BUNGLE IN THE JUNGLE
Once more , The New York Times and the Washington Post seem bent on elevating our man in Bujumbura ,Conakry, and the Bight of Biafra, The Hon. Joseph Wilson IV , to the status of Proconsul emeritus. But this time the man in the hot spot is not Mr. Rove, but happy cold warrior Dick Armitage, who did such great things when the problem with Afghanistan was Russians.
Ambassador Wilson spent a week half a decade ago downstream from Timbuktu sipping mint tea and listening to Francophone assurances that no respectable slave trader, gun runner, hashish merchant or blood diamond smuggler in the adjacent two million square miles of howling sandstorm would stoop to dealing in uranium?
And what of malefactors from Mali, Algeria,Burkina Faso Benin,Cameroon,Chad,Libya and Nigeria? Never fear--Niger's vigilant border patrol is second only to Al Gore in its passion for hanging Chads, and things can get pretty ugly when it catches Nigerians too.
Well satisfied, Wilson of the River,returned to Foggy Bottom, where Newsweek says his verbal trip report "vanished into the bureaucratic maw."
The New York Times Plameout has extinguished all recollection of what the President actually said. He repeated the UK charge , based on forged documents from Italy, that the Iraqis were trying to buy uranium from Africa, not Niger-- the Ambassador has another sixteen million square kilometers of bush to whack before he gets another shot at '43.
A continent is a terrible thing for a diplomat to misplace. Losing track of one with five major and dozens of minor uranium-mining operations in 11 nations could rouse a demarche from a dead IAEA Undersecretary. South Africa's fulfilled nuclear ambition drew on Namibia's economic geology , which rivals Niger's and The Congo, with 13 mines, has been a cornucopia of concentrated pitchblende since the days of Madame Curie. But Wilson is an old Gabon hand, and having drunk his share of the French Embassy in Libreville's Moet, he ought to know the story of SDEC's nightmarish run-in with disappearing African uranium.
For decades France shipped uranium home to Marseilles from Gabon for enrichment into reactor fuel and weapons grade uranium. It was easy to monitor this strategic trade, for the natural isotopic abundance of fissionable U-235 was the scientific equivalent of Holy Writ. It was exactly 0.7204%; so one tonne of mined uranium could be relied upon to yield 7,204 grams of U-235. And 992,960 of depleted uranium-238 -- an ultradense by-product we use for tank armor, and the French for racing yacht ballast.
For many uneventful years, the ore coming in was checked against the enrichment plant's output. The running total tallied exactly until one fateful day in 1971, when it fell hair-raisingly short. Somehow, enough U-235 to build a dozen A-bombs had gone missing. French security forces went into overdrive: not just the usual suspects, but the whole Marseillesunderworld was rounded up. The interrogations produced nothing, and a gimlet eyed review of all the paperwork in the plant found it flawless.
Cold fear displaced disbelief when the next inventory revealed an even greater loss. Around the world, yet more villains were hauled in by spooks of every ilk and nationality, but again no leads materialized. Things were looking very ugly indeed, because ample time had passed to turn the missing uranium into bombs, and true rumors were flying about Israel's clandestine efforts to acquire uranium. Into the growing panic stepped a junior French geochemist with a really dumb idea:
Could nature be the culprit? He was shown the door by a prefect of the Directorate of Internal Security, but managed to procure a few crumbs of old and new ore from Oklo. He ran them through a mass spectrometer, and sure enough, the most recent samples held less U235 than the older ones. Weirder still, all of the rare earth elements in the sample had equally un-natural isotope ratios. There was only one possible explanation -- when the Earth was younger, the heart of darkness had lit up as the Oklo deposit was host to natural nuclear reactions. If so, the missing U-235 was the fuel they had consumed.
Oklo was soon staked out by Legionnaires as a cadre of Ecole Polytechnique alumni excavated the 15 natural reactors within the mine that had gone critical and fissioned away the U-235 1.8 billion years before. Once they had been dug up, analyzed and entered into the annals of science, the last of the usual suspects were put back on the street, and the miners of Oklo returned to excavating the still rich ore.
The plutonium produced in nuclear reactions, natural or man made, is popularly regarded as the most dangerous substance in existence. It is an object of widespread faith that mere grams of it could kill millions. But what of the seven tons of plutonium created in the natural reactors? Its fate in the environment has done more than literally billions of dollars of research to illuminate the modern problem of high-level radioactive waste disposal.
Rocks being rocks, their behavioral repertoire is somewhat limited. With the coming of each ancient rainy season, neutron moderating water percolated into the ore, and the natural reactors rumbled to life. But beneath the surface of this radioactive Yellowstone, the resulting fission products and plutonium just did what comes naturally to heavy metals in a mud bath. They sank to the bottom and stayed put, diffusing outwards at a rate slower than continental drift.
ON THE LEFT:
Plutonium's 16,000 year half life is but a geological instant, and the last atom of it gave up the ghost a billion years ago literally a stone's throw from where it started. All that's left of it is the dead end of its chain of nuclear decay: lead. Most of the world's uranium mines now lie idle. Disarmament and a stagnant nuclear power industry have made uranium too cheap to merit the level of vigilance and security afforded more valuable commodities, like lamb chops or aspirin.
George Kennan remarked that error is so integral a part of evaluating intelligence that draconian intolerance would banish every analyst from the corridors of power. When certain knowledge of imports, exports, and inventories eludes a nation, humility should attend its estimates of what others may, or may not, have acquired. Or desired .
USUALLY UNRELIABLE SOURCES ON THE RIGHT
When will it dawn on the Neocon usual suspects that Michael Ledeen's collection of italiante Nigerienne diplomatic letterhead fogeries notwithstanding, Pakistan nuclear mogul A.Q. Khan's presence in Mauritania and that famous center of atomic research, Timbuktu in 1999 may relate not to uranium shopping , but his elevation to baronial status by Colonel Qaddafi, who sems to have paid for nefarious services rendered and the odd centrifuge part by deeding Khan enough Sahelian real estate for a game preserve( pretty good winter shooting by all accounts). There is also the matter of the 485 un-missing tons of yellowcake Iraq bought aboveboard from Niger and Portugal, between 1980 and 1982. Nobody has adduced a reason why , given that we trashed his enrichment program after the Gulf War m Saddam 's nuclear minions would crave more.
The ultimate lesson of l'affaire Niger may be that Director Negroponte , like DCI Tenet before him may find
consolation in the classics. While "There is always something new
coming out of Africa" what's new isn't necessarily true -- Pliny's
Natural History includes tales that are pretty tall, even by the standards of Imperial Roman Intelligence back when intel included analyzing the entrails of sheep and the overflight of eagles.
The eagle watchers and Sheep Int providers were compelled to wear uniforms funnier than the Surgeon General or Nixon's White House guards, and customarily laughed at their colleagues' mistakes whenever they met. Such was The Wisdom of the Ancients. Never in the history of the Republic was Augur or Haruspex hauled before the Senate Intelligence Committee.