Sunday, December 11, 2005

No Niger Uranium Sales to Iraq France Repeatedly Told the US Before Bush Lied About It

Los Angeles Times:

PARIS — More than a year before President Bush declared in his State of the Union speech that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear weapons material in Africa, the French spy service began repeatedly warning the CIA in secret communications that there was no evidence to support the allegation.

The previously undisclosed exchanges between the U.S. and the French, described by the retired chief of the French counter-intelligence service and a former CIA official during interviews last week, came on separate occasions in 2001 and 2002.

The French conclusions were reached after extensive on-the-ground investigations in Niger and other former French colonies, where the uranium mines are controlled by French companies, the official said. He said the French investigated at the CIA's request.

The account of the former intelligence official, Alain Chouet, was "at odds with our understanding of the issue," a U.S. government official said. The U.S. official declined to elaborate and spoke only on condition that neither he nor his agency be named.

However, the essence of Chouet's account — that the French repeatedly investigated the Niger claim, found no evidence to support it and warned the CIA — was extensively corroborated by a former CIA official and a French government official.

The repeated warnings from France's Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure, DGSE, did not prevent the Bush administration from making the case aggressively that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons materials.

It was not the first time a foreign government tried but failed to warn U.S. officials off of dubious prewar intelligence. In the "Curveball" case, an Iraqi who defected to Germany claimed to have knowledge of Iraq's biological weapons. Bush and other U.S. officials cited Curveball's claims even as German intelligence officials argued that he was unstable, unreliable and incorrect.

The French opposed U.S. policy on Iraq and refused to support the invasion. But whether or not that made top U.S. officials skeptical of the French report on Niger, intelligence officials from both countries said they cooperated closely during the prewar period. And the French conclusions on Niger were supported by some in the CIA.

The CIA requested French assistance in 2001 and 2002 because French firms dominate the uranium business internationally and former French colonies lead the world in production of the strategic mineral.

French officials were particularly sensitive to the assertion about Iraq trying to obtain nuclear materials given the role that French companies play in uranium mining in France's former colonies.

"In France, we've always been very careful about both problems of uranium production in Niger and Iraqi attempts to get uranium from Africa," Chouet said. "After the first Gulf War, we were very cautious with that problem as the French government didn't care to be accused of maintaining relations with Saddam in that field."

The French-U.S. communications were detailed to the Los Angeles Times last week by Chouet, who directed a 700-person intelligence unit specializing in weapon proliferation and terrorism. Chouet said the cautions from his agency grew more emphatic over time as the Bush administration bolstered the case for invading Iraq by arguing that Saddam had sought to build a nuclear arsenal using uranium from Niger.

Chouet recalled that his agency was contacted by the CIA in the summer of 2001 — shortly before the attacks of Sept. 11 — as intelligence services in Europe and North America became more concerned about chatter from known terrorist sympathizers. CIA officials asked their French counterparts to check that uranium in Niger and elsewhere was secure. The former CIA official confirmed Chouet's account of this exchange.

Then twice in 2002, Chouet said the CIA contacted DGSE again for similar help.