WASHINGTON – When the Bush administration issued its prewar claims that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa, the CIA had not yet obtained the documents that served as a key foundation for the allegation and later turned out to be forged, U.S. officials say.
The CIA didn't receive the documents until February 2003, nearly a year after the agency first began investigating the alleged Iraq-Africa connection and a short time after it assented to language in President Bush's State of the Union address that alleged such a connection, the officials said.
Without the source documents, the CIA (search) could investigate only their substance, which it had learned from a foreign government around the beginning of 2002. One of the key allegations was that Iraq was soliciting uranium from the African country of Niger.
The CIA sometimes succeeded in getting the information removed from public statements.
For instance, the agency tried to have the Niger reference removed from a State Department fact sheet in December 2002, but the document was published before the change could be made, one U.S. intelligence official told The Associated Press, speaking only on condition of anonymity.
CIA Director George Tenet (search) spoke in closed session to the Senate Committee on Intelligence about the matter Wednesday.
The discredited documents at the center of the controversy are a series of letters purportedly between officials in Iraq and Niger. The letters indicated Niger would supply uranium to the government of Saddam Hussein (search) in a form that could be refined for nuclear weapons.
"Big questions remain about who forged the documents and the paper trail that followed," Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said this week.
The CIA declined to say how the agency eventually obtained the documents. Officials at several other U.S. agencies, including the State Department, declined to say whether another U.S. government agency possessed or viewed them before Bush's speech last January.
After the CIA received the documents, the government provided them to the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, which quickly determined them to be forgeries. The U.N. Security Council was alerted March 7, two weeks before American and British forces invaded Iraq.
But the documents had already been used for public claims in at least two places: the Dec. 19 State Department fact sheet and Bush's Jan. 28 address, in which he uttered the line: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
When the Niger claim first arose, the CIA sent a retired diplomat to Africa to investigate in February 2002. The diplomat, Joseph Wilson, reported finding no credible evidence that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger.
Tenet said the CIA was unaware of any documents purporting to show such transactions at the time, and it is unclear when the U.S. government learned that the documents existed and were the source of the Niger claim.
The CIA's doubts about the uranium claim were reported through routine intelligence traffic throughout the government, one U.S. intelligence official said. Those doubts were also reported to the British.
The Niger report, along with a notation that it was unconfirmed, was also included in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, the classified summary of intelligence on Iraq. Tenet said the report was not a key part of the CIA's judgment that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.
The CIA had the Niger claim removed from at least two speeches before they were given: President Bush's October address on the Iraqi threat and a later speech by U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte, officials said.
On Jan. 28, 2003, the Africa allegation went into the State of the Union address. As the speech was being written, CIA officials protested the line, so the administration changed it to attribute it to British intelligence instead of U.S. intelligence. Tenet said last week it should have been removed.
In recent weeks, the Bush administration has offered a number of defenses for using the statement:
--The CIA should have had it removed.
--It was based on more intelligence information than the Niger letter.
--It was technically true because it was attributed to British intelligence.
--It wasn't the reason the United States invaded Iraq.
The uranium claim didn't appear in Colin Powell's address to the United Nations on Feb. 5.
It first surfaced in a Sept. 24, 2002, British dossier, which said Iraq "sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The Blair administration says it did not view the now-discredited documents until October 2002, after the publication of the dossier.
Blair told the House of Commons Wednesday that "the intelligence on which we based this was not the so-called forged documents." The Blair administration has not detailed its other intelligence.
Bush administration officials have also said other information pointed to possible Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But Tenet has called these reports "fragmentary" -- a term in intelligence circles for unconfirmed information of suspect accuracy.
The chain of possession of the forged documents remains unclear. The apparent forger has also not been identified.
The documents were first acquired in Rome, a Bush administration official said. Another administration official said the Italian government possessed them.
The Italians this week denied providing the documents themselves to the U.S. or British governments, but the head of an Italian parliamentary intelligence committee said Wednesday that Italy may have passed on the disputed claims informally.
French diplomatic sources told the AP on Wednesday the French government never possessed the documents but did have suspicions Iraq was seeking nuclear material from Niger.