The most successful deceptions often use accurate facts that lead their audiences to jump to the wrong conclusion. A case in point is Prime Minister Blair's White Paper asserting that "There is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa." In what way did it succeed and in what way did it fail?


The successful part of Blair's "white paper" was its brilliant exploitation of the public confusion between two similar-sounding substances: Uranium and Uranium 235. The crucial difference is that Uranium is not fissile, which means it cannot be split to cause a chain reaction leading to a nuclear explosion, while Uranium-235 is fissile. The fissile material indispensable to making nuclear weapons is heavily-concentrated U-235.
Eleven days earlier, at a Pentagon briefing and slide show, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, using his alias "Senior Defense Official," informed reporters about the danger of Saddam Hussein obtaining fissile material from a foreign supplier. With it, he estimated Iraq could build nuclear weapons in a matter of months. "The key issue here is always fissile material," he said "And that remains probably the only issue, in the case of Iraq." When reporters at the briefing pressed Rumsfeld about whether the US had any intelligence that Iraq had means of obtaining this critical ingredient, he pointedly referred them to CIA Director George Tenet testimony that "our major near-term concern is the possibility that Saddam might gain access to fissile material." But that was as far as he "could" go, he explained.

So, with the press now primed for an answer, Blair ominous-sounding disclosure that "Saddam was seeking to buy "significant quantities of uranium" from an unnamed source in Africa appeared to fill in the missing piece: "African uranium." Saddam's foreign connection, it then leaked out, was Niger, and allegedly Iraq was negotiating to purchase 500 metric tons of its "yellowcake." Yellowcake, or uranium oxide, is precipitated out of the raw ore so it can be efficiently shipped to processors.
The problem here is that yellowcake is not a fissile material. Like the ore it is derived from, it contains only a minute trace of the lethal isotope U-235– a fraction of a percent. To obtain fissile material directly from yellowcake requires a vast technological enterprise.

First, the yellowcake must be converted into uranium hexafluoride. Next, it must be turned under great pressure into a gas. Finally, the U-235 atoms must be separated out of the gas and concentrated into 90 percent U-235. This separation can be done through gas diffusion, which requires forcing the gas through a long series of sub-molecular size membranes. Or it can be done, as in Europe, by centrifuge technology, which requires spinning the uranium hexafluoride gas at extremely high speeds in a cascade of sophisticated centrifuges. Only a few countries in the world have mastered the technology, notably the US, France, Germany, Britain, Japan and Russia, (and most of the other countries in the nuclear game import their fissile material from them under the inspection regime of the International Atomic Energy Agency to fuel power plants and then further enrich it for weapons .)

Iraq did not have a capability in September 2002 to enrich uranium. To be sure, prior to the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was dangerously close to achieving such a capacity. He had assembled a rudimentary arrays of centrifuges that had the potential for enriching uranium isotopes. But as a result of that war, the centrifuges and other enrichment facilities were destroyed by the US, the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency, as the subsequent invasion confirmed. In any case, Iraq never had the gasification plant to convert it into uranium hexafluoride gas, and without it, Iraq could not produce fissile material even if it secretly obtained the centrifuges. Iraq certainly had access to yellowcake. Whatever the provenance of the "African Uranium," Iraq could retrieve yellowcake from its own phosphate deposits at Al Qaim near the Syrian border. But yellowcake, without the ability to convert it fissile material, was not a threat. The real threat, as both Rumsfeld and Tenet correctly identified, was Saddam acquiring fissile material from abroad. Even though a number of rogue states, such as North Korea, had the ability to supply it to Saddam or his intermediaries, the US had no intelligence it could cite about such possible transactions (nor might it detect any until it was too late).

So Blair's metaphoric "African uranium" managed to fill the gap. Most of the public equated uranium with nuclear weapons.
The failed– and stupid– part of the deception was associating it with forged Niger documents. With the help of the Google search engine, the International Atomic Energy Agency quickly determined that these documents were inauthentic.