Press Box

Follow That Story: The Nuclear Whodunit, Part 2

Who forged the documents that bamboozled the U.S.?

Three days ago, this column asked: Who forged the documents the United States and Britain submitted to U.N. inspectors as proof that Iraq had purchased tons of uranium—presumably for nuclear weapons—from Niger? And what were the forger’s motives?

The “Press Box” directive to his press corps colleagues to smoke out the forgers and their designs was prompted by a March 13 Washington Postarticle, “FBI Probes Fake Evidence of Iraqi Nuclear Plans.” The story, which was underplayed on Page A-17, indicated that the U.S. government knew who had forged the Niger documents but wasn’t telling. The Post also reported that the United States and Britain received the documents from a third country’s intelligence agency, adding, “The FBI is looking into the forgery of a key piece of evidence linking Iraq to a nuclear weapons program, including the possibility that a foreign government is using a deception campaign to foster support for military action against Iraq.” [Emphasis added.] The third country in the handoff was not Israel, CNNreported on March 14.

As it turns out, Jeff Sallot of the Toronto Globe and Mail got an early jump on this story. (A Press Box reader alerted me to this clip.) On March 8, several days before the Post piece ran, the Globe and Mail linked the forged documents to an unnamed con man who was in contact with Italian intelligence and French authorities:

The forgeries were sold to an Italian intelligence agent by a con man some time ago and passed on to French authorities, but the scam was uncovered by the IAEA only recently, according to United Nations sources familiar with the investigation. The documents were turned over to the IAEA several weeks ago.

On Sunday, March 16, 2003, both the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globefollowed the forged document story. The Tribune located the forgery in Italy but did not make the French connection, writing:

Forged documents that the United States used to build its case against Iraq were likely written by someone in Niger’s embassy in Rome who hoped to make quick money, a source close to the United Nations investigation said.

The Globe seemed to subscribe to the Iraqi defectors theory, quoting a CIA analyst favorably:

Patrick G. Eddington, a CIA analyst on Iraq in the 1990s, said the United States may be depending too much on the word of senior Iraqi defectors. He said the Niger claim was the most damaging. “It looks like they are trying to set up Iraq,” he said. “I think there is enough information there to make their case. You never need to embellish.”

Meanwhile, without collecting any new string of its own, Germany’s Der Spiegelaccused the United States and the U.K. as the forgery perpetrators in a March 17 Web story titled, “Grounds for War Urgently Required: Forgeries and Half-Truths Intended To Heighten Fears of Saddam’s Weapons Arsenal” (translation courtesy the BBC).

So, where are the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times on this story? And will the Washington Post follow up?


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