Jeffrey LewisGordon Mitchell on Bolton's Warped Intelligence

Gordon Mitchell argues that John Bolton’s handling of intelligence in the Niger Uranium intelligence should preclude his confirmation as Ambassador to the United Nations:

Impeccably accurate IC reporting won’t matter a whit if political operatives ignore official intelligence reports and use Bolton-style B-teaming to back favored policies. Bolton’s confirmation would give political operatives throughout the administration the green light to B-team, to skirt the established procedures for vetting and validating the intelligence data underwriting U.S. foreign policy. Raymond McGovern, who spent 27 years as a CIA analyst, during which he chaired National Intelligence Estimates and prepared and briefed to senior White House officials the President’s Daily Brief, spells out the upshot: “For integrity in intelligence is now on life support. Approving the nomination of quintessential politicizer Bolton would pull the plug and ensure amateurish, cooked-to-taste intelligence analysis for decades to come.”

Gordon’s arguments are part of a public debate with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.

Daveed—in a very odd move—has chosen to base his defense of Bolton on the claim that Iraq did attempt to procure uranium from Niger—or, at least, the claim that this was a reasonable belief when Bolton put it in a December 2002 State Department fact sheet.

You may remember that the claim was eventually revealed to be based on forgeries, prompting Condi Rice to admit that “it was a mistake for this [claim] to go in” the State of Union.

Daveed argues that the forged documents don’t undermine the claim because they “were not the only data points” in the Niger reporting. Daveed doesn’t, however, mention what the other data points were—because they don’t exist.

The WMD Commission reports “the CIA concluded that the original reporting was based on the forged documents and was thus itself unreliable.” The original Niger claim was reported by a foreign intelligence service, which presumably also passed the source documents to an Italian journalist at Panorama. The Foreign Intelligence Service was probably the Italians, although they blame the French.

Moreover, Daveed asserts Britain’s spies “continue to stand by the claim.” This is awesome: he links to Cliff May at the National Review—but not the Butler Report, presumably the source of May’s claim. The Butler Report conditions Britain’s stand on the fact that “The forged documents were not available to the British Government at the time its assessment was made, and so the fact of the forgery does not undermine it.”

[I’ve added a longer digression in the comments regarding the varying proximities “by the claim” to which Britain’s spies have stood.]

That protection is, of course, not available to Mr. Bolton who had the documents. Put simpy, Bolton knew the claim was bogus, but used it anyway.

This may explain why the State Department covered-up Bolton’s role in creating the fact sheet.


  1. J (History)

    To be fair, the British government still strongly stands by its claim that the Iraqis did seek to procure uranium from Niger, basing that claim on unspecified evidence not related to the forged documents.

    This December 2002 fact sheet aside, John Bolton played a very minimal role in the Iraq intel hype. Since his friends at the NSC and DoD were already on the case, Messieur Bolton devoted his time and attention to inflating intelligence assessments on Cuba, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Sudan ….

  2. Thomas Nephew (History)

    But this was only point (d) of the Butler Report’s points about the African claim.

    Point (b): “The British Government had intelligence from several different sources indicating that this visit was for the purpose of acquiring uranium. Since uranium constitutes almost three-quarters of Niger’s exports, the intelligence was credible.”

    So they had evidence items 1…n. Evidence item (n+1) turns out to be a forgery. I don’t (yet?) see how that affects items 1…n.

  3. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I should have gone into this in more detail. Part of the problem here is the use of the noun “British government.”

    The US IC clearly believes that the foreign intelligence service reporting was solely based on the forged documents.

    The Foreign and Commenwealth Office (FCO) continues to assert the existence of additional sources:

    This reference drew on intelligence reporting from more than one source. We understand that the IAEA acquired documents on this subject in February 2003. At no stage prior to the publication of the dossier did the UK possess or have sight of
    these documents. The IAEA have confirmed that the documents were not provided by the UK, contrary to some media reporting. Since the publication of the dossier, we have had the opportunity to examine the documents. Some of these documents are
    forgeries, others are still under consideration.

    Tony Blair later made a similar remark, adding that “insofar as our intelligence services are concerned, they stand by that.”

    Blair is out in front of his government, standing by a claim “still under consideration” by his government. (Well, the evidence is still under consideration, to be precise.)

    The House Foreign Affairs Committee picked up on this incongruity in its report, stating that it doesn’t believe the government’s claim of multiple sources:

    We conclude that it is very odd indeed that the Government asserts that it was not relying on the evidence which has since been shown to have been forged, but that eight months later it is still reviewing the other evidence.


    We recommend that the Government explain on what evidence it relied for its judgment in September 2002 that Iraq had recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. We further recommend that in its response to this Report the Government set out whether it still considers the September dossier to be accurate in what it states about Iraq’s attempts to procure uranium from Africa, in the light of subsequent events.

    Very odd, indeed. So, to summarize: Blair stands by it, his government is still looking at documents and the House Committee thinks the government is lying about what the spies think. That is insufficient evidence to support the claim “Britain’s spies continue to stand by the claim.”

    Again, this protection is not available to Mr. Bolton as the US IC concluded that Britain’s spies were in error before December 2002.

    I should add Gordon’s decision to focus on the fact sheet initially struck me as odd, but he has gone a long way toward convincing me this is a primary objection to Bolton’s nomination.

  4. Thomas Nephew (History)

    (Preliminary: I don’t mean to be a troll or a crank here. I suspect I’m missing something or other, and I’d like to pinpoint it.)

    As I understand it, the forged documents that came to the IAEA have little-to-nothing to do with why the Brits thought Iraqis were inquiring about uranium purchases in Africa.

    They thought that because of
    1) observed visit to Niger (#493)
    2) inquiries about uranium purchases in the Congo, and even a possible sale agreement (#494)
    3) other ‘intelligence from additional sources’ identifying the purpose of the Niger visit as the purchase of uranium ore (#495)

    (without saying the purchase was completed; #s are Butler report paragraph numbers.)

    On the face of it, none of these 3 things are are necessarily document-based at all. But you follow this more closely; are you saying all 3 of these assertions are (or are likely to be) based on forged documents?

    Also, at least according to the Butler report, US IC was merely cautious about the Africa claim, reminding the Brits that there was no evidence of actual purchases, but agreeing that there was evidence it had been sought. (#497)

    …the House Committee thinks the government is lying about what the spies think. That is insufficient evidence to support the claim “Britain’s spies continue to stand by the claim.”

    Britain’s spies are not part of the House of Commons. They stand by the claim, the House committee disputes the claim. That’s not inconsistent, is it?

    Finally, while I don’t like Bolton, and join Mr. Mitchell in disapproving of his ‘private B-team’ approach, I don’t see how Bolton can be expected to know in December 2002 about House of Commons objections raised in July 2003.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I think your comments are well within the bounds of propriety. You might even work in a cock-joke or two.

    As I understand the argument, the visit (493) was was not related to uranium purchases. The only evidence suggesting otherwise was a healthy suspicion from Iraq’s past practices (494) and a foreign intelligence service working from the forgeries.

    As far as I can tell, “other ‘intelligence from additional sources’ identifying the purpose of the Niger visit as the purchase of uranium ore (#495)” was the crucial bit connecting the visit with the past suspicions. The “additional sources” were apparently the Italian intelligence service sources related to the forged documents.

    When the CIA finally got ahold of the Italian documents in October 2002, they realized the Italians (and by extension the Brits) had been duped. We didn’t, however, pass the information to Britain until early 2003.

    The Butler Report shifts the blame from Blair to Italy (though not by name). One cannot extend that forgiveness to Mr. Bolton, because the US already knew that the Italians had been duped by December 2002.

    As for the House FAC report … We don’t know what the spies (Joint Intelligence Committee or JIC) think, only what FCO and Blair tell us. The House FAC clearly does not believe the Blair Government’s claim that JIC had multiple sources — why would JIC continue to assess forgeries that are not the basis for the claim?

    What Mr. Bolton knew, in December 2002, was that the US IC had — on the basis of the forgeries — concluded the Italians and Brits had been duped.* We didn’t, however, share the forgeries with the British, who continued to believe the Italians.

    The point: the US IC concluded JIC did not have multiple sources of evidence; subsequent claims to the contrary by Mr. Blair strain credulity, as the House FAC points out.

    Make more sense yet?

    * I should add that WINPAC did not issue a recall until April 2003, but WINPAC seems to have been off the reservation — the IC didn’t clear Niger-related language for a Presidential speech in Cincinati even before the acquisition of the forgeries.

  6. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    I’d still like to know who produced the forgeries…

  7. Arrigo (History)

    Additional material: Panorama, a weekly Italian magazine, is published by the Berlusconi media empire.

    Considering the amount of effort expended by Berlusconi in trying to be America’s “best friend” it wouldn’t be entirely impossible for the Panorama article to have been spoonfed by one of the many secret services in Italy. It wouldn’t be the first time…