The CIA successfully got the White House last October to omit references to Iraq's alleged attempts to purchase uranium from Niger because the agency concluded that the documents used to back up the allegations were forgeries, according to two Democratic members of the Senate's intelligence committee, both of whom were briefed by the CIA in classified hearings last year about the uranium allegations.
But it still remains unclear how, after briefing the White House and the intelligence committee that the documents about Iraq's attempt to procure uranium from Niger wound up in President Bush's State of the Union address in January.
Bush and his top White House advisers said last the CIA cleared week the erroneous information referenced in the State of the Union address. But White House officials did not disclose that the British intelligence documents Bush cited were known forgeries. The claims that Iraq tried to buy uranium from South Africa was a key point the Bush administration used in trying to sway the public to support a war against the country.
George Tenet, director of the CIA, took responsibility Friday for allowing Bush to use the information in his State of the Union address in January. Still, Democrats and a handful of Republicans want a broader probe on pre-war intelligence information used by the White House to build a case for war against Iraq.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair first mentioned the allegations last September about Iraq trying to obtain large quantities of uranium from a South African country just three hours before a Commons debate on whether Britain would use military force and back the United States in a war against Iraq.
In an exclusive interview last week, the two Democratic U.S. Senators said the CIA tried to get Blair to remove the uranium reference from a dossier released by British intelligence officials because the documents used to support the allegations were "crude forgeries," the Senators said.
The Senators said they could not speak "on the record" because the information the CIA shared with the intelligence committee is still considered classified.
A spokesperson for Blair and the CIA would not return numerous calls for comment.
These members said the Senate Intelligence Committee accused the CIA last September of withholding information the committee requested on U.S. military action in Iraq and that after the accusations were made publicly the CIA briefed the committee on the existence of the phony uranium documents an other intelligence information.
The British dossier, which said Iraq had sought large quantities of uranium from South Africa in an effort to jump start its nuclear weapons program, were quickly dismissed as forgeries last October in a private meeting in Vienna at the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to the head of the IAEA, Mohammed ElBaradei.
The IAEA quickly realized that the documents handed over by the U.S. and British were phony after one letter purportedly signed by a Nigerian minister who had been out of office for 10 years.
"The IAEA was able to review correspondence coming from various bodies of the Government of Niger, and to compare the form, format, contents and signatures of that correspondence with those of the alleged procurement-related documentation," ElBaradei said in a statement in March. "Based on thorough analysis, the IAEA has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents - which formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger - are in fact not authentic."
The IAEA said the documents in the British dossier included a letter discussing the uranium deal supposedly signed by Niger President Tandja Mamadou. The IAEA described the signature as "childlike" and said that it clearly was not Mamadou's.
Another document, written on paper from a 1980s military government in Niger, bears the date of October 2000 and the signature of a man who by then had not been foreign minister of Niger in 14 years.
A U.S. intelligence official told CNN in March that the documents were passed on to the IAEA within days of being received last September with the comment, " 'We don't know the provenance of this information, but here it is.' "
The IAEA had dismissed another erroneous report about Iraq's nuclear weapons program earlier in September. The IAEA said that a report cited by President Bush as evidence that Iraq in 1998 was "six months away" from developing a nuclear weapon did not exist.
"There's never been a report like that issued from this agency," Mark Gwozdecky, the IAEA's chief spokesman, said in a Sept. 26 telephone interview with the Washington Times.
In a Sept. 7 news conference with Prime Minister Blair, Bush said: "I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied - finally denied access [in 1998], a report came out of the Atomic - the IAEA that they were six months away from developing a weapon.
The White House told the Washington Times that Bush was referring to an earlier IAEA report.
"He's referring to 1991 there," said Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan. "In '91, there was a report saying that after the war they found out they were about six months away."
But Gwozdecky said no such report was ever issued by the IAEA in 1991.
The IAEA also took issue with a Sept. 9 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies - cited by the Bush administration - that concludes Saddam "could build a nuclear bomb within months if he were able to obtain fissile material," the Washington Times reported.
"There is no evidence in our view that can be substantiated on Iraq's nuclear-weapons program. If anybody tells you they know the nuclear situation in Iraq right now, in the absence of four years of inspections, I would say that they're misleading you because there isn't solid evidence out there," Gwozdecky told the paper.
"I don't know where they have determined that Iraq has retained this much weaponization capability because when we left in December '98 we had concluded that we had neutralized their nuclear-weapons program. We had confiscated their fissile material. We had destroyed all their key buildings and equipment," he said.
Gwozdecky said there is no evidence about Saddam's nuclear capability right now - either through his organization, other agencies or any government.
A few weeks later, on Sept. 25, 2002, just three hours before a crucial debate in the House of Commons on whether the British would support a U.S. led coalition to disarm Iraq by force, Blair publicly released a dossier, much of which was based on already available public information, but included the frightening claim that Iraq could launch a nuclear missile in 45 minutes and that the country sought 500 tons of Uranium from South Africa.
Father of the House Tam Dalyell, MP for Linlithgow, slammed the cynical timing of the document's publication saying, "I now understand very clearly why the Government wanted to produce this report at 8a.m. on the morning of the debate, rather than subject it to the anvil of expert scrutiny by publishing it a week in advance."
The White House said the findings in the British dossier were "frightening" and proved that Iraq was an imminent threat to its neighbors in the Middle East and to the U.S.
But a day after the dossier was released, Aziz Pahad, South African Deputy Prime Minister of Foreign Affairs, dismissed the report as a fake. Pahad said the IAEA had already rejected the claims that Iraq could have obtained uranium from Africa to make nuclear weapons.
"The agency (IAEA) had said there was no substance to the report. Four African countries produced uranium -- South Africa, Namibia, Niger and Gabon -- but South Africa was the only one capable of producing the enriched uranium for use in nuclear weapons," Pahad said in a Sept. 26, 2002 prepared statement.
The IAEA also said in a statement in September 2002 that it is keeping an eye on stores of uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons in Africaand they would know if any went missing.
Indeed, in a report by UPI in October 2002, the news service said, "It seems unlikely, all the same, that the South African government has sold uranium to Iraq. (Former South African President) F.W. De Klerk, apprehensive about what might happen with South Africa's nuclear capabilities under an African National Congress government -- now the ruling party -- had made provision for tight and regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the IAEA seems happy that its controls are adequate."
But the British and top officials in the White House continued to harp on the uranium allegations, despite the fact that the IAEA had dismissed the documents as forgeries. When Iraq delivered its 12,000 page weapons report to the United Nations in December, the U.S. State Department released a fact sheet asking why hasn't Iraq accounted for uranium it tried to obtain from Niger.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also highlighted Iraq's alleged uranium purchases from Africa during a Jan. 29 briefing with reporters and called for the U.N. to support the U.S. in the event of war. Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, said Jan. 23, in a speech before the Council of Foreign Relations in New York that Iraq's 12,000 page weapons report to the U.N. was unacceptable because "there is no mention of Iraqi efforts to procure uranium from abroad."
The timing of the statements by Bush's top advisers was crucial because the U.N. was gearing up to hold a vote on whether to find Iraq in material breach of a U.N. resolution calling for the country to disarm, which if U.N. countries voted in favor of would have allowed the U.S. to start a war with Iraq with the full support of U.N. member countries.
National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, in a Jan. 23, New York Times op-ed column headlined "Why We Know Iraq is Lying," accused Iraq of filing a "false declaration to the United Nations that amounts to a 12,200-page lie." "For example, the declaration fails to account for or explain Iraq's efforts to get uranium from abroad," Rice said in the column.
Jason Leopold can be reached at: email@example.com