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Mining intelligence

BRITAIN'S Financial Times reported Wednesday that an official British government inquiry into the intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq has concluded that Britain's MI-6 was correct to conclude that Saddam Hussein's regime had sought to buy uranium ore from Niger.

If so, this gives the lie to the charge that "Bush lied!" when he said in his 2003 State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. "

The July 7 story by Mark Huband follows his article from the previous week, which revealed that "a key part of the UK's intelligence on the uranium came from a European intelligence service that undertook a three-year surveillance of an alleged clandestine uranium-smuggling operation of which Iraq was a part."

Mr. Huband doesn't identify the "European intelligence service" in this or his earlier story. The scuttlebutt is that it was the DSGE, the French external intelligence service, which shared the intelligence with MI-6 only on the express condition that the Brits not share it with the United States. (Terrific allies, the French.)

In the earlier article Mr. Huband wrote: "Illicit sales of uranium from Niger were being negotiated with five states including Iraq at least three years before the U.S.-led invasion." The other countries were North Korea, Iran, Libya, and China.

The "Bush lied!" charge hung on two slender reeds. The first is that the only "evidence" the CIA had at the time of an Iraq-Niger-yellowcake connection was a fairly obvious forgery obtained through Italian sources. The second was the "investigation" conducted in early 2002 by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson on behalf of the CIA.

Wilson spent less than two weeks in Niger. In his July, 2003, New York Times op-ed about his investigation he described his methodology as "drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business." The people he talked to told him that Niger hadn't sold uranium to Iraq.

There were two problems with this investigation. The first is that the people to whom Mr. Wilson was talking might not have been telling him the truth. The second is that to say that Niger did not sell uranium to Iraq is not the same as saying Iraq did not try to buy yellowcake ore from Niger.

In fact, Mr. Wilson himself has confirmed that Iraq did indeed try to buy uranium from Niger.

When Mr. Wilson made his sensational charges against the Bush Administration, he earned his 15 minutes of fame: appearances on television, a book deal. But in his recently published book, Mr. Wilson acknowledges that in 1999, Saddam Hussein's information minister, Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf (aka "Baghdad Bob"), approached an official of the Niger government to discuss trade. Since Niger's only other export is goats - of which there is no shortage in Iraq - the Niger official surmised that Baghdad Bob's interest was in yellowcake ore.

Few of the news organs that played up Mr. Wilson's original charges have bothered to mention the reversal of field Mr. Wilson made in his book. Surely some of the reporters, editors, and producers have read it.

Iraq got a bunch of uranium from somewhere. In another story largely ignored by major media, the Associated Press reported last week that "in a secret operation, the United States last month removed from Iraq nearly two tons of uranium and hundreds of highly radioactive items that could have been used in a so-called dirty bomb."

On July 6 Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham disclosed the operation, which was completed June 23. He described it as a "major achievement " in efforts to "keep potentially dangerous nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists"

The uranium discovered was "low enrichment" (less than 20 percent U-235 isotope) and hence unsuitable for making atomic bombs. For that, centrifuges are necessary. Khidir Hamza, who headed Iraq's nuclear program prior to his defection in 1994, said Iraq had obtained centrifuges from German sources. An attempt to smuggle in centrifuge components in 2002 was thwarted, several sources said.

Also ignored by the major media were reports that components of Iraqi missile systems - some of them radioactive - have been turning up in European scrap metal yards, and the discovery in Iraq late in June by Polish troops of "16 or 17" artillery shells that tested positive for the nerve agent sarin. Terrorists were trying to buy the shells for $5,000 each, Polish officials said.

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