CHENEY WAS BUSH’S TRIGGER MAN
IN ESCALATING INTELLIGENCE ROW
by Gordon Thomas
Vice President Dick Cheney was the trigger which exploded the long-simmering war between the White House and the CIA’s embattled director, George Tenet.
He ordered Tenet last January to insert the now notorious sixteen words that there was “credible” British intelligence that Saddam had tried in 2001 to buy uranium ore (yellowcake) from Niger, the impoverished West African nation.
Three months before, in October 2002, Tenet had personally intervened to stop President Bush from making such a claim in a speech that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Tenet told Bush he could not support the claim. When Cheney told him last January about the “credible” British intelligence, Tenet repeated his warning that the CIA could not endorse it. In what one account says was a “tense meeting”, Cheney bluntly overruled the CIA director.
The Vice-President’s action has cast a deepening shadow over British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to Washington this weekend. He is to address Congress as well as visiting President Bush. The occasion is meant to honour Blair’s steadfast support for Bush over the war with Iraq. On the surface all will be smiles and glad-handing.
Behind the scenes there will be a febrile atmosphere – and barely concealed anger.
Bush feels Britain’s intelligence services, MI6 and MI5, have not kept the CIA properly informed. Blair insists his spy agencies could not pass on more information on the Niger yellowcake because, according to a London Foreign Office officer, “under the rules governing co-operation they have with foreign intelligence services, our service could not share intelligence from those sources without the originator’s permission”.
This impasse has created a deep anger between the CIA, MI6 and MI5. A British official at its embassy in Washington said “the CIA has been dumping on everybody and everybody is dumping on the CIA”.
A Bush administration official described Blair’s visit as “fallout time. Not finding WMD was always going to make his visit a time for plain speaking. To echo the president’s liking for a Texan example, this could be shoot-out time at the White House corral”.
More certain is that the intelligence fallout from the Iraq war is now the most serious rift in transatlantic secret relations since the post World War Two scandal of the British atom spies who stole US nuclear secrets for the Soviet Union.
“We don’t believe for a moment that Tenet just fell on his own sword. What happened has all the hallmark of Dick Cheney”, said an MI6 source close to the agency’s director-general, Sir Richard Dearlove.
The reverberations have led to calls in London for Blair to resign – and efforts by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to bring closure to the row on the eve of his own departure from the Administration.
Clare Short, who resigned from Blair’s cabinet over Britain going to war “on a false pretence”, said Blair “should now resign before matters get nastier for him. Trust in him and Bush is going down by the day”.
How all this happened is one of the most shocking stories to emerge in the post Iraq war inquest.
The complex story has simple roots. In November, 2001, Italian secret service agents were approached by a West African diplomat. He said he had details of a plot by the Iraqis to buy “hundreds of tons” of uranium ore from Niger. He produced supporting documents.
On the surface, the claim sounded credible. Iraq had already purchased 200 tons of yellowcake from Niger in 1986. The Italians told the CIA station in Rome. The station chief sent a detailed report to Langley, including the documents the African diplomat had provided.
The material was sent to the State Department. The US ambassador in Niger, Barbara Owens-Kirkpatrick, was asked to assess all the material.
But while she was doing so, Dick Cheney intervened. He told a senior diplomat, Joseph Wilson – who had first-hand knowledge of Niger – that he wanted him to go there and investigate the claims.
By the time he arrived, Owens-Kirkpatrick had dismissed the documents as “crude forgeries” – and the African diplomat’s claims to the Italians as “pure fantasy”.
Wilson concurred. His own investigation showed that Niger’s security on yellowcake – introduced after Saddam’s previous purchase – was too rigorous for any Iraqi attempt to purchase uranium ore to have gone undetected.
In March, 2002, Wilson briefed Tenet. He passed on Wilson’s findings to his British counterpart, Sir Richard Dearlove of MI6. He informed the head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, and John Scarlett, the former spy who now chairs Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee. His job is to know anything that can be known about Saddam Hussein and his WMD.
On September 24 last year, Tony Blair published his government’s dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It included the claim “Iraq has sought the supply of significant amounts of uranium from Africa”.
It did not say when – let alone this had been in the 1980s. Neither was Niger mentioned. But to Wilson it was “obvious this was the same story as in the discredited documents”.
There the matter may have died as far as the White House went if Bush had not wanted to include the details in his October speech of last year.
Having headed him off, Tenet believed the bogus Niger connection was over. But then Dick Cheney made his fateful visit to Langley last January to demand that Tenet should allow the Niger story to form part of Bush’s State of the Union speech.
Tenet, say credible sources, was horrified. He reminded Cheney that both ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick and Joseph Wilson had totally refuted any Niger connection.
Cheney was insistent. There was credible evidence from British intelligence. He cited the Blair report. He reminded Tenet of Saddam’s previous acquisition of yellowcake in the 1980s.
Tenet had explained Niger had no capability to enrich uranium ore – the basic prerequisite to producing a nuclear bomb. He added that, after the first Gulf War ended, UN inspectors had destroyed Saddam’s essential equipment that could turn the ore into fissionable material.
The CIA was certain that Iraq had not been able to replenish the equipment. Tenet also reminded Cheney he had personally intervened to stop Bush including the “Niger story” in his speech three months before, in October 2002.
Cheney, according to one CIA source, “came close to critical mass”.
He told Tenet that Condoleeza Rice, the National Security Advisor, had now received “good intelligence” from London that Saddam HAD tried to buy uranium ore from Niger in 2001. Therefore that would go into the State of the Union Speech – and Tenet must accept the British intelligence.
“The clear implication from Cheney was that the Brits knew more than we did”, said the CIA source.
Last week, President Bush, travelling back from his African trip, told reporters that Tenet had “cleared” the reference to Niger.
Rice went further: “if the CIA director had said take this out, it would have gone, without question”.
Tenet did say that. Cheney overruled him – once more citing the British “credible sources”. So who were they?
There are two. The French secret service, DGSE, and Mossad.
Both have a strong presence in West Africa. Niger is a former French colony. Israel receives a substantial portion of its oil from adjoining Nigeria.
Niger’s uranium mines are run by a French company which is supervised by the French Atomic Energy Commission.
In London, MI6 insists the evidence from these sources remains “credible”.
UK intel sources say that “a further factor is the refusal to share its information about Niger with the CIA is concern that the White House would publish it – and lead to our sources being uncovered”, said London source.
On his trip to London this week to meet Blair, Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon was accompanied by Meir Dagan, head of Mossad. He met Sir Richard Dearlove and Eliza Manningham-Buller.
High on their list was the Niger uranium claim. No one still knows if the French/Mossad intelligence is credible.
Did Mossad provide it as part of Israel’s own strategy to ramp-up the war against Iraq?
Did French intelligence refuse to allow the CIA to see its own intelligence because the Paris government was strongly opposed to the coming war with Iraq – and would not wish to provide Washington with any support for military action?
These questions will form part of the answers Bush will be seeking from Blair this weekend.
But there is little optimism that there will be resolution to a growing crisis which has already blighted the leadership of both men.
ends - 15/7/3