Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet took a bullet for the president last week, accepting responsibility for the now-discredited “16 words” in Bush’s January State of the Union address about Iraq’s efforts to purchase uranium in Africa.
“These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president,” Tenet said in a statement Friday.
Tenet’s gallantry, however, does little to answer the question first raised in early March when inspectors at the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency judged fake a mysterious set of documents Bush had relied on to buttress his claim about Iraq’s nuclear ambitions. Press speculation has fingered Iraqi dissidents as the group who had the most to gain in alleging Saddam’s uranium shopping spree. The paper trail behind the documents has led to: a “con man” out to make money; Italian intelligence; and “the French.” Some publications even suggest the United States, Britain, or other interested powers forged the uranium letters.
The documents are only a part of the disputed “intelligence” the Bush administration used to enlist support for an Iraq invasion. Other intelligence findings, which the administration and its principal ally, Britain, still support, assert a Saddam-Africa nuclear connection.
In the four months since the uranium documents were unmasked, the press has made only halting progress in identifying the counterfeiters, which may help explain why the documents seemed credible in the first place. Why wasn’t Secretary of State Colin Powell ever tempted to cite the Niger intelligence? Who devised and executed the Niger scam? What exactly did they hope to gain from it?
A driftline cast into the Nexis sea captures hundreds of stories written about the disputed documents. It’s beyond the scope of this article to determine who reported what first, so in condensing those stories into a timeline, more effort has been made to give a sense of how the story has unfolded in all its contradictory glory.
March 8, 2003—TorontoGlobe and Mail
Jeff Shallot of the Toronto Globe and Mail cites U.N. sources in reporting IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei’s conclusion that “Secret documents detailing attempts by Iraq to buy uranium for nuclear warheads from Niger are forgeries. …” Shallot hypothesizes a con man, who sold them to an Italian intelligence agent, and then “passed [them] on to French authorities.” Shallot continues:
There is no evidence that the forgeries were part of a dirty tricks operation by the United States or any other government to discredit Iraq, even though U.S. and British officials said the documents supported their case against the Baghdad regime.
March 9, 2003—New York Times
ElBaradei tells the New York Times’ Felicity Barringer that his “experts found anomalies in the signatures, the letterhead and the format of the document.” Whose interest might the forgery serve? “I’m sure there’s a lot of people who would be delighted to malign Iraq,” said ElBaradei. “It could range from Iraqi dissidents to all sorts of other sources.”
March 14, 2003—CNN
David Ensor of CNN cites “knowledgeable sources” who say one of the forged documents, a letter discussing the uranium deal with Iraq, contains the faked signature of Tandja Mamadou, the president of Niger. He continues, “Another, 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 for 14 years.”
According to a U.S. intelligence official quoted by Ensor, the documents were passed to the IAEA with no guarantees of their provenance. A U.S. official says the mistake was more likely due to incompetence, not malice. Ensor sorts out the suspects from the innocent in attempting to answer the question: Who forged the docs?
No one knows, and it’s a bit of a mystery. But some of the experts say that the suspects have to include the intelligence services of Iraq’s neighbors and other pro-war nations, as well as, of course, Iraqi opposition groups. Most rule out the United States or Britain, which, if they wanted to make forgeries, could have made much more convincing ones. U.S. officials are saying that they got the documents from the intelligence service of another country, which was not Britain and was not Israel, but which they will not name.
March 15, 2003—Los Angeles Times
Greg Miller repeats the Globe and Mail report that the phony documents came from Italian intelligence authorities, “who may have been duped into paying for the forgeries, U.S. officials said Friday,” but Miller places the con man angle in the realm of speculation.
“I don’t mean to suggest that Italy created the documents. I don’t think they have any reason to,” one U.S. official said. “It’s conceivable that some con man sold it to them.”
March 16, 2003—Sunday Times (London)
Stephen Grey of the Sunday Times of London reports that one “key letter,” dated July 2000 that refers to the export of 500 tons of uranium oxide (“yellow cake”), contains the forged signature of President Mamadou. Grey continues:
Another letter dated 10 October, 2000, and purportedly signed by Niger’s foreign minister, Allele Elhadj Habibou, referred to an enclosed “protocol of understanding” for the uranium export. But a check by UN officials revealed Habibou had been deposed a full decade earlier.
Worse still, the October letter had a date stamp showing it had been received in September 2000—in other words, before it was sent.
March 16, 2003—Chicago Tribune
Sam Roe reports that the forged documents “were likely written by someone in Niger’s embassy in Rome who hoped to make quick money,” attributing the information to a source close to the U.N. investigation.
March 17, 2003—Der Spiegel Web site (translation courtesy BBC)
Georg Mascolo reports that one of the documents “purported to deal with uranium supplied to Saddam Husayn, and mysterious visits to Africa by Iraqis.”
March 22, 2003—Washington Post
Dana Priest and Karen DeYoung provide new details about the letters: U.S. intelligence officials had not seen the “actual evidence” until last month. “The source of their information, and their doubts,” intelligence officials said, “was a written summary provided more than six months ago by the Italian intelligence service, which first obtained the documents.”
Besides the faked Mamadou signature, the giveaway in the July 2000 letter was a reference to the Niger constitution of 1965, which was superceded by a new constitution in 1999. Priest and DeYoung include a Niger diplomat in the mix, writing:
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.
March 23, 2003—New York Times
American intelligence officials tell journalist James Risen the documents were not created by the United States and that the CIA was always suspicious of them.
March 31, 2003—The New Yorker
Seymour M. Hersh details how the IAEA’s Jacques Baute discovered the half-dozen documents were fakes in a few hours. An IAEA official tells Hersh that 500 tons of yellowcake allegedly sought by Iraq are presold to power companies in France, Japan, and Spain and couldn’t be diverted “without anyone noticing.” Hersh writes:
This official told me that the I.A.E.A. has not been able to determine who actually prepared the documents. “It could be someone who intercepted faxes in Israel, or someone at the headquarters of the Niger Foreign Ministry, in Niamey. We just don’t know,” the official said. “Somebody got old letterheads and signatures, and cut and pasted.”
IAEA investigators speculate that the documents were inspired by a trans-Africa trip taken by Iraq’s ambassador to Italy in February 1999. Niger was one of his ports of call.
April 10, 2003—Washington Post
Western intelligence officials tell op-ed columnist David Ignatius that the forgery “was originally put in intelligence channels by France” but that “the officials wouldn’t speculate on French motives.”
June 13, 2003—Knight Ridder Washington Bureau
Citing an anonymous senior CIA official, Jonathan S. Landay reports that the agency told the White House 10 months before Bush’s State of the Union address “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 country.”
July 6, 2003—New York Times
Diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV pens an account for the Times op-ed page of his February 2002 fact-finding mission to Niger to investigate (at the behest of the CIA) allegations of a Iraq-Niger yellowcake sale. Wilson finds no evidence of any sale and does not discuss the now-discredited documents in his report to the agency.
Within days, the Bush administration concedes that the president erred in using the Niger information in his address. The Wilson information, says National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, came to administration attention only the month before. To the chagrin of the White House, U.S. intelligence officials disclose that they tried to warn the British away from the Iraq-uranium claims last fall.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government repudiates the disputed Niger information but claims other intelligence sources support Britain’s position that Iraq sought uranium in Africa. In his July 11 statement, Tenet says the Wilson information was not forwarded to the president and vice president because it did not resolve whether Iraq was seeking to buy uranium.
July 14, 2003—Agence France-Presse
The news wire reports the Italian government’s denial that its intelligence services “handed the United States and Britain documents indicating that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger for a nuclear weapons programme.”
This “denial” fails to satisfy, of course, because earlier reports mentioned only that Italy provided a summary of the documents to the United States.
Finally, AFP cites a Financial Times report that Britain received information about Iraq’s Niger uranium aspirations from two sources, “thought to be France and Italy”—which brings us right back to where we started.
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