I've been plowing through 196 pages of a report on prewar intelligence-gathering on Iraq that few Americans will ever read.
Sandwiched between the US Senate Intelligence Committee's report earlier this month, and the 9/11 commission's report due to be released Tuesday, is the official British report on the accuracy of the intelligence that they gathered on the eve of war to assess the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
The British commission is as sharply critical of many of the MI6 spymasters' flawed conclusions as US investigators have been of the CIA's. But there is one striking departure: The British commission, chaired by Lord Butler, suggests that there is more substance to the story of Iraqi efforts to buy uranium from Africa than has hitherto been suggested. The British report says evidence "was not conclusive that Iraq actually purchased, as opposed to having sought, uranium." But it documents visits by Iraqi officials to the uranium-exporting nation of Niger, and says that British intelligence from several sources indicating that the purpose was to acquire uranium "was credible."
This conclusion has political implications. On Sept. 24, 2002, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons that "Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa, although we do not know whether he has been successful." On Jan. 28, 2003, in his State of the Union speech, President Bush said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The Butler commission concludes that both statements were "well-founded."
In the late 1970s, says the report, Iraq obtained large quantities of uranium (the starting point for all nuclear developments, military or peaceful) from Niger, Portugal, and Brazil. By the 1980s Iraq had become self-sufficient in uranium ore from its mines and purifying plants at Akashat, Al Qaim, and Al Jazira. During the first Gulf War the uranium-producing facilities were severely damaged, and with postwar international inspection under way, Iraq would have been forced to import uranium or uranium ore for any covert nuclear program.
In early 1999, the report states, Iraqi officials visited a number of African countries, including Niger, where uranium ore accounted for three-quarters of exports. British intelligence detected these visits and suspected Iraq wanted to buy uranium to restart its nuclear program. More intelligence suggested Iraq had sought uranium ore from the Democratic Republic of Congo and that by 2002 an agreement for a sale had been reached. Also in 2002, the British received further intelligence from additional sources that the Niger visit was to negotiate the purchase of uranium ore, although analysts disagreed on whether a sale had been agreed and uranium shipped.
According to the Butler commission, it was not until early 2003 that the British government became aware of documents alleging the Iraqi purchase of uranium from Niger. These were passed to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which determined the papers were forgeries. But the documents were not available to the British government at the time it made its assessment, and so did not influence that conclusion.
The British shared their intelligence with the CIA. "The CIA advised caution about any suggestion that Iraq had succeeded in acquiring uranium from Africa, but agreed that there was evidence that it had been sought."
Overall, the quality of Western intelligence-gathering from inside Iraq must be rated as pretty dismal. It was, of course, a very difficult society to penetrate. Hussein was a master of deception, and after UN inspectors left in December of 1998, information sources were sparse. The British had only five main sources, and only two were "dominant" [reliable]. All this must now be raising critical questions about the value of electronic eavesdropping (satellites and intercepts) versus human intelligence, and the training of agents with language and cultural competency to operate undetected in such countries as Iraq.
After the Butler report was issued, Mr. Blair accepted that the suspected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were not there, but said "no one lied," and "I cannot say getting rid of Saddam was a mistake at all."
Though the intelligence ultimately proved flawed, Bob Woodward's insider book "Plan of Attack" makes it clear there was little prewar doubt in the White House of the existence and potential hazard of such weapons in Iraq.
It is intriguing to ponder how the report, now termed "credible," that Hussein had been seeking uranium for nuclear development, may have played into the decision to go to war.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.