The good folks at RedState, led by Mark Kilmer, are using this as evidence to promulgate their JoeWilsonLiedAndOutedHisOwnWife™ worldview.
So what's really going on here? Follow me below the fold.
In February 1999, Zahawie left his Vatican office for a few days and paid an official visit to Niger, a country known for absolutely nothing except its vast deposits of uranium ore. It was from Niger that Iraq had originally acquired uranium in 1981, as confirmed in the Duelfer Report. In order to take the Joseph Wilson view of this Baathist ambassadorial initiative, you have to be able to believe that Saddam Hussein's long-term main man on nuclear issues was in Niger to talk about something other than the obvious. Italian intelligence (which first noticed the Zahawie trip from Rome) found it difficult to take this view and alerted French intelligence (which has better contacts in West Africa and a stronger interest in nuclear questions). In due time, the French tipped off the British, who in their cousinly way conveyed the suggestive information to Washington. As everyone now knows, the disclosure appeared in watered-down and secondhand form in the president's State of the Union address in January 2003.
How many problems can you find in this paragraph? I'll name you a couple.
Problem 1: If you're interested in clandestinely purchasing material with which you intend to build a nuclear bomb under the nose of U.N. inspectors, I find it highly unlikely that you would send your top envoy with nuclear expertise on a multi-day official visit with a country known for nothing but uranium ore. This leaves us with two options: either the Ba'athists were not concerned about secrecy, or they weren't there to negotiate a uranium purchase.
Problem 2: "the disclosure appeared in watered-down...form in the President's State of the Union address." Did it now? Because last time I checked, the only thing Christopher Hitchens came up with is that Zawahie went to Niger. I didn't see Christopher Hitchens proving that there was an attempted purchase, much less an actual agreement. And yet, those famous 16 words in the SotU address were:
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Say it with me loud and clear: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS IS LYING.
Let's move on to another part of Hitchens' continuous act of desperation--the forgery part.
A NATO investigation has identified two named employees of the Niger Embassy in Rome who, having sold a genuine document about Zahawie to Italian and French intelligence agents, then added a forged paper in the hope of turning a further profit. The real stuff went by one route to Washington, and the fakery, via an Italian journalist and the U.S. Embassy in Rome, by another. The upshot was--follow me closely here--that a phony paper alleging a deal was used to shoot down a genuine document suggesting a connection.
OK. In that case, then, where the heck is the genuine document? It's hilarious to me how the Conservative factions ridiculed the "the document is fake, but the content is real" meme that was used for the Bush TANG documents, only to have Hitchens pull this one right here. Notice how Hitchens very carefully says "a genuine document about Zawahie." He doesn't mention what the document says or what it proves--nor does he mention why, if the "real stuff went to Washington" as he claims, the real stuff hasn't turned up yet--because given Bush's declassification of the NIE, you can bet that anything at all that our government had that could be used to disprove Joe Wilson's editorial would have been leaked to the public at some point.
But everything I've written about Hitchens here, despite how repulsive it may be, doesn't get to the heart of a larger question: Why are we talking about yellowcake from Niger at all?
You see, Iraq already had several hundred tons of low-enriched uranium yellowcake within its borders just 30 miles south of Baghdad at Tuwaitha. After the 1991 Gulf War, the IAEA decided that this material was so dangerous that they...LEFT IT IN IRAQ UNDER SEAL FOR SAFE KEEPING. Why? Because--let's not get too technical here--it's damn hard to get bomb-ready fissile material from yellowcake. You need a variety of sophisticated equipment, none of which Iraq had or was allowed to get. (Your other option for why the IAEA left the material in Iraq is because they hate America and want to see the world destroyed--but I'll leave that decision up to you.)
So, the point remains once again: given that Iraq already had 500 tons of yellowcake in their country, why the heck would they have needed more from Niger? And if they did want more from Niger for some reason, why go about it in such a stupid fashion?
And as a last little parting shot--while Christopher Hitchens and his merry band of neoconservative followers invaded Iraq and got over 2,300 of our soldiers killed, tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, and spent hundreds of billions of precious tax dollars getting us bogged down in an occupation based primarily on the speculation of what was discussed on an envoy's trip to Niger--while all that was going on, a nation that engages in "death to America" protests every year on the anniversary of its revolution has started enriching uranium right under your noses--and the posturing of the neocon PNAC crew has left us powerless to do anything sensible about it.
So in conclusion--thank you, Christopher Hitchens. What spectacular colossal foreign policy failure would you like to try your hand at justifying next?
[Cross-posted at Far-Shooting Politics]