On the October 17 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke falsely claimed that now-discredited reports of Iraq's alleged effort to acquire uranium from Niger "was never one of the major arguments that the Bush administration used for going to war with Iraq." But in fact, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (also known as the Robb-Silberman Commission) reported in March that the infamous "16 words" from President's Bush's January 28, 2003, State of the Union address -- "The British government has learned Saddam Hussein has recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" -- were a reference to the unfounded Niger claim. Versions of this claim were repeated frequently by various members of the Bush administration in the run-up to war.
In addition, Kondracke claimed that the findings reported by former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who raised doubts about the Niger claim after traveling there on behalf of the CIA in February 2002, were "never accepted by anybody." But while the CIA interpreted Wilson's findings as confirmation of Iraq's supposed efforts to acquire uranium from Niger, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) interpreted his findings as confirmation that the Niger claim was not credible. The CIA reversed its position in July 2003 when then-Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet agreed that the claim should not have been included in the president's speech.
As the Robb-Silberman Commission noted in its report to the president, the Intelligence Community's October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) claimed that "Iraq [was] vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake," a statement that, according to the commission, "was based largely on reporting from a foreign government intelligence service that Niger planned to send up to 500 tons of yellowcake uranium to Iraq." (The NIE also included a vaguer claim that the commission apparently did not consider to be a major factor in the NIE's assessment that Iraq was seeking uranium from abroad: "Reports indicate Iraq also has sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo.")
The British government apparently reached a similar conclusion in a September 24, 2002, dossier detailing Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction programs. The dossier stated, "As a result of the intelligence we judge that Iraq has ... sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite having no active civil nuclear power programme that could require it."
However, a separate section of the October 2002 NIE noted INR's alternative assessment that "the claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa" were "highly dubious."
An August 8, 2003, Washington Post report noted that "the White House has said that it was an unnamed speechwriter who reviewed [the NIE] on Iraq and perhaps a British intelligence dossier and came up with the 16-word sentence that Bush delivered" in the State of the Union address. The Robb-Silberman Commission subsequently found that the president's claim that Iraq sought uranium from Africa was a reference to the "alleged agreement for the sale of uranium yellowcake from Niger to Iraq."
Contrary to Kondracke's assertion that the president's unfounded Niger claim "was never one of the major arguments that the Bush administration used for going to war," the August 8, 2003, Post article noted that by the time the president delivered the State of the Union address on January 28, 2003, "that same allegation was already part of an administration campaign to win domestic and international support for invading Iraq." The Post noted that a January 20 Bush administration report to Congress claimed that in filing a 12,000-page declaration about its weapons programs, Iraq failed to inform the United Nations about its alleged "attempts to acquire uranium and the means to enrich it." Similarly, a publicly distributed January 23 White House report titled "What Does Disarmament Look Like?" charged that Iraq failed to disclose "efforts to procure uranium from abroad."
The Post -- along with a July 28, 2003, article by Dennis Hans that appeared on the Common Dreams website -- further noted that high-ranking administration officials made similar claims in support of the war:
- A December 19, 2002, "fact sheet" produced by the State Department's Bureau of Public Affairs claimed that the Iraqi declaration "ignores efforts to procure uranium from Niger" and asked, "Why is the Iraqi regime hiding their uranium procurement?" This assertion by the State Department's communications arm apparently contradicted the department's own intelligence assessment that the claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger was "highly dubious."
- In a January 23, 2003, New York Times op-ed, then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice claimed that Iraq "filed a false declaration to the United Nations" that "fails to account for or explain Iraq's efforts to get uranium from abroad."
- On January 23, 2003, then-deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz claimed in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that Iraq's declaration contained "no mention of Iraqi efforts to procure uranium from abroad."
- On January 26, 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered an address to the World Economic Forum in which he asked: "Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium and the special equipment needed to transform it into material for nuclear weapons?"
- At a January 29, 2003, press conference, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed that Saddam's "regime has the design for a nuclear weapon; it was working on several different methods of enriching uranium, and recently was discovered seeking significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
- In a February 16 Chicago Tribune op-ed, then-deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley wrote: "With its trained nuclear scientists and a weapons design, all Saddam Hussein lacks is the necessary plutonium or enriched uranium. Iraq has an active procurement program. According to British intelligence, the regime has tried to acquire natural uranium from abroad."
On Special Report, Kondracke also claimed -- falsely -- that Wilson's report on his findings "was never accepted by anybody." As Media Matters for America has noted, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded in a 2004 report that the CIA interpreted Wilson's Niger findings as confirmation of its assessment at that time that Saddam had sought uranium in Africa. However, the committee also concluded that the INR interpreted Wilson's report as confirmation of its competing "assessment that Niger was unlikely to be willing or able to sell uranium to Iraq." In addition, the committee concluded that, based on the intelligence available at the time, INR was correct in its assessment that there was not a "compelling case" that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program:
After reviewing all the intelligence provided by the Intelligence Community and additional information requested by the Committee, the Committee believes that the judgment in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, was not supported by the intelligence. The Committee agrees with the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) alternative view that the available intelligence "does not add up to a compelling case for reconstitution."
The CIA later repudiated its assessment of the Niger allegation; Tenet publicly stated in July 2003 that "[t]hese 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the President."
From the October 17 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
KONDRACKE: The New York Times is not the only place where everybody must regret. I mean, the White House must regret -- here they've spent all this energy, apparently, trying to discredit Joe Wilson, who went off and did this thing in Niger. The Joe Wilson report was nothing. It was never written down on paper. It was never accepted by anybody. But just a second, just a second, just a second. And it was not -- it was not weapons -- uranium in Niger was never one of the major arguments that the Bush administration used for going to war with Iraq.