Saddam's Man in Niger
What was the Iraqi regime's nuclear expert doing in Africa?
Sep 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 02 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
LET US CREDIT the Senate Intelligence Committee with almost getting the name right. On pages 25-26 of its latest report appears the following:
And, on page 54 we read, under the heading "Conclusions":
Since the report does not trouble to supply any reasoning from the evidence to its conclusions, we are left to infer that there is nothing odd about Saddam Hussein's envoy (to the Vatican) paying a visit to Niger, and nothing unusual about Niger's desire to buy ("for cash") crude oil from a country under international sanctions that is much less close and convenient a source of oil than, say, its neighbors Nigeria and Algeria.
It takes only a very little work to find that neither of these assumptions is a safe one. To begin with, we do not owe the information about Wissam al-Zahawie's visit to Ja'far Diya' Ja'far, and we have no good reason to think that "the head of Iraq's pre-1991 nuclear weapons program" would in any case have special knowledge about Saddam Hussein's diplomacy in 1999. (Unless of course that diplomacy had something to do with nuclear matters.) The name of Zahawie was the original red flag that alerted British intelligence to the possibility of untoward Iraqi activity in West Africa, and thus precipitated the tip-off to Washington that ignited the dispute over evidence that still preoccupies us. At no stage does the committee's report give even a hint of what the nature of this concern might have been, so I shall begin by filling in that huge blank.
Ambassador Rolf Ekeus is quite possibly the world's most distinguished international civil servant when it comes to questions of disarmament and nonproliferation. A founder of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and a former ambassador of Sweden to the United Nations and to the United States, he has made the subject a lifelong specialty. Appointed by the U.N. to head the UNSCOM inspection team after the end of the first Gulf war, he is credited with uncovering, identifying, and destroying more covert Iraqi weaponry than had been taken out by the war itself.
So widely recognized was the quality of his performance that, when inspections were proposed again in 2000, even Kofi Annan proposed renominating him for the task. (The appointment of Ekeus was overruled by France and Russia, who insisted on Hans Blix.) I might add that the experience also introduced Ekeus to what might be called the underside of Iraqi tactics on WMD: He was once offered a straight bribe of $2.5 million, to his face, by Saddam's deputy Tariq Aziz, and he took part in the debriefing of the Kamel brothers--Saddam's in-laws--when they defected from Iraq in 1995 with conclusive evidence of a state-run concealment program for WMD facilities. Ekeus remembers being met by Zahawie when he first arrived in Baghdad to begin Iraq's post-1991 disarmament, and being told by him that, having met in the past as diplomats, they were now enemies.
"When I first heard that it was Zahawie who had been to Niger," he told me, "I thought well, then, that's it. Conclusive." I asked him if he would put his reasons in writing, and here they are:
In other words, Zahawie was no ordinary diplomat, and his background was well known to those who study these things. (In a correspondence with Zahawie elicited by what I wrote about him in Slate, he has confirmed to me his participation in those nuclear-related conferences.)
It may have occurred to you to ask--as the committee resolutely does not ask itself--why it was that such a man was posted to the Holy See, and why Saddam Hussein's ambassador to the Vatican was sent to a small West African country in February 1999. Well, in that year every other Iraqi embassy in Western Europe was closed, or downgraded to "interest section" level, and the Holy See was the only exception. As Ekeus added to me in his letter: "A resident ambassador in Rome was ideally placed to undertake discreet and sensitive missions, especially as he was fully plugged into the intricacies of nuclear weapons diplomacy."
How does Wissam al-Zahawie himself answer the question: What is a diplomat so senior--with or without nuclear experience--doing on a mission to a country to which he is not accredited? He has given two answers. On the nuclear issue, he stated to Hassan Fattah, then of Time magazine and now of the New York Times, that he did not know that Niger produced for export the only thing that it does produce for export, namely uranium "yellowcake." This claim I think we can safely describe as risibly untrue. Trying another tack, he now says that the purpose of his trip was to persuade Niger's president to break the U.N. embargo on official flights to Baghdad, and to pay a personal visit there. This only raises the same question in a different form. Why send Iraq's only fully accredited European ambassador such a long way on such a mission? And what were Saddam Hussein and the Nigerien president supposed to discuss if such a visit were to come off? The price of goats? Finally, it's worth noting that even the announced purpose of the visit was to circumvent U.N. sanctions, if only on a small matter.
Then there is the question of timing. In February 1999, when Zahawie's visit took place, Saddam Hussein had only just expelled the U.N. weapons inspectors from Iraqi soil, and had in consequence suffered a December 1998 bombing from the Clinton administration. Iraq has yellowcake of its own but had bought extra supplies from Niger as early as 1981: It might have seemed a propitious moment to resume contact with West Africa. And this in turn raises the question: Was Niger willing to entertain offers from Iraq, or from anyone else, for what was and is its only valuable commodity?
According to Mark Huband, the national security correspondent of the Financial Times, in an important front-page article he wrote on June 28, 2004, the consensus among European intelligence services was that Niger was attempting to deal in yellowcake with anyone it could find, from North Korea to Iran. According to documents recovered from Saddam Hussein's office, the president of Niger proposed himself for a visit to Iraq in June 1997 (thus incidentally proving that plans for such trips can be made without sending a Vatican-based ambassador several thousand miles from his base). And according to a new book entitled Shopping For Bombs, by the BBC's security correspondent Gordon Corera, another visitor to Niger in that very month of February 1999 was A.Q. Khan, whose black market in nuclear materials was then unknown outside a very small circle in his home country of Pakistan. According to a diary of the journey kept by Khan's associate Abu Bakr Siddiqui and obtained by Corera, "Niger has big uranium deposits." The next year, A.Q. Khan was back in Niger's capital. So we can say with some assurance that Niger's authorities (so briefly and so leniently investigated by Joseph Wilson) seem to have given at least the impression of being open for business. The notion that Niger was eager to pay "cash" for Iraqi oil is thus made even more dubious. Iraq had plenty of cash, as well as plenty of oil. Niger is cash-poor to say the very least. What currency, or medium of exchange, did it really have to offer in return?
Since the war in Iraq began, two independent British inquiries have firmly reiterated that the original intelligence concerning Niger was sound, and has withstood careful scrutiny. (The Senate Intelligence Committee does not even refer in a footnote to the findings of these inquiries.) The waters here have been slightly muddied by the production of a crudely forged document dated July 6, 2000, purporting to show Zahawie's seal on an actual agreement for the transfer of uranium. This easily discredited fabrication has allowed many people to dismiss the whole case. But such argument is purely anachronistic: The story of Zahawie's visit was known, and had been passed on by London to Washington, well before the bogus document was circulated. And it was never alleged in George W. Bush's famous 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq had actually inked a deal, only that it had "sought" to do so. If the forgery was intended as disinformation, it is one of the more successful such efforts on record. If it was done chiefly for money, as the London Sunday Times has reported of two employees of the Niger embassy in Rome, it has had much the same effect.
To summarize: The Senate report gives two versions of Zahawie's name without ever once mentioning his significant background. It takes at face value his absurd claim about the supposedly innocent motive for his out-of-the-way trip. It accepts similarly bland assurances made by the government of Niger. It is unaware of the appearance of A.Q. Khan in the narrative. It does not canvass the views of our allies, or of tried-and-tested experts like Ambassador Ekeus. It offers little evidence and no argument in support of its conclusions. It is a minor disgrace, but a disgrace nevertheless.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair.