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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Monday, July 14, 2003

Better Than "Blame Canada"

Blame the French. The plot line for the Niger-uranium controversy becomes even more complex. Let's go to Michael Smith of the Daily Telegraph, a righty Brit paper:

The French secret service is believed to have refused to allow MI6 to give the Americans "credible" intelligence showing that Iraq was trying to buy uranium ore from Niger, US intelligence sources said yesterday.

MI6 had more than one "different and credible" piece of intelligence to show that Iraq was attempting to buy the ore, known as yellowcake, British officials insisted. But it was given to them by at least one and possibly two intelligence services and, under the rules governing cooperation, it could not be shared with anyone else without the originator's permission.

US intelligence sources believe that the most likely source of the MI6 intelligence was the French secret service, the DGSE. Niger is a former French colony and its uranium mines are run by a French company that comes under the control of the French Atomic Energy Commission.

A further factor in the refusal to hand over the information might have been concern that the US administration's willingness to publicise intelligence might lead to sources being inadvertently disclosed.

US sources also point out that the French government was vehemently opposed to the war with Iraq and so suggest that it would have been instinctively against the idea of passing on the intelligence.

Oh, boy. This is so damn clever, we hardly know where to begin. We'll start off slowly - Michael Smith is "a former intelligence officer, now a senior journalist for the London Daily Telegraph", and evidently quite knowledgeable. And whose side might he be on in this story, and what spin might he prefer? I have no idea. As a Le Carre fan, I am only certain that he is better at this than I am.

Now, can we connect this to the fact that the Brits are standing by their story? Yes, and I will have to backpedal to do so. A few days ago, I linked to a March 22 WaPo story which offered this:

British officials said they "stand behind" the original allegation. They note they never mentioned "Niger," the subject of the forged documents, and imply, but do not say, that there was other information, about another African country. But an informed U.N. official said the United States and Britain were repeatedly asked for all information they had to support the charge. Neither government, the official said, "ever indicated that they had any information on any other country."

My observation was that the Brits did not seem to have much. However, it is possible that the Brits were internally invoking the "sharing rule" mentioned above, and relying on the French, the Italians, or whoever, to separately approach the UN with supporting information.

Now, Tony Blair is coming to the US this week, and I expect we will have some answers during his visit. A few scenarios for the Bush/Blair press briefing occur to me:

-- The French gave the British intelligence which, in the cold light of day, we can now agree was flawed. Apologies all around.

-- The French gave the British some weak intelligence. As the UN process deteriorated and relations soured, they never gave the Brits a heads-up. Awkward.

-- The French gave the British great intel which we still believe. However, more we can not say - go ask the French. Let Chirac decide if he wants to cover for Bush and Blair. If Bush and Blair are exaggerating the quality of the intel, maybe Chirac will do them a favor and support them. Or, if Chirac doesn't support them, then we are left scratching our heads as to who we believe, and efforts to heal the trans-Atlantic rift collapse.

We may be headed for a situation where Bush and Blair say, in effect, the intel was good - you can trust us, and you can ask Chirac. Chirac will then support them. At that point, how we will know the "real" truth is anybody's guess.

This week could be the mousetrap for the Dems who had a great run attacking Bush on the Yellowcake-fake-gate. Max Sawicky will NOT be caught, however.

UPDATE: Jack Shafer of Slate provides a review of the forgery story, and a link to Tenet's statement.

UPDATE 2: Don't Blame The French. Well, that is for the record, anyway. Now.

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