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CONGO MUST GO! A Perfect Storm roared up Gotcha Gulch. So the Congo was dropped from the story:

MONDAY, JULY 28, 2003

OUCH: Milbank and Allen hammered Rice hard on page one of yesterday’s Post. If anything, the tough-talking tandem were too gentle, leaving out other shaky statements made by Rice in the past (for one prime example, see Saturday’s DAILY HOWLER). Tomorrow, we’ll look at one of the oddball stories we’ve been asked to believe in this Niger flap. What did Rice know about those crudely forged documents? We’ve been offered some very odd tales about the failure to see through those documents. Your press corps—pleased with the tale they’ve been telling—doesn’t seem inclined to ask.

THE CONGO MUST GO: Did Saddam Hussein seek uranium in Africa? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea. Was British intelligence to that effect well-founded? We don’t know that, either. But a Perfect Storm has been constructed around Bush’s 16-word statement. In the process, one pundit after another has suggested that the British intelligence which Bush cited was all about uranium-from-Niger, and was based on those famous forged documents. When the documents turned out to be fake, we’ve been told, so did the British intelligence.

But did the British intelligence concern Niger? We thought we’d show you how that intelligence was framed when it first became public. On September 24, 2002, Tony Blair made a formal presentation to Parliament in which he made a new allegation: “We know Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa, though we do not know whether he has been successful.” This is the famous British intelligence referred to by Bush in his 16-word statement. But what did this British intelligence concern? Was it really about Niger? In the next day’s Guardian, writers James Astill and Rory Carroll seemed to say that the focus was the Congo:

THE GUARDIAN: Iraqi agents have been negotiating with criminal gangs in the Democratic Republic of Congo to trade Iraqi military weapons and training for high-grade minerals, possibly including uranium, according to evidence obtained by the Guardian.

It comes as the dossier unveiled by Tony Blair accused Saddam Hussein of trying to buy African uranium to give Iraq’s weapons programme a nuclear capability. The dossier did not identify any country allegedly approached by Baghdad but security analysts said the Congo was the likeliest, followed by South Africa.

“We know Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa, though we do not know whether he has been successful,” Mr Blair said. A delegation of five Iraqis was arrested in Nairobi by the Kenyan secret service last November while travelling to eastern Congo on fake Indian passports, a western intelligence officer said.

Documents seen by the Guardian show that leaders of the Mayi-Mayi, a brutal militia embroiled in the country’s civil war, visited Baghdad twice and offered diamonds and gold to the Iraqis. Uranium was not mentioned in the documents but the intelligence officer said the Mayi-Mayi would be able to obtain the material in areas it controlled.

There was much more detail, but you get the idea. Is any of this true? Was Saddam seeking uranium from the Congo? We have no idea. But on the same day—September 25—the Times of London (writers: Michael Evans, Richard Beeston) also suggested that the Congo was the primary focus:
TIMES OF LONDON: Iraqi agents have been scouring countries across Africa for uranium to help Saddam Hussein to build nuclear weapons, The Times has learnt.

The dossier released by the Government yesterday noted in passing that Baghdad had recently tried to acquire “significant quantities of uranium from Africa”. But what it left out was evidence supplied to the Cabinet Office’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) showing that Saddam’s agents have secretly visited a number of African countries, 13 of which have uranium as a natural resource.

Uranium, once enriched, could form the core of a nuclear bomb, but there is no evidence yet that Saddam has succeeded it acquiring it. “If Iraq had succeeded in buying uranium from Africa, the dossier would have said so,” one Whitehall source said.

The Iraqis are known to have targeted the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, though no uranium has been extracted there for several years. The mine that produced the uranium used in the American bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 is in an area controlled by Zimbabwean troops.

This report was specifically tracked to the British JIC. Meanwhile, the Financial Times made it three this day, also naming the Congo as the country of greatest concern. Indeed, the FT’s writers specifically said that countries like Niger were of less concern due to international oversight:
FINANCIAL TIMES: Tony Blair yesterday said Iraq was suspected of sourcing significant quantities of uranium that could be used for a nuclear weapons programme from deposits or nuclear stockpiles in Africa.

Africa accounts for 20 per cent of global production of uranium. Namibia, Niger, South Africa and Gabon are the main producers. However, Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been destabilised by a four-year civil war, is a more likely source of smuggled uranium. Congo’s largest uranium mine is Shinkolobwe in the southern province of Katanga, an area under the control of Zimbabwean forces. But the mine is flooded and in a state of disrepair, according to mining sources…

At Africa’s main uranium producers, production is strictly monitored and sales to power stations for electricity generation are made under exclusive contracts. Experts say it is highly unlikely that any uranium could be smuggled out.

In the former French colonies of Niger and Gabon, production is in the hands of Cogema, the French company which specialises in the nuclear fuel cycle and is number two in the field.

By this time, as we all know, honest ambassador Joseph Wilson had been dispatched by the CIA to Niger. Reporting back, he said that international oversight made it unlikely that Iraq could swing a deal there. But when Blair announced the British intelligence, the focus seemed to be on the Congo. The Sunday Telegraph said the same thing that weekend. “The Democratic Republic of Congo has emerged as the likeliest target of Iraq’s attempts to secure uranium,” the paper said. “It is home to a string of brutal and feuding militia groups, at least one of which is believed to have approached Baghdad with an offer to supply minerals…Henri Boshoff, a military analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in the South African capital Pretoria, said that unrest in the Congo made it the most likely African country to have been targeted by Iraq.”

Did British intelligence have real evidence that Iraq “had been scouring countries across Africa for uranium,” as the Times said it had learned? Was it true, as the Times reported, that “the Iraqis were known to have targeted the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo?” Here at THE HOWLER, we simply don’t know. But our press corps has persistently suggested that the Brit intel was all about Niger, and lived or died by those crudely forged documents. These contemporary reports from the British press suggest that this wasn’t the case.

For the record, the American National Intelligence Report of October 2002 seemed to support the idea that Iraq sought uranium from African nations other than Niger. “Reports indicate Iraq also has sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” the NIE said. “We cannot confirm whether Iraq succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from these sources. Reports suggest Iraq is shifting from domestic mining and milling of uranium to foreign acquisition.” True or false? We simply don’t know. But if you got the impression from recent reporting that the Brit intel was all about Niger, you just may have been snookered again. In Perfect Storms, things like that happen.

TOMORROW: In March, Seymour Hersh suggested that the Brits themselves may have forged those crudely forged documents.

The Daily update

HOW TO SEX UP A STORY: When Perfect Storms roar up Gotcha Gulch, scribes start “sexing up” their reporting. Consider this absurd presentation by David Remnick in last week’s New Yorker:

REMNICK: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” So said President Bush on January 28th, outlining the case for war with Iraq in his State of the Union address. It was perhaps the most chilling moment of the speech, for it raised the spectre of nuclear weapons in the hands of a dictator who had proved himself capable of terror, invasion, and genocide.

To many listeners, the attribution of this sensational piece of information to the British served only to emphasize its reliability. The President might as well have gone on to say, “And you can take that to the bank, because MI6 doesn’t mess around.”

Remnick sexes those 16 words good. They were “perhaps the most chilling moment of the speech,” he says. Bush might as well have gone on to say, “MI6 doesn’t mess around.”

This presentation is simply absurd. To state the obvious, most Americans have no more impression of MI6 than of Blink 182; David Remnick is sexing it good when he mind-reads how they heard Bush’s statement. But is Remnick’s principal statement true? Is it true that Bush’s 16 words were “the most chilling moment of the speech?” That is a laughable notion. In fact, Bush’s fleeting, 16-word statement was barely mentioned after the speech. Even in next-day reporting (January 29), uranium-from-Africa was rarely cited. According to the Nexis records, for example, the Chicago Tribune ran 16 articles which mentioned “Bush AND Iraq;” none of them mentioned “uranium.” Ditto the 14 articles in the Los Angeles Times and the 10 in the Boston Globe. USA Today didn’t mention the topic; even the war-happy Washington Times only mentioned uranium-from-Africa in its excerpts from Bush’s speech. And by the second day—January 30—the topic had dropped from sight altogether. In fact, uranium-from-Africa played almost no role in the American discussion of war. Was this “the most chilling moment” of the State of the Union? If so, the moment proved so very fearful that Americans pushed it to the back of their minds, never to be looked at again.

But we told you how those Perfect Storms work—every fact must be sexed up and hyped. Remnick is hardly the first reporter to pretend that Bush’s 16 words were the key moment in his speech. Meanwhile, for a perfect example of Perfect Storm hype, consider Seymour Hersh’s article in the March 31 New Yorker. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the larger question explored in this piece. But Hersh kicked things off with some consummate “sexing” about that British intelligence.

You’ll have to read Hersh’s first six paragraphs to get the full effect. But basically, Hersh wants you to think that Blair’s September 24 uranium-from-Africa claim was all about Niger, and was based on those crudely forged documents. As you’ll see if you look at his piece, this is the plain implication of his six-paragraph opening. First, he shows you George Tenet telling the Congress on September 24 that “Iraq had attempted to buy five hundred tons of uranium oxide from Niger.” Then he pens this third paragraph:

HERSH: On the same day, in London, Tony Blair’s government made public a dossier containing much of the information that the Senate committee was being given in secret—that Iraq had sought to buy “significant quantities of uranium” from an unnamed African country, “despite having no active civil nuclear power programme that could require it.” The allegation attracted immediate attention; a headline in the London Guardian declared, “AFRICAN GANGS OFFER ROUTE TO URANIUM.”
If you read Hersh’s piece, you will see his clear implication—Blair was talking about that 500 tons from Niger, too. But what did that Guardian article really say? Where were those “AFRICAN GANGS” really found? Here is the opening paragraph of the article in question:
THE GUARDIAN: Iraqi agents have been negotiating with criminal gangs in the Democratic Republic of Congo to trade Iraqi military weapons and training for high-grade minerals, possibly including uranium, according to evidence obtained by the Guardian.
That’s right. This is the very same article—about the Congo—which we quoted above. Those “African gangs” were in the Congo, not in Niger. But Hersh wanted to give you a better story, so he “sexed up” this part of his report. He made you think that Tony Blair—and the London Guardian—were discussing that same 500 tons that Tenet was discussing with Congress. This makes for a very pleasing report. It just doesn’t happen to be true.

Tomorrow, well look at the larger claim Hersh put forward. But no one “sexes up” reports like our journalists, and we thought you might want to know that. Here at THE HOWLER, we emit low chuckles when such scribes rail at dissembling pols.