CIA officials now say they communicated significant doubts to the administration about the evidence backing up charges that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Africa for nuclear weapons, charges that found their way into President Bush's State of the Union address, a State Department "fact sheet" and public remarks by numerous senior officials.
That evidence was dismissed as a forgery early this month by United Nations officials investigating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs. The Bush administration does not dispute this conclusion.
Asked how the administration came to back up one of its principal allegations against Iraq with information its own intelligence service considered faulty, officials said all such assertions were carefully tailored to stay within the bounds of certainty. As for the State of the Union address, a White House spokesman said, "all presidential speeches are fully vetted by the White House staff and relevant U.S. government agencies for factual correctness."
Questioned about the forgery during a recent congressional hearing, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said, "We were aware of this piece of evidence, and it was provided in good faith to the [U.N.] inspectors."
But in the days preceding the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq, some intelligence officials had begun to acknowledge more openly their doubts about how this and other information was used to support charges that Iraq has a significant covert program to produce weapons of mass destruction.
"I have seen all the stuff. I certainly have doubts," said a senior administration official with access to the latest intelligence. Based on the material he has reviewed, the official said, the United States will "face significant problems in trying to find" such weapons. "It will be very difficult."
According to several officials, decisions about what information to declassify and use to make the administration's public case have been made by a small group that includes top CIA and National Security Council officials. "The policy guys make decisions about things like this," said one official, referring to the uranium evidence. When the State Department "fact sheet" was issued, the official said, "people winced and thought, 'Why are you repeating this trash?' "
Some have questioned whether the United States was duped by a foreign government or independent group. "There is a possibility that the fabrication of these documents may be part of a larger deception campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion and foreign policy regarding Iraq," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) wrote last Friday to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. An FBI inquiry, Rockefeller wrote, "should, at a minimum, help to allay any concerns" that the U.S. government itself created the documents to build support for the war.
Others have been more direct in suggesting a plot closer to home. In a letter sent to Bush on Monday, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) asked for a full accounting of "what you knew about the reliability of the evidence linking Iraq to uranium in Africa, when you knew this, and why you and senior officials in the administration presented the evidence to the U.N. Security Council, the Congress, and the American people without disclosing the doubts of the CIA."
The first public charge that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium for nuclear weapons in Africa came from Britain, in a document published last Sept. 24. In December, a State Department "fact sheet" said that the African country in question was Niger, and that Iraq's failure to declare the attempted purchase was one of the many lies it told about its weapons of mass destruction.
In his State of the Union address in January, Bush said "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." In separate statements in January, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made the same charge, without mentioning the British.
British officials said they "stand behind" the original allegation. They note they never mentioned "Niger," the subject of the forged documents, and imply, but do not say, that there was other information, about another African country. But an informed U.N. official said the United States and Britain were repeatedly asked for all information they had to support the charge. Neither government, the official said, "ever indicated that they had any information on any other country."
U.S. intelligence officials said they had not even seen the actual evidence, consisting of supposed government documents from Niger, until last month. The source of their information, and their doubts, officials said, was a written summary provided more than six months ago by the Italian intelligence service, which first obtained the documents.
Shortly after receiving the documents, the United States turned them over to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Within weeks, U.N. inspectors, along with an independent team of international experts, determined that the documents were fake.
One of the documents was a letter, dated July 2000 and apparently signed by the Niger president, discussing Iraq's agreement to purchase 500 tons of uranium oxide, and certifying that it was authorized under the Niger constitution of 1965. But U.N. officials quickly noted that Niger had promulgated a new constitution in 1999, and that the letter's signature bore little resemblance to the actual signature of President Tandja Mamadou.
Another letter, dated in 1999, was signed by the Niger foreign minister. But the letterhead belonged to the military government that had been replaced earlier in 1999, and the signatory had left the job of foreign minister in 1989.
The apparent genesis of the letters, or at least the U.S. and British willingness to believe in them, was a 1999 tour of African countries, including Niger, by Iraq's ambassador to Italy, noted at the time by a number of Western intelligence agencies. At some later point, a U.N. official recently told reporters, a Niger diplomat turned the letters over to Italian intelligence, which provided summaries of the information to Washington and London.
Two weeks after the Sept. 24 British publication, the Niger story appeared in a classified version of the National Intelligence Estimate, a summary of U.S. intelligence agencies' conclusions about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, although the report noted that the information had not been verified and the CIA had not confirmed that the uranium sale had gone through.
The State Department's December fact sheet, issued to point out glaring omissions in a declaration Iraq said accounted for all of its prohibited weapons, said the declaration "ignores efforts to procure uranium from Niger." Asked this week to comment on the fact sheet, a CIA spokesman referred questions on the matter to the State Department, where a spokesman said "everything we wrote in the fact sheet was cleared with the agency."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company