What Wilson couldn't learn sipping tea
Evidence of Niger uranium trade 'years before war'
By Mark Huband
Published: June 27 2004 21:56
When thieves stole a steel watch and two bottles of perfume from Niger's
embassy on Via Antonio Baiamonti in Rome at the end of December 2000, they
left behind many questions about their intentions.
The identity of the thieves has not been established. But one theory is that
they planned to steal headed notepaper and official stamps that would allow
the forging of documents for the illicit sale of uranium from Niger's vast
The break-in is one of the murkier elements surrounding the claim - made by
the US and UK governments in the lead-up to the Iraq war - that Iraq sought
to buy uranium illicitly from Niger.
The British government has said repeatedly it stands by intelligence it
gathered and used in its controversial September 2002 dossier on Iraq's
weapons of mass destruction programmes. It still claims that Iraq had sought
uranium from Niger.
But the US intelligence community, officials and politicians, are publicly
sceptical, and the public differences between the two allies on the issue
have obscured the evidence that lies behind the UK claim.
Until now, the only evidence of Iraq's alleged attempts to buy uranium from
Niger had turned out to be a forgery. In October 2002, documents were handed
to the US embassy in Rome that appeared to be correspondence between Niger
and Iraqi officials.
When the US State Department later passed the documents to the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, they were found to be
fake. US officials have subsequently distanced themselves from the entire
notion that Iraq was seeking buy uranium from Niger.
However, European intelligence officers have now revealed that three years
before the fake documents became public, human and electronic intelligence
sources from a number of countries picked up repeated discussion of an
illicit trade in uranium from Niger. One of the customers discussed by the
traders was Iraq.
These intelligence officials now say the forged documents appear to have
been part of a "scam", and the actual intelligence showing discussion of
uranium supply has been ignored.
The fake documents were handed to an Italian journalist working for the
Italian magazine Panorama by a businessman in October 2002. According to a
senior official with detailed knowledge of the case, this businessman had
been dismissed from the Italian armed forces for dishonourable conduct 25
The journalist - Elisabetta Burba - reported in a Panorama article that she
suspected the documents were forgeries and handed them to officials at the
US embassy in Rome.
The businessman, referred to by a pseudonym in the Panorama article, had
previously tried to sell the documents to several intelligence services,
according to a western intelligence officer.
It was later established that he had a record of extortion and deception and
had been convicted by a Rome court in 1985 and later arrested at least
twice. The suspected forger's real name is known to the FT, but cannot be
used because of legal constraints. He did not return telephone calls
yesterday, and is understood to be planning to reveal selected aspects of
his story to a US television channel.
The FT has now learnt that three European intelligence services were aware
of possible illicit trade in uranium from Niger between 1999 and 2001. Human
intelligence gathered in Italy and Africa more than three years before the
Iraq war had shown Niger officials referring to possible illicit uranium
deals with at least five countries, including Iraq.
This intelligence provided clues about plans by Libya and Iran to develop
their undeclared nuclear programmes. Niger officials were also discussing
sales to North Korea and China of uranium ore or the "yellow cake" refined
from it: the raw materials that can be progressively enriched to make
The raw intelligence on the negotiations included indications that Libya was
investing in Niger's uranium industry to prop it up at a time when demand
had fallen, and that sales to Iraq were just a part of the clandestine
export plan. These secret exports would allow countries with undeclared
nuclear programmes to build up uranium stockpiles.
One nuclear counter-proliferation expert told the FT: "If I am going to make
a bomb, I am not going to use the uranium that I have declared. I am going
to use what I acquire clandestinely, if I am going to keep the programme
This may have been the method being used by Libya before it agreed last
December to abandon its secret nuclear programme. According to the IAEA,
there are 2,600 tonnes of refined uranium ore - "yellow cake" - in Libya.
However, less than 1,500 tonnes of it is accounted for in Niger records,
even though Niger was Libya's main supplier.
Information gathered in 1999-2001 suggested that the uranium sold illicitly
would be extracted from mines in Niger that had been abandoned as uneconomic
by the two French-owned mining companies - Cominak and Somair, both of which
are owned by the mining giant Cogema - operating in Niger.
"Mines can be abandoned by Cogema when they become unproductive. This
doesn't mean that people near the mines can't keep on extracting," a senior
European counter-proliferation official said.
He added that there was no evidence the companies were aware of the plans
for illicit mining.
When the intelligence gathered in 1999-2001 was thrown into the diplomatic
maelstrom that preceded the US-led invasion of Iraq, it took on new
significance. Several services contributed to the picture.
The Italians, looking for corroboration but lacking the global reach of the
CIA or the UK intelligence service MI6, passed information to the US in 2001
and to the UK in 2002.
The UK eavesdropping centre GCHQ had intercepted communications suggesting
Iraq was seeking clandestine uranium supplies, as had the French
The Italian intelligence was not incorporated in detail into the assessments
of the CIA, which seeks to use such information only when it is gathered
from its own sources rather than as a result of liaison with foreign
intelligence services. But five months after receiving it, the US sent
former ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger to assess the credibility of
separate US intelligence information that suggested Iraq had approached
Mr Wilson was critical of the Bush administration's use of secret
intelligence, and has since charged that the White House sought to
intimidate him by leaking the identity of his wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA
But Mr Wilson also stated in his account of the visit that Mohamed Sayeed
al-Sahaf, Iraq's former information minister, was identified to him by a
Niger official as having sought to discuss trade with Niger.
As Niger's other main export is goats, some intelligence officials have
surmised uranium was what Mr Sahaf was referring to.