There was a small but very important passage in Mohammad Elbaradei’s testimony on behalf of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency before the UNSC last week that cries out for further investigation: “With regard to uranium acquisition, the I.A.E.A. has made progress in its investigation into reports that Iraq sought to buy uranium from Niger in recent years. This investigation was centered on documents provided by a number of states that pointed to an agreement between Niger and Iraq for the sale of uranium between 1999 and 2001.
“The I.A.E.A. has discussed these reports with the governments of Iraq and Niger, both of which have denied that any such activity took place. For its part, Iraq has provided the I.A.E.A. with a comprehensive explanation of its relations with Niger and has described a visit by an Iraqi official to a number of African countries, including Niger, in February 1999, which Iraq thought might have given rise to the reports.
“The I.A.E.A. was able to review correspondence coming from various bodies of the government of Niger and to compare the form, format, contents and signature of that correspondence with those of the alleged procurement-related documentation. Based on thorough analysis, the I.A.E.A. has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents, which formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transaction between Iraq and Niger, are in fact not authentic. We have therefore concluded that these specific allegations are unfounded.”
On Saturday, March 8th, the Washington Post reported under the headline “Some Evidence on Iraq Called Fake” that the documents in question had been given to the U.N. inspectors by the British Government and “reviewed extensively by U.S. intelligence.” The documents were then forwarded to the I.A.E.A. by the U.S. Government, an action clearly implying that in Washington’s opinion they constituted reliable intelligence. A similar stamp of authenticity must have been implied in the case of the British Government’s actions. Such is certainly the impression that would be gained by the United Nations recipients, knowing that the documents had been “reviewed extensively” by U.S. intelligence experts. However, after the I.A.E.A. determined through its own “outside experts” that the documents were bogus, the U.S. and British governments were reluctantly compelled to acknowledge that they had both been the victims of an elaborate deception operation. One unnamed (but hopefully red-faced) U.S. official was honest enough to admit to Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick that “We fell for it.” In a curious display of unwarranted courtesy, an I.A.E.A. spokesman graciously informed the Washington Post that his agency did not blame either Britain or the United States for the forgery. The documents “were shared with us in good faith”, he said.
The following questions immediately occur to anyone with experience in the area of covert technical operations (“Department of Dirty Tricks”), and to everyone else with a modicum of common sense:
1. The fabrication of false documentation, especially what purports to be official correspondence between the agencies of two different governments, is a major undertaking for any professional intelligence service or criminal enterprise. This is obviously most true when the perpetrator intends to accomplish an extremely important purpose and so anticipates that his work will be carefully scrutinized by competent experts. The job requires extensive and time-consuming research, reasonably advanced technical skills, and a high level of motivation. It would not be attempted by anyone whose intentions were frivolous. All of these factors would be accentuated in a case such as this, where the political costs of exposure of deliberate fraud would be very high.
2. Unless accomplished with a high degree of skill, the counterfeit quality of the documents in this case should have been quickly obvious to the British and American intelligence services, and the contents should have been dismissed immediately as a trivial diversion. Surprisingly, however, according to the Washington Post story, the forgeries contained “relatively crude errors” that gave them away. This clearly points to one or the other of two possible conclusions:
a. The technical services departments of MI-6 and CIA (historically reputed to be credible rivals to the KGB and Israel’s Mossad for technical sophistication) are in fact incompetent. If they manufactured the forgeries themselves, they did a careless and clumsy job. On the other hand, if they merely evaluated the authenticity of the documents as a means of determining whether the information contained therein was valuable intelligence for their own governments, they obviously showed an equally appalling lack of professional skill. They “fell for it”, we are informed.
b. The only other explanation that I can think of is that the British and American intelligence services, despite having figured out that the documents were crude forgeries, nevertheless decided to pass the information to the U.N. inspectors anyway, knowing that they would serve conveniently to mislead the I.A.E.A. into thinking that this was documentary evidence supporting US-UK claims that Iraq has made illegal attempts to acquire nuclear resources. (Of course, intelligence services can be incredibly obtuse sometimes. Note the recent public admission by the British that the famous “dossier” of evidence against Iraq, glowingly praised by Colin Powell in his testimony to the Security Council, consisted mainly of hearsay plagiarized from the work of a California graduate student.)
3. Somebody has engaged in the criminal act of manufacturing false evidence. If it has been done once, it may well have been done before. The issues under consideration are matters of war and peace, life and death for perhaps thousands of people. How much more despicable could a crime be? And yet our government and that of Great Britain seem more bemused than concerned. Shouldn’t Congress be alarmed that our intelligence service, on which we are so dependent these days, is so incompetent or so inured to the corruption of the national intelligence process as to tolerate the deliberate or careless introduction of false evidence into a process so critically important to our national security and to the credibility of the United States? Those responsible for this humiliating fiasco should be exposed and discredited — for the good of our country.
4. The Washington Post story is also a testament to the flaccid quality of American investigative journalism these days. It apparently never occurred to any reporter how important it would be to know exactly who it was that forged the documents in the first place. Here was an organized effort to spread extremely significant disinformation to at least two governments, and through them to the Security Council of the United Nations, that might have a direct influence on a momentous decision about war and peace.
5. Immediately, a host of other specific questions come to mind. Who were the “outside experts” consulted by the I.A.E.A. who correctly spotted the falsity of the Iraq-Niger correspondence (and exposed the incompetence of MI-6 and CIA in the process)? Were they governments, or private agencies? Where located? By whom controlled?
Elbaradei reported that these documents were provided to the I.A.E.A. by “a number of states.” Very interesting. Any other government besides the British and American? Did “a number of states” provide identical counterfeit documents to the U.N. inspectors, representing those documents as reliable “intelligence”? Did each of those states originally obtain the documents from the same source? When the information was passed by the British and Americans to the United Nations, was the original source identified? Or did MI-6 and CIA claim the necessity to protect “sensitive sources and methods”. (Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn that in this case that same familiar claim was made? What would that do to the credibility of other intelligence provided by us to the United Nations? This is not a trivial question. If the United States is accused of either careless indifference or deliberate corruption in matters of this import, what does that do to our reputation and to our image as “leader of the free world”? Or is Brady Kiesling right — it only matters that others fear our power?
It would make no sense to suppose that a neutral or non-governmental entity would go to the trouble and expense of falsifying documentation and then convincing “a number of states” to deliver that evidence to the I.A.E.A. Quite clearly, the more one thinks about this intrigue, the more obvious it becomes that someone was responsible for a deliberate intelligence disinformation campaign targeting the United Nations with an aim toward padding the evidence supporting an American-British invasion of Iraq. That is a world-class criminal act, a felony of historic proportions, by any definition.
We should not let it be swept under the carpet.
Ray Close was a CIA analyst in the Near East division. He can be reached at: email@example.com.