Iraq and the uranium: a fake debate

In the latest clash over the evidence, both sides are passing the buck.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Why, three months after the Iraq war ended, has a four-year-old story about Saddam Hussein trying to get uranium from Africa become big news?

The world’s media point out that the uranium claims originated from forged documents, and criticise President Bush for including them in his State of the Union address; Bush blames the CIA, while the CIA blames Britain’s MI6 for starting the story in the first place; MI6 is standing by its intelligence, though Tony Blair is apparently planning to ‘blame France for the uranium row’; and Niger, from where Saddam allegedly tried to buy the uranium in 1999, is said to be deeply upset ‘at suggestions that it would consider selling uranium to Iraq’ (1).

The lame uranium claims have been the subject of ridicule for a year – so how did they come to ‘stop the press’ in mid-July 2003? The spat was triggered by US diplomat Joseph Wilson, who was sent by the CIA to Niger to assess the intelligence. He wrote in the New York Times on 7 July this year that, ‘It was highly doubtful that any such transaction had taken place’ (2).

But Wilson’s apparently ‘shock revelation’ doesn’t explain why the uranium story has dominated political and media debate over the past week. Rather, this ugly spat is the result of some shameless buckpassing in both the pro- and anti-war camps.

On the sceptical-about-war side, the Democrats have leapt upon the uranium story as a way of discrediting the Bush administration. As the UK Independent reports, senior Democrats are using the issue not only ‘to attack the president’, but also to launch the running for whom will be the Democrat presidential candidate in 2004 (3). North Carolina Democrat Senator John Edwards says a president can do nothing worse than start a war on false pretences, and calls on the American people to ‘not lose sight of the bigger picture…the enormous failure that is looming in Iraq right now’ (4).

How gallant. Not. The Democrats could have ripped apart the uranium story six months ago, if they had wanted – three months before US forces launched their ‘enormous failure’ in Iraq. On 28 January 2003, Mohamed Elbaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told a news channel: ‘There were reports about Iraq importing uranium from Africa…Again we haven’t seen any evidence.’ (5)

The documents purporting to show that Iraqis had approached Niger for uranium were exposed as forgeries on 7 March 2003, two weeks before the Iraq war started. The IAEA reported to the UN Security Council that ‘these documents…are in fact not authentic. We have therefore concluded that these specific allegations are unfounded’ (6). If that wasn’t clear enough for the likes of the Democrat presidential candidates, currently expressing their shock and sorrow over the Bushies’ use of false evidence, perhaps a headline from the following day, 8 March, would have done the trick: ‘Niger-Iraq uranium connection “a fake”.’ (7)

Indeed, those interested in challenging America and Britain’s claims as a way of challenging their war plans ought to have been instinctively sceptical about the African uranium story. The British/American story about Niger only made sense if you accepted earlier intelligence claims about Iraq having the means with which to turn uranium into something approaching a nuclear weapon. And not everybody did.

In September 2002, Britain’s original and discredited dossier on Iraq, as well as an American dossier, reported that Saddam’s regime had made attempts to ‘purchase vacuum pumps which could be used to create and maintain pressures in a gas centrifuge cascade needed to enrich uranium’, thus suggesting that it had a nuclear weapons programme (8).

The prestigious US Institute for Science and International Security wasn’t convinced, arguing that ‘by themselves, these attempted procurements are not evidence that Iraq is in possession of, or close to possessing, nuclear weapons’ (9). Days later, on 22 September 2002, the Financial Times reported that ‘the alleged attempts to import the [materials] failed. So even if it was destined for a uranium enrichment facility, it never arrived’ (10).

Anybody who is truly concerned about the use of ‘unsubstantiated evidence’, as Democrat Senators now claim to be, would surely have asked themselves during Bush’s State of the Union address in January: why is the president claiming that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger, when experts doubt whether Iraq could do anything with uranium even if it had it?

But then the Democrats – like sceptical Labour ministers in the UK, cynical journalists, and other anti-war types – are not flagging up the uranium claims in order to challenge American and British intervention in Iraq. They are taking a cheap shot at their opponents. Mary Lynn Jones, a liberal American journalist, says that the revelations of dodgy evidence may be ‘just the mistake [the Democrats] were waiting for’, one that they can ‘seize upon and ride to victory’ (11).

Jones admits that it is ‘easier to win an election if you have your own agenda to promote rather than just talking about how bad the other guy is’, but insists that Democrats can ‘capitalise’ on the current evidence fallout (12). There is nothing like taking a principled stand against war – and the Democrats’ focus on the uranium story is nothing like taking a principled stand against war.

Democrats’ and liberals’ retrospective focus on the uranium claims is a cover for their own cowardice over Iraq, for their failure to take a principled stand against the war. Opposition politicians are grubbing about for something with which to beat the Bushies, as they clearly have no politics or principles with which to do the job. This sorry excuse for political opposition helps to explain why doubts about the uranium are everywhere, months after they first originated – and why someone like Senator John Edwards, who voted for war in the House of Representatives, can now get off on lecturing Bush about the ‘enormous failure’ in Iraq. The antis’ cynical approach – flagging up Bush and Blair’s lies instead of positing a principled alternative – can only harm political life in the long run.

One reason why the anti-war lobby has been able to milk the uranium story for all it is worth is because of the pro-war lobby’s defensiveness. On the other side of the fake debate over Iraq, the uranium claims have exposed deep divisions within the Bush administration, and between America and Britain.

As the uranium spat got serious, the Bush and Blair governments partook in some serious blame-shifting. As one article put it on 14 July, ‘Bush shifts the blame for his Iraq whopper’ (13). According to the administration, it was the CIA’s fault that the dodgy uranium story made its way into Bush’s State of the Union address. The CIA has accepted responsibility – though director George Tenet got his own back on Bush, by claiming that ‘officials who were reviewing the draft remarks on uranium raised several concerns about the fragmentary nature of the intelligence with National Security colleagues’, only to have their concerns ignored by Bush’s aides (14).

The CIA has tried to wash its hands off the uranium story by pinning the blame on Britain. After all, it was the Brits who first talked up the uranium claims, as Bush outlined in his State of the Union address (in the now infamous ‘16 words’): ‘The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa’ (15). The CIA’s finger-pointing at Britain’s MI6 led to what The Sunday Times (London) called the ‘most serious clash yet’ between America and Britain.

Now the British are trying to shift the blame, for a third time. According to one report, British officials have suggested that ‘two foreign intelligence services, thought to be those of France and Italy, supplied Britain with the information for its controversial claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa’ (16). When in doubt, blame France – as the Scotsman reports: ‘France is expected to be blamed for the split between the CIA and MI6, on the grounds that Paris intelligence agencies shared hard evidence with Britain, but refused to show it to the USA’ (17). ‘French treachery’ says one headline, reporting that the French secret service were behind the dirty claims about African uranium (18).

The uranium claims worked their way from forged documents into Britain’s dossier and then into Bush’s State of the Union address. Yet now Bush, Blair and the rest are doing all they can to shift the blame, tracing the story’s origins back to – guess who? – those pesky Europeans, who were always determined to spoil the coalition’s efforts in Iraq. Those who launched the war in Iraq are now washing their hands of responsibility, defensively backtracking over the pre-war ‘evidence’.

It wasn’t the uranium story that caused these tensions within and between the Bush and Blair governments. Rather, the uranium spat has further exposed the defensive nature of Bush and Blair’s war, and its failure to unite the American and British elites behind any sense of common purpose.

As postwar Iraq spins further out of control, politicians and journalists in the West squabble over 16 words in Bush’s State of the Union address, and who is responsible for putting them there. This is about much more than a bullshit story about African uranium. The uranium spat is more like a sign of our unprincipled times.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

Only dopes get duped, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Niger upset by uranium slur, BBC News, 14 July 2003

(2) See Joseph Wilson, former US ambassador to Iraq, debunks Iraq-Niger uranium deal and why the US went to war, Democracy Now!, 10 July 2003

(3) Democrats attack Bush’s credibility over Niger uranium claims, Independent, 15 July 2003

(4) Democrats attack Bush’s credibility over Niger uranium claims, Independent, 15 July 2003

(5) Newsmaker: Mohamed Elbaradei, NewsHour, 28 January 2003

(6) See Timeline: ‘Niger uranium’ row, BBC News, 9 July 2003

(7) Niger-Iraq uranium connection ‘a fake’, Afrol News, 8 March 2003

(8) See Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government (.pdf), 24 September 2002

(9) Evidence on Iraq challenged, Washington Post, 19 September 2002

(10) ‘Doubts over recent arms programme’, Financial Times, 22 September 2002

(11) New math, Mary Lynn Jones, American Prospect, 14 July 2003

(12) New math, Mary Lynn Jones, American Prospect, 14 July 2003

(13) The buck stops there: Bush shifts the blame for his Iraq whopper, Slate, 14 July 2003

(14) The buck stops there: Bush shifts the blame for his Iraq whopper, Slate, 14 July 2003

(15) State of the Union address: full text, BBC News, 29 January 2003

(16) France and Italy provided intelligence: report, AFP News, 15 July 2003

(17) Blair to blame France for Niger uranium row, Scotsman, 15 July 2003

(18) French treachery, Daily Telegraph, 14 July 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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