THE Central Intelligence Agency is holding a review of whether it overestimated the threat of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It must surely look at the simmering row about whether the British and US Governments based their case for war partly on forged documents that appeared to show Iraq was trying to get uranium from Africa.
That was one of the headline-grabbing claims of Tony Blair’s “dossier” on Iraq’s weapons, published with such drama last autumn. But the row about the forged documents that appear to have prompted the passage is not going away, particularly across the Atlantic, where it has attracted the attention of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Prime Minister did not name the African country, but officials confirmed that the passage referred to Niger, the third-largest producer of mined uranium. The US State Department repeated that claim in December, naming Niger. But the claim, denied by Niger, was shot down by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog. He told the Security Council on March 7 that the documents appearing to support the claim were forgeries.
Gary Samore, author of an earlier dossier published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the London-based think-tank, says the claim “was wrong in a very embarrassing way. I understand (the documents) were crude forgeries . . . pretty crude cutting and pasting of letterheads. I don’t know how it’s possible that the CIA and MI6 (the intelligence services) did not do obvious checks to make sure they were authentic.” Hans Blix, the UN chief weapons inspector, has called that failure “very, very disturbing”.
Analysts say that the forged documents appear to have been made by someone in Niger to extract money from intelligence agencies of those countries who backed war against Saddam, which were looking urgently for exactly such evidence. Senator Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has called for an investigation into the weight placed on the forgeries.
Downing Street said yesterday “of course we stand by it (the claim)” and that “we had more than one source” for the claim. A spokesman adds that “I wouldn’t draw the extrapolation” that the claims about Iraq’s attempt to get African uranium were based on the documents in contention.
Really? Then what were they based on? This is an ambitious piece of stonewalling which Downing Street may yet be called on to justify, and it will be all the more embarrassing if there are no credible other sources.
In the foreword to the dossier, amid a lavish tribute to the intelligence agencies, Blair got away with saying that to protect agents from Saddam’s regime “we cannot, of course, publish the detailed raw Intelligence”. With Saddam’s regime gone, and few weapons found, that answer now looks blithe. It certainly would not satisfy a Senate committee.
Keeping cards close to chests
The US said yesterday that it had arrested another senior Iraqi, number eight on its “most wanted” list, Aziz Salih al-Numan, who was high up in the Baghdad Baath party. That makes a total of 25 out of the top 55 American targets who are now in custody.
But what new Intelligence can the US now offer after more than a month of interrogation of some of the most senior figures of Saddam Hussein’s regime? Not much, so far. Not only has it not found weapons of mass destruction, it has not yet given any account of what has happened to Saddam himself.
The more time that passes since the fighting stopped, the odder this gets. After all, Tariq Aziz, Deputy Prime Minister, and Saddam’s spokesman abroad, the most familiar face of the Iraqi regime since the 1991 Gulf War, handed himself over on April 25, almost a month ago.
Whether Aziz was strictly a member of the inner circle is a matter for debate. But he is certainly one of those who would have been with the Iraqi leader in the last days, and should have known his fate.
It’s not just Aziz. True, some of the 25 in US custody were picked up very recently, such as the Secretary of the elite Republican Guard, picked up at the weekend, and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, captured last week. But the US has had for a month or more many others, including two other Deputy Prime Ministers; the Director of Military Intelligence, taken into custody on April 23; two of Saddam’s half-brothers, and a big batch of regional chairmen of the Baath party.
At least there is no question, as there is now with the weapons of mass destruction, about whether Saddam ever existed. But we still do not have anything approaching a narrative of his last weeks in command.
That matters, not just for historical completeness, but precisely because the failure to find weapons raises important questions about Saddam’s miscalculations.
If he did have such weapons, why didn’t he use them? If he didn’t, then why did he string out the inspections to the point where it provoked the US to war? Out of pride at being an Arab figurehead? Out of the belief that the US would not go to war without UN backing? It is easy for this kind of question to get brushed aside in the turmoil of putting a country back on its feet. We still do not have a good picture of why Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, gave up the fight after 78 days of the Kosovo war — for example, whether he was really afraid of a potential ground invasion which Britain and the US were deeply reluctant to make.
The Bush Administration has made much of the “deck of cards” of wanted Iraqis, a notion that has done them no favors with its suggestion of flippancy and recklessness.
The image becomes more embarrassing the more “cards” the US has in its keeping without appearing to have any more of the answers.
Copyright 2003 Times Newspapers Ltd