WASHINGTON – The White House on Friday stood by President Bush's assertion that Iraq has sought uranium (search) in Africa in recent years, saying that his allegation in January was supported by more evidence than a series of letters now known to have been forged.
Those letters, obtained by European intelligence agencies and later by the United States, were a purported exchange between officials in Iraq and the African country of Niger (search) concerning the possible purchase of uranium. The United Nations later determined they were forgeries.
"Those documents were only one piece of evidence in a larger body of evidence suggesting that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Africa," said Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council (search). "The issue of Iraq's pursuit of uranium in Africa is supported by multiple sources of intelligence. The other sources of evidence did and do support the president's statement."
Additional intelligence pointed to Iraq also seeking uranium in Somalia and possibly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said a senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The uranium reportedly sought was in a raw form that would have to undergo a complicated enrichment process before it could be used in a nuclear weapon.
Officials did not specify the sources of any such additional intelligence. Intelligence officials have previously described other evidence of recent Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium in Africa as fragmentary.
The British and Italian governments initially reported the possible Niger-Iraq connection to the United States around the end of 2001. These claims were based at least partially on the forged documents, U.S. officials said, although they did not learn the source until later.
In early 2002, the CIA sent a former diplomat to Niger to investigate. The U.S. Embassy made several inquiries to the government in Niger. Neither found any evidence Niger had sold any uranium to Iraq. One Niger official said he believed Iraq was planning to offer to buy some but had no direct evidence, the senior administration official said.
At issue is how well the CIA made its doubts about the purported Niger-Iraq connection known within the government — and, in particular, the results of the retired diplomat's investigation into the matter.
The Washington Post, citing unidentified officials, reported Thursday that the agency kept its reservations to itself. But a senior intelligence official told The Associated Press that the CIA widely distributed reports that said it could not independently confirm the substance of the foreign intelligence information.
The British included their information in a public statement on Sept. 24, 2002, that said Iraq "sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The British have stood by their statements.
A classified National Intelligence Estimate (search), distributed around the U.S. government in October 2002, noted that foreign intelligence services believed Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa, the senior administration official said.
After Bush repeated the British claim in his State of the Union address in January, the United Nations sought U.S. documentation. The purported Iraq-Niger letters were turned over to the United Nations, which found them to be forged.
In retrospect, officials said, it would have been better to have left the uranium claim out of the president's speech, even though the speech was fact-checked by the CIA and other agencies. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) said Sunday the report was not central to the president's case that Iraq had prohibited weapons and programs.