Louis Charbonneau covered the UN weapons inspections prior to the Iraq war and later became UN bureau chief. He is now UN director at Human Rights Watch.
It was March 6, 2003, about two weeks before the U.S. would invade Iraq. I was on an airplane interviewing a large delegation of United Nations weapons inspectors and other UN officials about their hunt for Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD). After months of investigations, UN teams scouring Iraq had uncovered no evidence to support U.S. allegations that the Iraqi government was developing nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
The U.S. was threatening to use military force to rid Iraq of WMD, which the administration of President George W. Bush insisted Iraq was developing in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions. UN officials were working around the clock to answer one simple question: was Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein hiding banned weapons programs as the Bush administration alleged?
A UN official on the plane told me something interesting. The head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, was going to present a report to the UN Security Council the next day saying the IAEA had reason to doubt the intelligence supporting the U.S. allegation that Iraq had attempted to procure large quantities of uranium from Niger, presumably for nuclear weapons.
That allegation was included in Bush’s 2003 “State of the Union” address.
ElBaradei and his team were hoping that bringing the truth to the UN Security Council about the false intelligence might buy them some time and force the U.S. and Britain to reconsider their rush to war. Less than two weeks later, the U.S. invaded Iraq.
As soon as we landed at JFK International Airport, I managed to find a working pay phone and called the Reuters bureau at UN headquarters. Reuters colleagues Evelyn Leopold and Irwin Arieff quickly cobbled together a story on doubts about the Niger uranium intel based on what I dictated.
The next morning, I reached out to UN sources for more information on the Niger uranium. They didn’t want to speak on the phone. A couple of UN officials came to visit me in the tiny Reuters bureau on the third floor of the UN Secretariat building. You could semi-comfortably fit two people in there. That day there were at least 10 people.
The UN officials told me that ElBaradei would tell the UN Security Council that the Niger uranium intel they got from the U.S. was “not authentic.” I asked if they’d object to my using the word “fake” to describe the intel. No objections.
ElBaradei told the 15-nation Security Council that the “documents which formed the basis for the report of recent uranium transaction between Iraq and Niger are in fact not authentic.”
It had taken the IAEA weeks to get their hands on the documentation supporting the Niger uranium allegation in Bush’s speech after requesting it from the U.S. When they finally got it, a French nuclear scientist, Jacques Baute, head of the IAEA’s Iraq Action Team, needed just hours and a few Google searches to confirm beyond any doubt that the documents were crude forgeries. The Niger claim was bogus.
Baute did not respond to a request for comment.
NO SMOKING GUN
It wasn’t the only lopsided information the UN got from the U.S. government. In September 2002, an editor on the Reuters news desk in London rang me in the middle of the night. He said I needed to urgently follow up on a New York Times report about Iraq procuring aluminum tubes for centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel or weapons.
Once the sun was up, I called my UN sources to ask about aluminum tubes. They had all read the story. The U.S. government had sent a team to Vienna to brief IAEA experts on the tubes. The IAEA experts had concluded they weren’t useful for a nuclear weapons program. Reuters published a story to that effect by midday.
When UN teams deployed to Iraq in late November 2002, I did background interviews with a number of senior UN officials. They were inclined to believe that Iraq had indeed started dabbling in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as the U.S. alleged. Some were convinced they would find a smoking gun.
Just over a month later, it was a different story. Shortly after the 2003 New Year, I interviewed ElBaradei, who told me that they had uncovered “no smoking gun.” The evidence wasn’t there.
When I talked with him again in 2023 for this story, ElBaradei said he remains “stunned by the amount of deception and lies” of those advocating for war.
In 2005, ElBaradei and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.