WASHINGTON - Making his case for war with Iraq, President Bush
in his State of the Union address this year accused Saddam Hussein of
trying to buy uranium from Africa even though the CIA had warned White
House and other officials that the story didn't check out.
A senior CIA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity,
said the intelligence agency informed the White House on March 9, 2002
- 10 months before Bush's nationally televised speech - that an agency
source who had traveled to Niger couldn't confirm European intelligence
reports that Iraq was attempting to buy uranium from the West African
Despite the CIA's misgivings, Bush said in his State of the
Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein
recently sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa."
Three senior administration officials said Vice President Dick
Cheney and some officials on the National Security Council staff and at
the Pentagon ignored the CIA's reservations and argued that the
president and others should include the allegation in their case
The claim later turned out to be based on crude forgeries that an African diplomat had sold to Italian intelligence officials.
The revelation of the CIA warning is the strongest evidence to
date that pro-war administration officials manipulated, exaggerated or
ignored intelligence information in their eagerness to make the case
for invading Iraq.
"We've acknowledged that some documents were forged and we know
now it was a mistake to give them credence," said a fourth senior
administration official who defended the White House's handling of the
matter. "But they were only one piece of evidence in a larger body of
evidence suggesting that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from
Noting that Iraq had obtained uranium from Africa in the 1980s,
he said the most recent allegations "were not central pieces of the
case illustrating Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and
their WMD programs."
The CIA's March 2002 warning about Iraq's alleged
uranium-shopping expedition in Niger was sent to the Defense
Intelligence Agency, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Justice Department
and the FBI the same day it went to the White House, the senior CIA
In the months before Bush's State of the Union speech, the
senior CIA official said, agency officials also told the State
Department, National Security Council staffers and members of Congress
that they doubted that Iraq had been trying to buy uranium from Niger.
One senior administration official, also speaking on the
condition of anonymity because the intelligence reports remain
classified, said the CIA's doubts were well known and widely shared
throughout the government before Bush's speech.
Secretary of State Colin Powell didn't include the uranium
story in his Feb. 5 presentation on Iraq to the United Nations Security
Council, and senior CIA officials excluded it from their assessments of
Iraq's illicit weapons programs and from their congressional testimony.
"The intelligence community had generally discredited the Niger
angle well before the Feb. 5 presentation, though the (CIA) had
caveated the whole matter with `it's a possibility' type language,"
said one senior administration official. "The State Department's
(Bureau of Intelligence and Research) had footnoted the caveat with a
`hardly believable.' . . . It was too bad even to get on the table at
the (CIA) by that time."
"However, during the time between the `almost no good' report
from the agency and the `unbelievable' footnote from INR, various
people tried time and again to resurrect it and use it," the official
Among the most vocal proponents of publicizing the alleged
Niger connection, two senior officials said, were Cheney and officials
in the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The effort was
led by Robert G. Joseph, the top National Security Council staff
official on nuclear proliferation, the officials said.
Cheney alleged in an Aug. 26, 2002, speech that Saddam "has
resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," and this March 16 he
went much further, saying: "We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted
On last Sunday's television talk shows, national security
adviser Condoleezza Rice said the White House was unaware of the CIA's
"Maybe someone knew in the bowels of the agency, but no one in
our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might
be a forgery," she said on NBC.
The CIA's March 2002 warning about the Niger connection was
just one in a daily flood of diplomatic and intelligence reports on
Iraq, and it's possible that Rice never saw it.
However, the inclusion of the uranium story in Bush's speech
appears to support charges that some pro-invasion officials ignored
intelligence that could hurt the administration's case that Saddam was
pursuing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the senior Democrat on the
House Intelligence Committee, has demanded that the White House explain
why the Niger uranium story was in the president's State of the Union
"Contrary to your public statements, senior officials in the
intelligence community in Washington knew the forged evidence was
unreliable before the president used the evidence in the State of the
Union address," Waxman wrote in a letter Tuesday to Rice.
"This is a question that bears directly on the credibility of the United States," he contended.
The report of an Iraq-Niger deal was exposed as a fraud when
U.N. nuclear officials determined that the documents on which the
allegations were based - reportedly letters between Iraqi and Niger
officials - were forgeries.
The signature on a letter purportedly from Niger's President
Tandja Mamadou was an obvious forgery; another letter was on the wrong
letterhead and signed by an official who had left the post a decade
The use of the false evidence despite the CIA warning raises
questions about why some officials chose to believe the story despite
the widespread skepticism in the intelligence community.
One possibility, one senior official suggested Thursday, is
that some officials at the Pentagon and in the vice president's office
were getting their own intelligence from Iraqi exiles who the CIA and
the Defense Intelligence Agency warned couldn't be trusted.
Exile leader Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress told
lawmakers Thursday that his group had turned three Iraqi defectors over
to U.S. officials. One of the three, Chalabi said, was an Iraqi
scientist who was involved in separating isotopes for Iraq's nuclear
Bush cited allegations that Saddam was hiding chemical,
biological and nuclear warfare efforts from U.N. inspectors as a main
justification for the U.S.-led war.
After more than two months of searching, U.S. troops haven't
discovered any illicit weapons stockpiles or any evidence that Saddam
had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program.
The deposed Iraqi regime said it had destroyed its illicit weapons.
Bush and his top lieutenants say they are confident that such
weapons will be found eventually, although they've recently held open
the possibility that the stockpiles were destroyed before the invasion
kicked off March 20.
Majority Republican lawmakers so far have spurned a public
investigation, but the Senate Intelligence Committee has begun
reviewing intelligence assessments of Iraq's illicit weapons programs
and will start closed-door hearings next week.
The senior CIA official said the agency first heard about an
alleged Iraq-Niger uranium deal in reports from unidentified European
intelligence services in late 2001 and early 2002.
"There were people who had questions about the overall story.
It didn't make sense. It was sketchy information that was not validated
by other means," he said.
Nevertheless, continued interest in Cheney's office, the NSC,
the State Department and other agencies prompted the CIA to ask a
retired U.S. ambassador to Niger to go there in February 2002 to
inquire into the alleged deal, he said.
The CIA kept any reference to the former diplomat's identity out of its March 2002 message to the White House.
The message quoted a CIA "source" as saying he had spoken to
people close to the Niger government, former senior officials and
people involved in the country's mining industry, who all rejected the
reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium. The former ambassador said
he believed what they were telling him.
The message contained the names of people to whom the source spoke, said the senior CIA official.
It wasn't until February 2003 that the CIA obtained the
original Iraq-Niger documents on which the uranium story was based, he
The documents were forwarded to the U.N. International Atomic
Energy Agency. The next month, IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei told the
U.N. Security Council that the documents were forgeries, a
determination subsequently confirmed by U.S. officials.
(Knight Ridder correspondents Joseph L. Galloway and John Walcott contributed to this report.)