Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 31, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK....Since I've written a couple of posts about Joe Wilson recently, I decided a few days ago to read the entire Niger section of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report to make sure I knew everything they had said about him. As it turns out, there are only a couple of paragraphs about discrepancies in Wilson's testimony, and since those paragraphs have already been reproduced a thousand times in the mainstream media I didn't learn anything new.

However, it turns out that there is a pretty good story buried in there about how CIA analysis works or doesn't. It takes a while to get to the punch line, but it's worth it. The timeline begins just four weeks after 9/11:

  • October 15, 2001: The CIA receives a report from a "foreign government service" the Italians saying that Niger had signed a deal to ship several tons of uranium to Iraq.

  • February 5, 2002: The CIA receives a second report from the Italians. This report claims to contain the "verbatim text" of the agreement, which calls for Niger to ship 500 tons of yellowcake per year to Iraq.

Time passes. Dick Cheney learns about the report and asks for more information. The CIA sends Joe Wilson to Niger to check things out. He reports back that a deal between Niger and Iraq is very unlikely. The Italians continue to say that their source is reliable. The State Department is skeptical.

The CIA publishes a National Intelligence Estimate saying that there are "reports" of Iraq trying to procure uranium. The State Department objects, but due to a weird drafting snafu their dissent ends up in the wrong section of the NIE.

The deputy director of the CIA, testifying before Congress, is asked about British reports of Iraqi uranium procurement from Africa and says "we don't think they are very credible." The president plans to give a speech in Cincinnati mentioning the African uranium, but the CIA suggests the passage be removed. George Tenet personally calls the White House to tell them the "reporting is weak." Despite this, references to Iraqi attempts to buy uranium continue to show up in CIA documents.

We now move on to....

  • October 11, 2002: An Italian journalist provides the U.S. embassy in Rome with copies of the actual documents showing a deal between Niger and Iraq. The embassy sends the documents to both the CIA and INR (the State Department's intelligence arm).

  • October 15, 2002: The INR Iraq nuclear analyst immediately emails other intelligence analysts offering to provide copies of the documents at a meeting already scheduled for the next day. The INR analyst is suspicious of the purported agreement because "it bears a funky Emb. of Niger stamp" and because a companion document mentions a military campaign against major world powers that includes both Iran and Iraq and is being orchestrated through the Nigerien embassy in Rome.

    The INR analyst dryly suggests that this is "completely implausible."

  • October 16, 2002: The intelligence folks have their scheduled meeting. The documents are handed out to everyone. The CIA rep takes a copy, files it away, and promptly forgets it exists.

And now for the punch line. Why did the CIA analysts not even bother to look at these documents? Because "they believed that the foreign government service reporting was verbatim text and did not think it would advance the story on the alleged uranium deal."

Got that? They just assumed that the original report was a verbatim transcript so they didn't bother looking at the documents themselves despite the fact that INR had already alerted them that the text and formatting of the source documents made them suspect.

That's some high quality analysis there. And we all know the rest of the story: three months later George Bush included the uranium story in his State of the Union address despite the fact that (a) INR had said two weeks previously in an email that the documents were "clearly a forgery," (b) the CIA didn't think British reporting on this issue was "credible," and (c) the uranium reporting from elsewhere in Africa was both old and "fragmentary."

Remember this the next time you hear about a CIA report. This is the same agency that decided not to bother looking at original source documents in the Niger uranium fiasco because they just assumed there wouldn't be anything new in them. And it turns out that without the evidence of those documents, the conclusion of the CIA (five months after the State of the Union address) was that "we no longer believe...that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad."

Your tax dollars at work.

Kevin Drum 5:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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