Panorama Magazine: Niger Yellowcake
The Scoop that Never Was 24/7/2003
There was phone call from an informer: “I have something for you...” This is how it all started, in October 2002 --the story of alleged uranium trafficking between Niger and Iraq that has become an embarrassment to the White House. After careful investigative work, I can tell you that the intelligence on uranium trafficking is a howling blunder.
Twenty million obsolete Italian lire. That was the price of garbage intelligence that has destabilized the Bush administration. That’s a little more than 10 million euros. That was the figure asked of Panorama in exchange for the forged dossier on the sale of uranium by Niger to Iraq. A sum which our magazine would refrain from paying…
This is less of a story about money than a premature scoop. It all took place in October 2002, when I was still in the Balkans investigating a story on the Kosovo Liberation Army.
I received a call from the magazine’s administrative offices on my cell phone. "Elizabeth, someone is looking for you." I place a call. On the other end is an echo from the past. Do you remember me? Of course…When I worked for Epoca [Magazine] I had two international scoops thanks to this individual. I have something for you… he told me. In a series of short phrases with hazy allusions, he presents his wares: the proof that a certain mustachioed friend bought uranium from an African nation. He tells me that he has supporting evidence: contracts, letters, and memoranda of understanding…
He has collected all the elements through this country’s embassy in Rome. So what country would this be? He refuses to tell me: I only manage to wheedle from him that it is an Islamic country. It has been days that the United States has been desperately trying to find proof that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. Not only that, but Tony Blair has just gone before the world to say that Iraq has sought to procure significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
And uranium, in a country without a civilian nuclear program like Iraq, can only mean nuclear weapons. I’ve got a smoking gun on my hands –proof that Saddam Hussein is guilty. And the evidence is presented to me on a silver platter? But what if this is a poisoned apple?
I contact Giorgio Mulè, Assistant News Director, at the Editor’s Desk. I explain everything. I reveal the name of the source. Surprise! Giorgio is acquainted with him, but through a different channel. (Giorgio is the only person, even today, who knows the identity of my source; to everyone else, he’s Mister Patacca [Garbage Intelligence].
Let’s see if there is any meat to this story, he tells me. The meeting takes place on October 7th at a bar. There’s an extra grey hat on a hat rack. This is the same person who passed me a scoop on the Balkans and a tip on direct and dangerous links between terrorism and Islam. Although he is dressed as elegantly as an English lord, Mister Patacca cannot hide working-class origins. But this gives him a certain charm. We go to a restaurant that he’s selected, one that is both down-home and pretentious.
Once we’re seated, he takes out his “wares”. 17 pages of documents. Moreover, they are in French, covered with stamps and warnings: "Confidentiel", "Urgent", "Discrétion". These are from the Niger Embassy, where there is someone who works for me, explains Mister "Patacca". I discovered them by chance while investigating a different matter: the sale of uranium to China.
The country turns out to be Niger, the third producer of uranium in the world. The conversation switches to money. I was categorical: first the proof, then the payment. And if the papers are forgeries, no deal. A gentleman’s agreement, which my informer finds hard to swallow but finally accepts. We examine the documents.
The first document is dated February 1, 1999. It is a letter from the Embassy of Iraq to the Vatican addressed to the Embassy of Niger in Rome. It announces that His Excellency Mr. Wissam al-Zahawie, Ambassador of the Republic of Iraq to the Holy See, would travel to the capital of Niger as Representative of His Excellency Saddam Hussein. But…Why is the letter written in Italian? The Iraqis speak English and the Nigerois, French.” Italian is their "lingua franca", explains Mr. "Patacca".
A juicier element is the letter on official letterhead which ends with a stamp of the President of the Republic and corresponding signature. But it is addressed to "Monsieur le Président". That’s our friend with the moustache, Saddam, says Mr. "Patacca", winking. The text references the inter-government accord 381-Ni 2000 “concerning the supply of uranium” to Iraq signed on July 6, 2000: “A total of 500 tons of pure uranium per year will be delivered in two phases” Five hundred tons per year? A hugely exaggerated quantity. We continue. The following document comes from Niamey. Something is funny: the letter, dated July 30, 1999, talks about facts which occurred in 2000. And someone has corrected ’99 to 2000 with a pen. Aye-yai-yai!
The famous Memorandum of Understanding is next: three pages plus a cover letter. Then there is a coded message. The only uncoded word is "Nitra". Is there a way to decrypt this?, I ask Mr. Petacca. We’ll see. First let’s finish going through the documents. Now we come across what should be the key document – It is our pleasure to inform you that delivery of chemical U92 (238.0289) has definitely taken place today. All the documents concerning this operation have been consigned today to the company, Nitra Transit, which will handle delivery from Niamey to Cotonou. U92 corresponds to the symbol U for uranium and its atomic number, 92. The figure 238.0289 is the atomic weight.
The icing on the cake is topped by a cherry: two documents that reveal an action plan dubbed Global Support. During the FAO conference in Rome in 2002, Niger, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya and Iran formed a holy Islamic alliance. The six rogue states agreed to support governments “under international embargo”, suspected of “manufacturing nuclear, bacteriological and chemical” weapons and accused of international terrorism. But also “Islamic patriots accused of membership in criminal organizations” Well, what do you know...
Mister Patacca goes home to pick up the code book to decrypt the ciphered message. I wait for him at a filthy filling station. When he returns, there’s a pack of photocopies in his car: This is the Republic of Niger Code Book printed in 1967. We start decoding the message at a gas station, keeping a watchful eye on the parking lot. He reads the sequence of numbers then consults the code book and finds the corresponding words which he writes in my reporter’s notebook. At the end we work it out. It’s the news of the signing of an agreement between Niger and China for the sale of uranium. It is not relevant.
We spend the evening studying the papers laid out on the kitchen table. I grasp a few things that had escaped me in the restaurant. Above all, the text of the purchase agreement is missing, there’s only the cover letter. Groan…. But that’s not all. The letter which is supposed to accompany the agreement, dated Niamey, October 10, 2000, is received in Rome on September 28, 2000. Is it only an oversight? If that weren’t enough, the two letters from the Iraqi embassy have the same text (announcing the visit of Saddam’s ambassador to Niamey).
Dates and numbers are changed in the memorandum. Strange coincidence. But there’s also the document confirming the sale-purchase of the uranium. That dated August 28, 2001, does not mention the purchaser or the final destination.
The following morning, October 8th, I phone Mister Patacca: The documentation is somewhat incomplete. I’m going to require a supplementary investigation. Doing a Google search on several of the names found in the documents, some of the ambassadors, diplomats and officials do in fact exist. For others there’s no result. For example, I found nothing on Foreign Minister Ailele Elhadj Habibou. Later I realize that because the name was partially obscured by the stamp, I typed in Ailele and not Allele, who was minister between 1988 and 1989 and not in 2000 as the documents would have us believe. A result was returned for Nitra, a transportation company with branch offices in Benin and Togo. Benin, the country in which the uranium for Iraq would be loaded.
With so many doubts, I go to see Giorgio Mulè. As he reads, the Assistant Editor raises an eyebrow. When he finishes reading, he jumps to his feet: Let’s go see the Editor-in-Chief. Carlo Rossella is in his office. Giorgio suggests moving to the bunker: we call it that because it is the only room with four walls in the open space of Panorama. Giorgio summarizes everything within two minutes. He then hands the document to Rossella, who narrows his eyes to concentrate. If this is true, then we have the smoking gun, he finally exclaims. But only if it’s true. Certainly the risk of a swindle is stratospheric. What to do? I suggest going to Niger: “Agreed” says Rossella. Mulè interrupts, Yes, a fact-finding mission to Niger is absolutely essential. But it’s nearly impossible that Elisabetta will find any confirmation. You just can’t go to that kind of country and demand to know if the President has sold uranium to Saddam Hussein. We’ve got to find another angle.
Rosella has an idea: Let’s consult the Americans: they’ve done most of the investigating into weapons of mass destruction, so they’d be the only people who can establish the authenticity of the documents. At the same time, we’ll conduct an investigation of our own. And that’s the way it went. As soon as I left the bunker, I requested a visa for Niger. Meanwhile, the Editor-in-Chief makes an appointment for me at the US Embassy.
On October 9th, I’m in Via Veneto. [Location of the US Embassy.] I have an appointment with an Italian national –a press liaison officer. He introduces me to his American boss and disappears. We go to the cafeteria. I begin to speak cautiously. When the American understands what I'm talking about, he makes a phone call and takes me to his office, where three other persons join us. I explain that I’m there seeking confirmation. They ask me questions, and try to make me identify my source. In vain. But I tell them that Rossella has given his permission for them to make a photocopy. I then leave.
I go back to the office and find additional documents which have arrived via fax. It’s the coded original and a version decrypted by my source. One document says the uranium was to have been transported to Iraq via Turkey and the other says the ore would be loaded aboard a Gabonese vessel with transshipment to take place in international waters. As verification I demand the page from the code book which contains the transcription for the word, Iraq. It shows up shortly afterwards. The word Iraq corresponds to 243.19.
As I prepare for my trip, I make a wave of phone calls to my contacts in Africa. Bad news. The NGOs, reporters and missionaries tell me that Niger is a closed country, where it is difficult to work, with a strong presence of Islamic fundamentalist foragers from Nigeria. Even if no one is aware of my reason for going to Niger, they all warn me to exercise caution.
I reveal my purpose only to a missionary –that I am going in investigate uranium trafficking: Be careful. Last month a French reporter investigating uranium was kicked out of the country as "persona non grata". Move around carefully. And keep your mouth shut when you talk to the authorities.
My Editor-in-Chief suggests that I adopt an appropriate cover. I find an acceptable alibi. Some months ago in the Téneré desert, fossilized dinosaur tracks were found. Great. I’ll go to Niger to investigate dinosaurs. The next day I go to the Niger Embassy to request a visa. There, I see a person who corresponds to the description indicated by my source. Could this really be his contact? I then renew my vaccination against yellow fever. Then a family emergency arises and I postpone my trip by a few days. I decide to phone Via Veneto [the US Embassy]. We can’t tell you if the documents are authentic, the head of the press liaison office tells me. That was my last contact with US officials. I won’t hear from them again.
I arrive in Niamey on October 17 with three books on dinosaurs. I study the dinosaurs on display at the National Museum religiously (from the Ouranosaurus nigeriensis to the Afrovenator abakensis). The dues are paid and I'm ready to go.
During the 1970’s, uranium brought wealth to this country. But today, because of the nuclear energy crisis, it is difficult to find a market for the 3,0000 tons of uranium produced each year. The result? It has become the poorest country in the world after Sierra Leone. A worker here earns 30 euros a month.
I bone up on natural, enriched and impoverished uranium; isotopes 238, 235 and 234; nuclear reactors and fissile plutonium. Then I begin my quest. The Nitra company exists, but its business is on the wane. It’s not like it used to be, they tell me. We don’t do much business now. But why? Don’t you transport 500 tons of uranium a year to Cotonou? Same with the Islamic Bank of Niger for Trade and Investment, the institution mediating the purchase agreement with Iraq. It’s not a bank with real roots in Niger, neither is it the Chase Manhattan of Niger, that is, the business bank around which the main financial transactions of the country are carried out. One afternoon I run into a Western official. I throw out a question on uranium. He smiles. In theory, there is not much interest in it. But that’s not true. Here there are ten embassies, including that of Pakistan –its only embassy in Western Africa. Strange…
Right...Pakistan, a well-informed source tells me. A few years ago Niger sold Libya more than 500 tons of uranium in a official transaction. There’s a rumor that Ghedaffi resold it to Pakistan. So I throw in a question about Iraq. Don’t know anything about that….Everything is possible, but that seems unlikely to me. Because of transportation, mostly. Libya is just over the frontier. But Iraq is on the other side of the world. And here there are two installations which process uranium into yellowcake.
They put the yellowcake in 400-liter containers, filled halfway. 200 kilograms per container. Then they are transported to Cotonou, where they are loaded aboard ship. The organization required for that level of trafficking involves enormous problems of transportation and security. The highways are infested with bandits. There’d have to be a huge deployment of men, in addition to trucks. My source is not aware that 500 tons are involved which would require 2,500 containers to be moved by truck from Africa and transported to Iraq via Turkey. It seems like a political fiction thriller…I return to Italy empty-handed. As far as fact-checking is concerned, I have little or nothing. I am debriefed by the Editor-in-Chief, who decides to publish nothing. It was October 23, 2002. Nine months before the explosion of the Niger-gate scandal.