WASHINGTON – The State Department (search) obtained the fraudulent documents alleging Iraq sought uranium in Africa months before President Bush made the claim, but U.S. intelligence analysts did not examine them closely enough to determine they were forgeries until after the president's disputed speech, U.S. officials say.
The account provided by the officials Thursday suggests a disconnect between the CIA (search) and the State Department over the handling of what turned out to be a crucial but faulty piece of intelligence used to make the Bush administration's case for war.
Had the documents been analyzed sooner, they might have been determined to be forgeries before the information was used as fodder for Bush administration statements vilifying Iraq, the officials acknowledged.
The U.S. Embassy in Rome obtained the documents, which purported to show contacts between officials in Iraq and Niger over the transfer of uranium, from a journalist there in October 2002, officials said. They were shown to CIA personnel in Rome and sent to State Department headquarters in Washington. But the CIA's station in Rome did not forward them to CIA headquarters outside Washington, where they would have been analyzed.
Later in October, the State Department offered the documents to the CIA and other agencies in the intelligence community, said a U.S. government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"We acquired the documents in October 2002 and they were shared widely within the U.S. government, with all the appropriate agencies," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
But an intelligence official said the CIA didn't obtain the documents from the State Department until February 2003. It was unclear why the CIA did not obtain the documents when the State Department said it had them available.
The CIA only got the documents to respond to a request from the United Nations, the intelligence official said. U.N. officials, trying to run a weapons inspections regime in Iraq, asked for evidence behind the allegation in Bush's Jan. 28 speech that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
The CIA provided them to the United Nations (search). U.N. officials announced in early March the documents were fakes, and the CIA concurred, the intelligence official said.
The intelligence official could not explain why CIA headquarters did not obtain the documents from the State Department sooner. The official suggested analyzing the documents was not a top priority at the time because the CIA had already investigated their substance.
The Italian government, which also obtained a copy of the documents, had passed on their contents — but not their source — to the CIA several months earlier. The CIA had sent a retired diplomat to Africa to investigate but found little to substantiate the claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger (search).
Still, the CIA included the claim, with a note that it was unconfirmed, in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (search), the classified document that summarized information on Iraq's weapons programs.
The estimate also noted the U.S. government had other, "fragmentary" intelligence suggesting that Iraq sought uranium for its nuclear weapons program in Somalia (search) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (search).
But despite the uncertainties, Bush administration officials tried repeatedly to use this information in speeches and public statements. The CIA protested several times as the statements were being prepared, but the Niger claim made into a State Department fact sheet in December, and the more general Africa claim was used in the president's State of the Union address.
The controversy over Bush's claim in his address has raised further questions about the administration's assertions that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, an nuclear weapons program, and ties to Al Qaeda (search).
None of those assertions, which the administration said were backed up by solid intelligence, have been validated by discoveries in postwar Iraq.