in its nuclear weapons program." (38)
    Note that two key qualifiers observed in the original CIA report are unchanged: there is no new source corroborating the claims and no new data on Iraq's (in)ability to process yellowcake. Also, there is no evidence offered to counter Niger's denial. However, the DIA reports to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.
Vice President Cheney asked for a CIA analysis after reading the DIA report.

In response, the CIA director published a "Senior Publish When Ready" assessment; it was authored by the Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control (WINPAC) -- this is the same Center that we would later learn VP Cheney's Chief of Staff Scooter Libby said was Valerie Plame's employer, according to notes from NY Times reporter Judith Miller.

In this assessment, the CIA noted the information on the alleged contract "lacks crucial details" and said it was "working to clarify the information and to determine whether it can be corroborated." The CIA also noted that US diplomats in Niger said that the government "maintains complete control over uranium mining and yellowcake production" and that the government had denied the allegation of a contract.

The CIA's Counterproliferation Division (CPD) discussed ways to obtain additional information on the allegations. There is no clear picture of how Joseph Wilson came to be the agent for obtaining additional information.

A memo from Plame to the head of the CPD on 12 February 2002 said her "husband has good relations" with the prime minister and minister of mines. If the information is in the Senate report (naming names), it has been redacted. (39)
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