The Bush administration is caught in a scandal of almost unprecedented dimensions over the justifications that it and Great Britain gave for going to war against Iraq. Call it the "yellow cake scandal." It goes to the core of whether Saddam Hussein was trying to produce nuclear weapons, thus posing a threat to the United States and Great Britain, which would justify war.
It goes to a charge by President Bush that Iraq was trying to build a nuclear arsenal in which Bush used evidence his administration now acknowledges was no good. The President's people are now saying he was given bad information by the Central Intelligence Agency, but it is worth recalling that in the campaign for a war against Iraq, intelligence sources consistently complained the White House was manipulating intelligence to build support for the war.
"Yellow cake" is the nickname of uranium oxide, a component of nuclear weapons. It is produced, among other places, in two mines (Somair and Cominak) in the west African state of Niger. Working those mines is an international consortium composed of French, Spanish, Japanese, German and Nigerien interests. They, in turn, are closely monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure that no dangerous materials are diverted to unauthorized parties.
In late 2001, a rumor circulated that the government of Iraq was trying to buy yellow cake. In the shadowy world of espionage, it is still unclear who started the rumor. What is known is that some individuals or an organization forged documents to cast blame on Iraq.
The documents were appallingly crude. The letterhead on one document was obviously transplanted from some other, presumably genuine, paper; the signature of the president of Niger was copied; and, most telling of all, one signature was supposedly written by a minister who had been out of office for over a decade.
How these documents reached the British and American governments is also obscure. One story has them acquired by Italian agents and passed to the British intelligence agency (MI6), which passed them to the CIA.
When the documents reached the CIA, officials apparently concluded that, despite the papers' obvious faults, the subject they addressed was too important to be neglected. So, in early 2002, the CIA asked a retired American ambassador with 23 years of experience on African affairs (and who had been stationed in Niger in the 1970s) to investigate.
Ambassador Joseph Wilson, now a business consultant, agreed to fly to Niger to attempt to find out what was behind the story. He has described his experiences and conclusions in articles in The New York Times and the Financial Times.
When Wilson arrived in Niamey, the Nigerien capital, he consulted with the current U.S. ambassador, Barbra Owens-Kirkpatrick, and the embassy staff for whom everything relating to uranium was top priority. They told him that the story was well known and that they had already "debunked" it in reports to Washington. Then, as Wilson writes, "I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business." They uniformly and formally "denied the charges." The Embassy concurred.
Returning to Washington in early March 2002, Wilson reported to the CIA and to the Bureau of African Affairs of the Department of State that, although he had not been shown the documents themselves, he was sure that "there's simply too much oversight over too small an industry for a sale [outside controlled channels] to have transpired." Too many people would have had to give approval and even more would have known about the diversion of uranium. Moreover, since it would have violated UN sanctions, a diversion would have attracted a great deal of notice. In short, he concluded, the transaction did not take place.
In his Op-Ed article in The New York Times last Sunday, Wilson revealed "there should be at least four documents in United States government archives confirming my mission. The documents should include the ambassador's report of my debriefing in Niamey, a separate report written by the embassy staff, a CIA report summing up my trip, and a specific answer from the agency to the office of the vice president (this may have been delivered orally)."
The CIA has confirmed that its account of the matter was distributed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the FBI and the office of Vice President Cheney.
His task, Ambassador Wilson concluded, had been accomplished: "the Niger matter was settled and [so I] went back to my life."