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Allies Didn't Share All Intelligence on Iraq
Mistrust Between Britain, U.S. Surfaces in Controversy Over Alleged Uranium Deal
By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 17, 2003; Page A14
LONDON, July 16 -- U.S. and British intelligence agencies concealed information from each other and reached contradictory conclusions about disputed claims that Iraq attempted to buy nuclear materials, British officials said today.
British officials have confirmed that the CIA sought last September to persuade them to drop from a public dossier a reference to Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Africa. In a letter to a parliamentary committee investigating British participation in the war against Iraq, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Britain rejected the CIA request because it had "reliable intelligence which we had not shared with the U.S." for the allegation and because the agency had made the request "unsupported by explanation."
The British government, which faces its own political backlash over the intelligence claim, continues to affirm its validity. "I stand by entirely the claim that was made last September" in the British dossier, which focused on weapons of mass destruction, Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons today. He said Britain had relied on "independent intelligence" to make its assessment.
President Bush cited the British claim in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28. Last week the White House declared that the information was unreliable and should not have been included.
Since World War II, U.S. and British intelligence agencies have had an image of intimate collaboration with each other. But the portrait that emerges from the British version of events concerning the investigation of the reported uranium deal is of agencies at times working at cross-purposes and reluctant to trust the other with sensitive information.
Straw said the CIA withheld from British officials information about former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson's February 2002 fact-finding visit to Niger that found no proof to support the claim.
"I want to make clear that neither I nor, to the best of my knowledge, any U.K. officials were aware of Ambassador Wilson's visit until reference first appeared in the press" last month, Straw wrote to the committee in the letter dated last Friday. "In response to our questions, the U.S. authorities have confirmed that Ambassador Wilson's report was not shared with the U.K."
The uranium controversy began in Washington and quickly spread to London, where Blair already faced allegations that his government had distorted intelligence data on Iraq's reported development of weapons of mass destruction as it sought to influence British public opinion and a reluctant House of Commons to support the U.S.-led campaign against the now-deposed Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein.
The fact that no such weapons have been uncovered has proved politically embarrassing for the prime minister, who cited them as his principal justification for going to war.
Blair travels to Washington on Thursday to address a joint meeting of Congress, a rare honor for a foreign leader that reflects American appreciation for his staunch support during the Iraq campaign. But back home his poll ratings have been dropping steadily in part because of doubts about Iraq. A Populus poll for the London newspaper the Times last week reported that 47 percent of Britons supported the war, compared with 64 percent in April and 58 percent in June. Fifty-four percent agreed with the statement about Blair: "I wouldn't trust him further than I could throw him."
Britain's 50-page dossier, published last September and attributed to its top-secret Joint Intelligence Committee, a cabinet-level intelligence clearinghouse, made several claims that have since been challenged, including the allegation that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes. It also stated: "As a result of the intelligence we judge that Iraq has sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite having no active civil nuclear power program that could require it."
British officials will not disclose where they received the uranium allegation, but contend they had multiple sources, some of them "third-party sources" -- including at least one foreign intelligence agency that insisted its specific information could not be shared with other countries. Such practices are common among foreign intelligence agencies, officials here contend. So even though CIA officials challenged the assertion, the Joint Intelligence Committee decided to use it anyway.
Various reports here have asserted that the information came from French or Italian intelligence sources -- reports that both countries have denied. The CIA also picked up some of the intelligence claims, and dispatched Wilson to Niger to check into them. He reported in March 2002 that the allegations were "bogus and unrealistic."
British officials say they have now seen a written summary of Wilson's report, and contend it is inconclusive. "We can see why it wasn't passed on to us because it doesn't point in one direction," said an official. He said the memo confirms that an Iraqi trade delegation had visited Niger in 1999, although no deals were struck. "Uranium is Niger's top export; it's unlikely the Iraqis were looking for livestock, which is their second export," the official added.
Gary Samore, a weapons analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies here, said he found both the U.S. and British versions plausible. "To me it's very plausible something happened in Niger -- some overture, some preliminary expression of interest by Iraqis or people claiming to represent Iraqis," he said. "They didn't make this up. There was a real event that got reflected in different ways by different agencies."
But Blair's political opponents have jumped on the controversy to further their argument that he lied to the British public. Iain Duncan Smith, leader of the opposition Conservatives -- who supported the war but have sought to score points in its aftermath -- today told the House of Commons that Blair and his top aide, Alastair Campbell, "have created a culture of deceit and spin at the heart of government."
Analysts say Blair is resigned to receiving a continued battering on the issue until weapons inspectors scouring Iraq come up with firm evidence that Hussein had or was developing weapons of mass destruction.
"It wasn't evident to most people that we had to have this war, but Blair proved his case by arguing so passionately about weapons of mass destruction," said Charles Grant of the Center for European Reform, a nonprofit research group. "Now people feel they were persuaded on false pretenses. He's got to work really hard to rebuild that trust."
He said the Bush administration's decision to conduct military trials of suspected terrorists seized during the Afghan war and held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, poses another political problem for Blair. Two of the first six detainees being considered for trial are British citizens, and public opinion here strongly favors their return to Britain. But officials here acknowledge that British courts would likely free the men without trial because of the length of their confinement and legal questions concerning their interrogations.
Because of Blair's close friendship with Bush, many Britons look at the fate of the detainees as a test of the prime minister's influence. "This is another area where people here are frightened of American power and suspicious of George W. Bush," said Bob Worcester, head of the MORI polling company here. "Guantanamo Bay could be more important to the future of Anglo-U.S. relations than weapons of mass destruction."