The CIA and That "Yellowcake"
Jude Wanniski
June 18, 2003


Memo: To Sen. Robert Byrd [D WV]
From Jude Wanniski
Re: It Gets Worse

As long as the Senate is going to investigate the CIA’s assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, Senator, you might suggest some questions about the CIA’s capabilities in understanding nuclear weapons. When I first heard the story about how Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium from Niger I thought it couldn’t be true. The only reason he would be trying to acquire fissile material would be for use in a nuclear weapons program, and it has been clear for years and years that Saddam abandoned the program when his own efforts to manufacture highly-enriched uranium (HEU) fizzled.

Even before the International Atomic Energy Agency found that the CIA report on the Niger “yellowcake” sale relied on obviously forged documents, it had to be puzzled as to what Iraq would do with it, as all the facilities Iraq had for trying to make a nuke had been dismantled under IAEA supervision. It is easy enough for some of your fellow Senators to say he could have reconstituted his nuke program once the inspectors were gone, but that is false. Any dim bulb at the CIA would have known of the IAEA’s new protocols of perpetual inspections that Iraq would have to submit to under any circumstances.

The reason I know so much about all this, Senator, is that I have for years relied for all my information regarding nuclear weapons on a nuclear physicist named Gordon Prather. You’ve never heard of him, I’m sure, although he occasionally writes for The Washington Times and also for But you know Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, of course, and Senator Domenici was Dr. Prather’s patron years ago, having first met him when he was a nuclear weapons designer in New Mexico at the Sandia Corp. Domenici helped Gordon get an appointment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the Nixon and Ford administrations. From there, Gordon worked for Sen. Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma on energy matters. He then served in the Reagan administration as the Army’s chief scientist. The Senate Intelligence Committee would find him a valuable source of information and knowledge, of the kind I think may be lacking at the CIA and is certainly lacking in Congress. There is nobody with his skills on any congressional staff, of either party.

Which brings me to the reason for this memo about the “yellowcake” deal that turned out to be a forgery, almost certainly the work of Iraqi expatriates who were eager to have President Bush persuaded that a pre-emptive war was necessary. It was Gordon who e-mailed me about the inherent implausibility of the story to anyone schooled in nuclear weapons design. Here is how he put it:

"The neo-crazies must have been desperate to have seized on a sale of yellowcake by Niger to Iraq as an excuse for war. What good would yellowcake -- a mixture of Uranium oxides -- have been to the Iraqis? Yellowcake contains less than 0.3% U235. You need uranium enriched to 90% U235 to make a nuke. You need to be able to convert yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride -- a solid at room temperature. Then you need to gasify UF6 and run it through cascades of gas centrifuges, tens of thousands of them. Iraq never had the capability of producing kilogram amounts of HEU, and what capability they had was utterly destroyed during the Gulf War and its aftermath and never rebuilt."

See what I mean? You didn’t know that Senator, and I wouldn’t expect you to. But wouldn’t you expect the CIA to know that, so it could keep you and the President informed? What I mean to say is the intelligence problem is a lot worse than you had imagined. I’ll tell you something else. After President Bush was elected, I called my old friend Dick Cheney and asked for a meeting. I’ve known the Vice President from the days when he worked for Don Rumsfeld in the Nixon administration. So on January 3¸ before the inauguration, I flew to Washington and spent a half hour with him. My main mission was to explain to him that the economy was suffering from a rare form of monetary deflation that would not respond to tax cuts or interest rate cuts. But while I was there, I urged him to find a role for Dr. Prather in the new administration. I actually suggested he hire him as his own personal science advisor. He assured me he would take a look.

Alas, Gordon’s big problem was that he had been one of the earliest and most insightful defenders of Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese expatriate who worked at the nuclear weapons facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico and was accused of being an enemy agent. From the day I saw the first story on page one of the New York Times, I knew it smelled fishy and suspected Lee was being set up by the same neo-conservatives who were behind the war in Iraq. That’s right. Richard Perle, Bill Kristol, and Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby. Back in those days, they were agitating for a war with China over Taiwan, an idea which is no doubt still on their back burner. I e-mailed Gordon who almost immediately replied that the Times story by Jeff Gerth was filled with laughable errors. He investigated thoroughly in the weeks and months that followed, concluding that Dr. Lee was beyond suspicion for a variety of reasons that ultimately proved to be correct.

Jack Kemp at Empower America commissioned Gordon to write a report setting forth his analysis and conclusions, which he then circulated. Bill Bennett, who is also at Empower America but is part of the Perle/Kristol team, refused to permit the organization’s imprimatur to go on the Prather Report, so Kemp paid for it himself. It did no good as the government had decided to go after Dr. Lee with everything it had. He had to spend a year in federal prison in solitary confinement – so he could not whisper nuclear secrets to other inmates. Gordon had very early known that Lee’s particular discipline -- which was not in nuclear science -- would not have enabled him to understand the documents he was supposed to have passed on to the Chinese. You may remember the federal judge who released Dr. Lee apologized to him for the way the U.S. government had treated him. His release came only after Jeff Gerth of the Times was given a Pulitzer Prize for helping convict an espionage agent – with information fed to him by the Perle cabal.

That’s why Dr. Prather never got a job in the Bush administration. He was politely interviewed by Mr. Libby, the Vice President’s chief of staff, but there was nothing for him. He was interviewed at the Department of Energy, but Spencer Abraham who is Energy Secretary once worked for Bill Kristol, when Kristol was Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. So there was nothing there. Dr. Prather had impeccable GOP credentials for a new assignment at the Pentagon, but Powell Moore, who a long time ago was Sen. Richard Russell’s press secretary, has for years been on the Perle/Wolfowitz team. Powell has known and respected Dr. Prather for more than 20 years, but told him he could not be of help. You surely see a lot of Powell, Senator, as he is Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs, working directly for Wolfowitz and Don Rumsfeld, who of course is also a Perle follower.

Jack Kemp pushed every button he could think of to get Gordon into the government, in a spot where his expertise would make a difference in sorting out truth from fiction on matters bearing on weapons of mass destruction. When he was Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott tried but could not find a place for Gordon on the staffs of key Republicans. Always word came that someone else got the job. What I am saying is that it would have been inconvenient for the warhawks in the GOP to have Gordon around, for if he were there would not have been a war with Iraq. You ought to meet him, Senator. He lives right near the Pentagon. And he would be happy to talk to you, or any Democratic or Republican Senator for that matter. Even a Democratic presidential candidate. You have been saying for weeks that somehow or other the truth has to get out. In that regard, I assure you Dr. Prather would be a great help.

Best regards, as always,

Jude Wanniski