Latest News

Former ambassador did not `debunk' Iraq-Niger deal, says Senate

WASHINGTON—The Senate's report into intelligence failures about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq disputes a key war critic's assertion that he had "debunked" suspicions that Iraq attempted to buy uranium from the African country of Niger.

The report contends that former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who traveled to Niger in early 2002 at the CIA's request to inquire about the uranium allegation, "did not change any analysts' assessment of the Iraq-Niger uranium deal."

The committee concluded that the CIA's October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate overstated what the intelligence community knew about Iraq's efforts to obtain uranium. But it also said Wilson's information, instead of steering the CIA away, "lent more credibility to the original Central Intelligence Agency reports on the uranium deal."

The committee also reported that the British and the French informed U.S. officials that Iraq attempted to buy uranium from Niger.

By challenging Wilson, the Senate Intelligence Committee's report opened the door for renewed Republican attacks on Wilson's credibility in one of the most contentious side issues of the controversy over the Iraq war.

A federal grand jury is conducting a criminal investigation into who leaked the name of Wilson's wife, a CIA officer, to newspaper columnist Robert Novak after Wilson publicly criticized the Iraq war. Wilson accused the Bush administration of leaking the name to punish him.

The probe has reached into the White House, with investigators questioning President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

"Time and again, Joe Wilson told anyone who would listen that the president had lied to the American people, that the vice president had lied and that he had `debunked' the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa," committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said in a statement of "additional views" signed by two other Republican senators.

Bush alluded to the Iraq-Niger link in his 2003 State of the Union address, but the White House later backtracked, saying the allegation shouldn't have been included in the address to Congress because it was questionable.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times last July, Wilson reported that during his visit to Niger, "it did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction (with Iraq) had ever taken place."

According to the report, Wilson told intelligence analysts during a debriefing session in 2002 that Niger's former prime minister, Ibrahim Mayaki, told him he met with an Iraqi delegation in 1999.

Wilson said Mayaki told him the Iraqis were interested in "expanding commercial relations" with Niger and that Mayaki interpreted that as a proposition to buy uranium. Nevertheless, Mayaki told Wilson that uranium was never discussed in the meeting.

Wilson also told intelligence analysts that the ownership structure of uranium mines in Niger would have made it nearly impossible for Niger to sell the ore to Iraq because the mines are run by consortiums that include French, Spanish, German and Japanese interests.

The intelligence committee's report said CIA analysts didn't believe Wilson's information was significant or that it clarified the Iraq-Niger connection.

The report acknowledged, however, that State Department analysts concluded that Wilson's information supported their view that there wasn't much substance to the Iraq-Niger connection.

"Wouldn't it be a terrible shame to go to war over a meeting in which uranium was not mentioned?" Wilson said in an interview Friday.

Roberts also criticized Wilson for suggesting that Cheney, who'd been inquiring about the Niger connection, would have been informed about Wilson's doubts.

The committee concluded that Cheney wasn't informed about Wilson's trip because CIA officials didn't believe Wilson's information was significant. Wilson said his assumption that Cheney would have been informed was based on his understanding of "standard operating procedure."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Joseph Wilson