A hidden report, and history repeating itself

The State Department has yet to release a 2003 report that shows John Bolton's role in bad intelligence that led to the Iraq war. He may be doing the same thing with Iran.

“We assure you that we will notify you as soon as an EDC has been determined in your case,” the unnamed government official wrote to me last week.

An EDC is an estimated date of completion, in this case for a Freedom of Information Act request I filed last March that seeks a government report about the faulty intelligence that led us into the Iraq war — a report that was written 16 years ago for a war we’re still in.

The report details the false intelligence claiming Iraq had sought uranium from the north African country of Niger. It has never been publicly released. More important than my petty FOIA beef  — considering how loudly the drums of war have been beating in recent weeks — the report looks at John Bolton’s role in pushing that bad intel, something he may be currently doing in regards to Iran, a country he has wanted to bomb for years.

Last week, House Democrats demanded information on a report that was posted and quickly removed from the State Department’s website claiming Iran is not complying with arms control agreements. The situation has downright eerie similarities to the events of 16 years ago, when a State Department “fact sheet” was posted on the agency’s website claiming Iraq had sought uranium from Niger to pursue a nuclear weapons program.

It was the first public claim by the US government that Iraq was seeking weapons of mass destruction, but what has never been clear is Bolton’s exact role in the fact sheet — something the report I’m seeking will shed light on.

Currently, Bolton is leading the charge within the Trump administration for war with Iran. The situation has escalated in recent weeks, with the administration claiming Iranian-backed militias moved rockets within range of American military bases. Then came an attack on four oil tankers in off the port of Fujairah, which a shipping insurer claims was carried out with, at the very least, Iran’s blessing.

No one has claimed credit for the attack, but unnamed intelligence officials are now saying they believe it was carried out by Iran, and are considering releasing the photos to make their case that Iran is threatening the United States.

Sunday, a rocket landed a mile from the US Embassy in Baghdad, apparently fired from an area of the city that is home to Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Monday morning, Trump responded in typically petulant fashion, saying any threats to American interests would result in the “end of Iran.”

A rocket landing in the Green Zone is one thing, but so far the Trump administration is asking the American public to simply believe it when it says Iran is becoming more hostile by moving rockets closer to US troops and perpetrating or supporting the tanker and Green Zone attacks. If this isn’t met with vociferous skepticism by everyone over the age of 27 then we truly have forgotten history.

Bolton was part of the Bush Administration back when it made its case for war in Iraq, partially based on intelligence it asked us to believe. Bolton is now Trump’s National Security Advisor, a powerful position that provides him with reams of global intelligence in addition to daily access to a mercurial president with a disdain for reading anything longer than a few pages or listening for more than a few minutes.

If Bolton is behind efforts to slant intelligence against Iran, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who remembers the events leading up to the war in Iraq.

At the time of the Niger uranium claim, Bolton was the State Department’s Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security. His office was tasked with creating the fact sheet on Niger, which represented the US government’s response to Iraq’s declaration to the United Nations Security Council that it was complying with an agreement not to pursue weapons of mass destruction.

“The declaration ignores efforts to procure uranium from Niger,” the fact sheet stated.

Greg Thielmann was a director at State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) when the fact sheet was published. When we spoke last year, he cautioned against overestimating the role the fact sheet played in making the case for war because “prior public comments by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Tenet and Condoleezza Rice had already set the stage for congressional and public perceptions prior to December 2002.”

But, he said, Bolton’s role in the fact sheet has never been fully discovered.

“I have not read all of the books and articles written about the inside workings of the Bush administration prior to the Iraq invasion,” Thielmann said, “but I have the impression that Bolton's role has not been adequately reported.”

There is one place that Bolton’s role is described in great detail, and that’s in the 2003 report that I requested in March of last year.

***

The report is titled “Alleged Iraqi Attempts to Procure Uranium from Niger” and was written jointly by State and CIA’s offices of the inspectors general. It examined the completely false intelligence that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium from Niger. The report holds clues to Bolton’s role in pushing — against the protestations of Thielmann and many others in the intelligence community — the faulty Niger claim.

The claim first came to the attention of the US intelligence community in October 2001, according to a 2004 report compiled by the the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). Back then, a “foreign government service” claimed to have discovered documents laying out the scheme: Iraq would purchase several tons of yellowcake uranium from Niger, where a French consortium of companies had been mining the material for nuclear power. The uranium could be enriched to provide Iraq with a nuclear weapon, the thinking went.

An analyst at INR, Simon Dodge, expressed great skepticism of the Niger uranium claim in a February 2002 meeting with intelligence officials from several agencies, including State and the CIA. In that meeting, the officials gave the go-ahead for Joe Wilson, a former ambassador to Niger with connections in the country, to travel there to investigate the claims. Soon, Dodge and others came to the conclusion that the documents were forged and, in March 2002, the INR released a report titled, clearly enough, Niger: Sale of Uranium to Iraq is Unlikely.

Upon returning from Niger, Wilson was debriefed by the CIA, which issued a report on his findings that likely made it to Vice President Dick Cheney’s desk that same day, according to the SSCI report. Wilson had issues with the CIA’s debriefing report, later telling the SSCI that he believed the CIA had misrepresented his findings and not refuted the uranium deal strongly enough. Wilson was so concerned, he told the SSCI, that he eventually became the source for a June 2003 story in the Washington Post titled CIA Did Not Share Doubt on Iraq Data; Bush Used Report of Uranium Bid.

Over the next several months the Niger uranium claims made the rounds within the intelligence community, showing up in various amounts of detail and certainty in several reports, according to the SSCI report. Then, in September 2002, the British government produced what came to be known as the “September Dossier.” In it, a single line: “there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” (This morphed into George Bush’s infamous 16 words, uttered during his 2003 State of the Union address, that marked the first time many Americans heard this shocking claim. The British intelligence about Iraq seeking uranium from Niger came from the same forged documents that had been making the rounds in the US intelligence community for more than a year prior to the publication of the September Dossier.)

The next month, a National Intelligence Estimate from US intelligence agencies mentioned the Niger uranium claim. Then Congress approved war actions in Iraq. It is then, October 2002, that the faulty Niger intelligence entered Bolton’s universe.

The same documents that INR had determined were forged resurfaced at the State Department on October 11, 2002. That day — the day after Congress approved military operations in Iraq — the Italian journalist Elisabetta Burba dropped the documents off at the American embassy in Rome. (The US government has never said if it determined who gave her the documents, but the general belief is that it was someone working on behalf of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was apparently trying to curry favor with the Bush Administration.) The embassy then sent the documents to the State Department’s Bureau of Nonproliferation (NP), which shared them with INR.

Again, Dodge flagged the documents as extremely suspect. He emailed other members of the intelligence community, noting “a funky [Embassy] of Niger stamp (to make it look official, I guess)."

And here, I’ll let David Corn and Michael Isikoff take it. From their 2006 book Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War:

Dodge Wasn’t alone. When INR analyst Wayne White (who had once served in Niger) saw the papers, he, too, questioned their authenticity — within about 15 minutes. The uranium deal, he thought, seemed completely impractical. And Larry Wilkinson [Colin] Powell’s chief of staff, was visited at his office by an intelligence analyst who explained the implausibility of transporting massive quantities of uranium by trucks through the barely paved roads of Niger and across Africa to a port city — without any executives of the French consortium that controlled the uranium mines or any international inspectors noticing. By the time the two were done talking it through, Wilkerson later recalled, “we were laughing our asses off.”

The INR shared its findings and the forged documents with the CIA, who simply put them, unexamined, in a vault. Then came some interesting back-and-forth, according to the SSCI report.

In November, the CIA briefs someone — the report doesn’t say who and the identity of the individual or organization is redacted — about the Niger claim, saying that reports “on Iraqi attempts to procure uranium from Africa are fragmentary, at best.” A week later a French nonproliferation official meets with the INR and says the French had determined no uranium sales ever went through, but “indicated that French officials believed the reporting” regarding the Iraq-Niger uranium deal “to be true.” Three days later, the Navy and a component of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) issued a report within the intelligence community noting that the two agencies had investigated claims that uranium purchased by Iraq from Niger was being stored in a warehouse in the west African port city of Cotenou. Inside, investigators found only cotton.

Whatever happened between the issuance of that joint Navy-DIA report on November 25, 2002 and December 7 — when Iraq issued its declaration to the UN Security Council claiming it was not pursuing nuclear weapons — remains lost to history. But the report I’m seeking contains some of those details.

All we know now is that the timeline picks up on December 17, according to the SSCI, when the CIA’s Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center (WINPAC) produced a paper containing language that would eventually be used in the fact sheet. The paper noted that Iraq’s UN declaration “does not acknowledge efforts to procure uranium from Niger, one of the points addressed in the [September] dossier.”

The next day, State’s public affairs division asked Bolton’s office to craft a response to the Iraqi declaration. Now comes the key time frame: how involved was Bolton in creating the fact sheet? Very? Not at all? Former Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman and others believed that Bolton was intimately involved in the fact sheet, which represented the US government’s first public claim based off its own intelligence that Iraq was seeking weapons of mass destruction.

In a 2006 hearing regarding the Bush Administration's Oil for Food program, Waxman dressed Bolton down over the Niger uranium claim. The California lawmaker noted that multiple officials within the CIA had refuted the claim, including then-director of the agency, George Tenet. This is, of course, not to mention the many officials within the State Department — Thielmann, the analyst Dodge, his boss at the time, Carl Ford, and Colin Powell himself, as Waxman noted — who didn’t buy the Niger uranium story for a second.

Bolton, then the UN Ambassador, denied any responsibility for the fact sheet’s creation and its explosive but false claim.

“I have no idea; I didn’t participate in the drafting of the fact sheet,” Bolton said at the hearing. “I first saw it for the first time I believe last year during my confirmation hearing.”

Later, Waxman read directly from the 2003 report I’m seeking, which lays out a detailed timeline showing Bolton’s office was intimately involved in the fact sheet prior to its publication — the only time the report’s language has ever been uttered publicly.

“I have here a timeline prepared by the State Department (office of the inspector general) and here’s what it says: ‘December 18, 2002, 8:30 a.m. At [Powell’s] morning staff meeting, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of Public Affairs [...] asked the Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security’ — you — ‘for help in developing a response to Iraq’s December 7 declaration to the UN Security Council that could be used with the press. The undersecretary, Bolton, agrees and tasks the Bureau of Nonproliferation,’” Waxman said, asking Bolton to explain the discrepancy between his insistence he had nothing to do with the fact sheet and the report’s timeline.

Bolton then contradicts his previous statement that he had nothing to do with the fact sheet by describing a conversation he had regarding which State Department bureau should be responsible for drafting the document. Then, he clarifies.

“I had no involvement myself in the preparation of the fact sheet.”

Afterward Waxman presses Bolton as to how it is, as the State Department’s leading authority on arms control, he somehow wouldn’t be involved in drafting a fact sheet on that very issue. Bolton steps in after the gavel halts Waxman’s line of questioning.

“I may say, congressman, I wish I could explain to you more comprehensively how the State Department works because I think your questions reveal that perhaps you would benefit from that information,” Bolton said.

Waxman fired back: “I think my questions are about what you did as the boss of the department that was supposed to be in charge of arms control, which was directly involved in the biggest issue of our time.”

“I think the biggest disappointment to you, congressman, is that I had no involvement [in the fact sheet] and I’m sorry about that,” Bolton replied.

“That is disappointing,” Waxman said. “You didn't do your job.”

***

The clues to Bolton’s role in the fact sheet will come not just in the report itself, but the transcripts of interviews that officials conducted with Bolton around July 18, 2003, which I’ve also asked for. Nine months after filing my request, State told me that it had to “conduct some research” regarding the report.

I have no idea what that means, but I know I’m not the only one who hasn’t forgotten about the report and tried to use FOIA to obtain it.

In 2016, State told a man named David Lindsey that it had “no records” of the report. In 2007, a woman named Joyce Battle requested the report and State closed that request 15 months later. As of this writing I’m unable to tell whether she received the report.

In some far corner of the internet I managed to find the first page of the report, which is what you see at the top of this story.

Of course, the rest of the document is missing.

It baffles me that the report has never been released, and it seemed to baffle Waxman, too.

“That fact sheet falsely accused Iraq of seeking to obtain uranium from Niger, and that’s the argument that the president used in his State of the Union address — and that’s the principal reason that Bush used for launching the Iraq war,” Waxman told me last year following Bolton’s appointment to the post of National Security Advisor.

The parallels to the events of the last few weeks are stunning. On April 16, the State Department posted a report on its website that contained damning allegations against Iran’s compliance with arms control agreements. The report was taken down apparently after it sparked vehement disagreement within the Trump administration and the intelligence community, according to Reuters. (Incredibly, the link remains online but leads to a dead page.)

Last week, the chairmen of the House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding documents describing the parties involved in the report and the intelligence sources behind it. The chairmen expressed their concern that the report “may have been the product of political appointees disregarding intelligence or distorting its meaning” to make the case for war against Iran.

“Our nation knows all too well the perils of ignoring and ‘cherry-picking’ intelligence in foreign policy and national security decisions, as evidenced by a prior White House’s disregard of the intelligence community’s analysis on Iraq and its selective use of Iraq-related intelligence to justify the march to war in 2003,” the chairmen wrote.

While Thielmann downplayed the role that the fact sheet had in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, Waxman seemed to consider it a nearly-forgotten document that forever changed history. That Bolton — as Trump’s National Security Advisor — is in the most powerful position of his career was not lost on Waxman when we spoke last year.

“This fact sheet isn’t a simple mistake; this is a mistake that led us to an unnecessary war that cost thousands of lives,” Waxman said. “It makes you wonder, if they did it once, would they do it again? And would the fact that they think they got away with it, would that make them more willing to do it again?”