Robert Novak today has a column crowing about the Senate intel committee report with respect to Joe Wilson and the Niger matter. Nonetheless, he still manages to misstate its findings.
At the head of Novak's column he says that committee Democrats "did not dissent from the committee's findings that Iraq apparently asked about buying yellowcake uranium from Niger."
Dissenting from this finding would admittedly have been a challenge since this is not in fact what the Report said.
As this article by Doyle McManus in today's Los Angeles Times notes, "the committee found that the CIA's statement, in a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, was reasonable' at the time. The committee added, however, that the evidence behind the assertion turned out to be weak, and charged that the CIA failed to make that clear to policymakers."
The truth is that we simply don't know whether the Iraqis ever 'sought' uranium in Niger or Africa in the years leading up to the war, though all the evidence we thought we had for such a claim has turned out to be baseless. (There remains the Brits' evidence which they stand by yet won't disclose, and we'll address that later.) And part of the uncertainty is based on the capaciousness of the term. 'Sought' can mean a lot of things -- everything from purchases and active negotiations to vague feelers which might have been intended to lay the groundwork for later attempted purchases.
One bit of evidence that weighs heavily against such claims that Iraq was hunting about looking for a uranium seller in the years just before the war is the simple fact that Iraq seems -- after a rather intense investigation -- not to have had any active nuclear program, thus rather diminishing the need to go around trying to buy uranium, with all the risks that would involve.
Even that doesn't entirely settle the question, though.
As a very knowledgable intelligence source pointed out to me recently, one of the things the Iraq Survey Group found was that from time to time Saddam would call aside this or that scientist or general and ask something to the effect of, 'If we had to, how long would it take us to restart this or that WMD program?'
(Beneath this there is an even further debate and question as to whether Saddam himself knew the extent of the decrepitude of his own army or just how shuttered his WMD programs were.)
My source's recollection was that the particular instances of this that the Survey Group found related to chemical weapons. But it's not inconceivable that Saddam might at some point have asked a similar question on the nuclear front. And that could explain why Iraq -- which had no active nuclear program -- might nevertheless have put out feelers about the possibilities of uranium purchases.
In any case, this is all theoretical or rather hypothetical -- speculation in the absence of any evidence. One point worth noting is that the Senate Report said the Niger uranium judgment was 'reasonable' as of September 2002 -- the time of the authorship of the NIE.
That was just before the forged documents came into possession of the United States. However, the main evidence that the US had at the time -- that which presumably made the judgment 'reasonable' -- was pair of reports the US had gotten from the Italian intelligence service, SISMI. And as later became clear, those reports were based on the forged documents. In other words, the evidence that made the claim 'reasonable' later turned out to be bogus.
One other point that deserves mention: quite a bit has been made about the portion of the SSCI Report that says that Wilson's wife recommended him for the assignment. As a matter of substance, who recommended Wilson is irrelevant. Yet, Wilson's credibility would be undermined if he said X were true, when in fact he knew Y was the case. The LAT article notes that Plame's bosses at the CIA continue to insist that the idea to send Wilson was not hers, but rather theirs. The Times quotes a 'senior intelligence official' saying that "Her bosses say she did not initiate the idea of her husband goingâ¦. They asked her if he'd be willing to go, and she said yes."
What the truth of it is, I don't know. But the larger hullabaloo over this secondary point is simply intended to distract attention from the administration's persistent attempt to use weak and ultimately discredited information to muscle the country into war on a timetable which had precious little to do with preventing any sort of standing threat to the United States.