The Bush administration is caught in a scandal of almost
unprecedented dimensions over the justifications that it and Great
Britain gave for going to war against Iraq. Call it the "yellow cake
scandal." It goes to the core of whether Saddam Hussein was trying
to produce nuclear weapons, thus posing a threat to the United
States and Great Britain, which would justify war.
It goes to a charge by President Bush that Iraq was trying to
build a nuclear arsenal in which Bush used evidence his
administration now acknowledges was no good. The President's people
are now saying he was given bad information by the Central
Intelligence Agency, but it is worth recalling that in the campaign
for a war against Iraq, intelligence sources consistently complained
the White House was manipulating intelligence to build support for
"Yellow cake" is the nickname of uranium oxide, a component of
nuclear weapons. It is produced, among other places, in two mines
(Somair and Cominak) in the west African state of Niger. Working
those mines is an international consortium composed of French,
Spanish, Japanese, German and Nigerien interests. They, in turn, are
closely monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
to ensure that no dangerous materials are diverted to unauthorized
In late 2001, a rumor circulated that the government of Iraq was
trying to buy yellow cake. In the shadowy world of espionage, it is
still unclear who started the rumor. What is known is that some
individuals or an organization forged documents to cast blame on
The documents were appallingly crude. The letterhead on one
document was obviously transplanted from some other, presumably
genuine, paper; the signature of the president of Niger was copied;
and, most telling of all, one signature was supposedly written by a
minister who had been out of office for over a decade.
How these documents reached the British and American governments
is also obscure. One story has them acquired by Italian agents and
passed to the British intelligence agency (MI6), which passed them
to the CIA.
When the documents reached the CIA, officials apparently
concluded that, despite the papers' obvious faults, the subject they
addressed was too important to be neglected. So, in early 2002, the
CIA asked a retired American ambassador with 23 years of experience
on African affairs (and who had been stationed in Niger in the
1970s) to investigate.
Ambassador Joseph Wilson, now a business consultant, agreed to
fly to Niger to attempt to find out what was behind the story. He
has described his experiences and conclusions in articles in The New
York Times and the Financial Times.
When Wilson arrived in Niamey, the Nigerien capital, he consulted
with the current U.S. ambassador, Barbra Owens-Kirkpatrick, and the
embassy staff for whom everything relating to uranium was top
priority. They told him that the story was well known and that they
had already "debunked" it in reports to Washington. Then, as Wilson
writes, "I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and
meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former
government officials, people associated with the country's uranium
business." They uniformly and formally "denied the charges." The
Returning to Washington in early March 2002, Wilson reported to
the CIA and to the Bureau of African Affairs of the Department of
State that, although he had not been shown the documents themselves,
he was sure that "there's simply too much oversight over too small
an industry for a sale [outside controlled channels] to have
transpired." Too many people would have had to give approval and
even more would have known about the diversion of uranium. Moreover,
since it would have violated UN sanctions, a diversion would have
attracted a great deal of notice. In short, he concluded, the
transaction did not take place.
In his Op-Ed article in The New York Times last Sunday, Wilson
revealed "there should be at least four documents in United States
government archives confirming my mission. The documents should
include the ambassador's report of my debriefing in Niamey, a
separate report written by the embassy staff, a CIA report summing
up my trip, and a specific answer from the agency to the office of
the vice president (this may have been delivered orally)."
The CIA has confirmed that its account of the matter was
distributed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense
Intelligence Agency in the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the
FBI and the office of Vice President Cheney.
His task, Ambassador Wilson concluded, had been accomplished:
"the Niger matter was settled and [so I] went back to my life."
Despite this negative report, however, senior officials of the
Bush administration continued to stress the nuclear threat from
Iraq. In a speech in Nashville on August 26, 2002, Vice President
Dick Cheney warned of a Saddam "armed with an arsenal of these
weapons of terror" who could "directly threaten America's friends
throughout the region and subject the United States or any other
nation to nuclear blackmail."
The next month, in September 2002, Wilson was surprised to learn
that the British government had published a "dossier" or white paper
on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that included the yellow cake
story. Assuming this meant that the CIA had not shared with MI6 the
results of his investigation, Wilson called his contact at the CIA
to suggest that he warn his British counterparts the materials were
Wilson assumed that there was another source for the speech
President Bush made on October 7, 2002, in Cincinnati in which he
warned that "The Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten
America and the world with horrible poisons and diseases and gasses
and atomic weapons." But then, on January 28, 2003, he was
astonished to hear Bush in the State of the Union address pin his
warnings on Saddam Hussein's possession of atomic weapons to the
yellow cake story. Bush declared that "the British government has
learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities
of uranium from Africa."
To make its case at the United Nations, the American government
turned over the yellow cake documents to the Security Council. When
they were examined by the IAEA, its director, Mohamed El-Baradei,
informed the Security Council they were fake.
How could the U.S. government not have known? Condoleezza Rice,
director of the staff of the National Security Council, replied on
Meet the Press. "Maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the
[Central Intelligence] Agency, but no one in our circles knew that
there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery."
At least as early as February 2003, all the decision makers in
the Bush administration as well as the general public knew that at
least this part of the rationale for the invasion of Iraq was based
on forged documents, but this did nothing to deter the U.S. military
Almost more astonishing, as late as June 25, 2003, Britain was
still insisting in Parliament that it stood by reports that Iraq had
been trying to buy yellow cake. Finally, on July 7, the White House
acknowledged that the story was a hoax.
Should that put an end to the story? No.
As some critics of the Bush administration have pointed out, when
President Bill Clinton lied about an illicit sex affair, he was
subjected to a major investigation by half a hundred lawyers and was
nearly impeached. President Nixon was forced to resign over the
Watergate break-in and President Reagan was been closely questioned
over the Iran-Contra scandal.
Important as these scandals were, their significance pales in
comparison to launching a war in which hundreds of Americans have
died in Iraq and thousands of Iraqis have been killed while their
country has been left in a shambles. The United States initially
spent nearly $100 billion on the war and is committed to far larger
outlays to repair what it destroyed.
It is unlikely that many in America will accept as the last word
the president's explanation Friday: "I gave a speech to the nation
that was cleared by the intelligence services. And it was a speech
that detailed to the American people the dangers posed by the Saddam
Hussein regime. And my government took the appropriate response to
those dangers. And as a result, the world is going to be more secure
and more peaceful."
History will judge the truth of that assertion, sooner, perhaps,
than the Bush administration would wish.
William R. Polk was a Member of the Policy Planning Council in
the administrations of President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
He has written widely on American policy and international affairs.
He is now a director of the W.P. Carey Foundation.