Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Uranium in Niger

The leak in the Plame investigation has caused the uranium claims to return to the news. However, the media continues to miss the central point in the uranium dispute. The key point in Joe Wilson's original 7/6/2003 New York Times article (archive) was that Niger's operational mines were secure.
Given the structure of the consortiums that operated the mines, it would be exceedingly difficult for Niger to transfer uranium to Iraq. Niger's uranium business consists of two mines, Somair and Cominak, which are run by French, Spanish, Japanese, German and Nigerian interests. If the government wanted to remove uranium from a mine, it would have to notify the consortium, which in turn is strictly monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Moreover, because the two mines are closely regulated, quasi-governmental entities, selling uranium would require the approval of the minister of mines, the prime minister and probably the president. In short, there's simply too much oversight over too small an industry for a sale to have transpired.
At the end Wilson queries:
The question now is how that answer was or was not used by our political leadership. If my information was deemed inaccurate, I understand (though I would be very interested to know why).
We would not find out until a year later that his information was inaccurate. Or more precisely, it was completely irrelevant. In Mark Huband's 6/28/2004 article in the Financial Times (archive) we learn that the uranium was to be smuggled from abandoned mines.
Intelligence officers learned between 1999 and 2001 that uranium smugglers planned to sell illicitly mined Nigerien uranium ore, or refined ore called yellow cake, to Iran, Libya, China, North Korea and Iraq.

According to a senior counter-proliferation official, meetings between Niger officials and would-be buyers from the five countries were held in several European countries, including Italy. Intelligence officers were convinced that the uranium would be smuggled from abandoned mines in Niger, thereby circumventing official export controls. "The sources were trustworthy. There were several sources, and they were reliable sources," an official involved in the European intelligence gathering operation said.

The dispute is between operational and abandoned uranium mines. The British intelligence behind the "16 words" was that uranium would be acquired from abandoned mines while Wilson checked the security of operational mines. Wilson's trip did not debunk anything. Perhaps it should have occurred to him that since the black market price of uranium is significantly higher than the regulated market price he should have checked out the abandoned uranium mines.

The old 7/12/2004 Christopher Hitchens demolition of Wilson's claims is also worth rereading.


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