LONDON – Britain snapped back at its close ally the United States on Saturday after the White House cited it as the source of questionable information that President Bush used to bolster the case for war against Iraq in his State of the Union speech.
Prime Minister Tony Blair's (search) office insisted he still believes the disputed charge that Iraq sought uranium in Africa was true, saying Britain has reliable information it cannot share with Washington because it comes from foreign intelligence sources.
For the past week, the White House has faced a storm of criticism after it disavowed the accusation that Saddam Hussein's regime sought to buy uranium from Niger (search) for a nuclear weapons program. The CIA said it had had doubts about the British claim.
In a letter made public Saturday, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (search) said the CIA had expressed doubts to Britain about the uranium charge but did not specify what they were. Britain did not know until recently that the agency sent an envoy to Niger who investigated the claims and discounted them, he added.
Straw defended Britain's publication of the claim in September in a dossier on alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Despite the CIA reservations, "U.K. officials were confident that the dossier's statement was based on reliable intelligence which we had not shared with the U.S.," Straw wrote. "A judgment was therefore made to retain it."
Doubts about the uranium charge are at the center of critics' accusations that Bush and Blair exaggerated the danger posed by Saddam Hussein's regime to justify the invasion of Iraq. One of the documents suggesting Iraq sought uranium in Niger for its alleged nuclear weapons program was exposed as a forgery.
With Bush facing questions on the issue throughout his trip to Africa, the White House blamed the CIA for letting the statement go when it vetted Bush's speech. CIA director George Tenet (search) took responsibility Friday, saying the agency should have warned the president off, since it doubted the British finding.
Bush and Blair, close allies, are scheduled to meet Thursday in Washington, where the British leader plans to address a joint session of Congress, according to his office.
Straw wrote in his letter to the House of Commons select committee on foreign affairs that the CIA reservations over the claim were "unsupported by explanation" and that Britain had based its charge in part on intelligence it did not share with the United States.
The letter did not say why Britain declined to share the information with its ally, but Straw wrote that he had explained the reasons privately to the Parliamentary committee.
A Blair spokesman said the information had come from foreign intelligence services and was "not ours to share." He declined to say what country or countries had been the source.
The United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency asked for information on the allegation after the dossier was published, but Britain did not provide any, U.N. officials said.
The agency later asked Washington and London for new evidence after determining documents it received from the United States were forgeries. Mark Gwozdecky, spokesman for the Vienna-based IAEA, said it had not received any new information.
Blair has said he still believes the uranium charge to be true and that it was based on sources other than the forged document.
Straw wrote that until reports appeared recently in the press, Britain was unaware that a U.S. envoy went to Niger to investigate the claim and found it could not be substantiated. He said American officials have since confirmed they did not tell Britain of the visit.
Envoy Joseph Wilson's report, Straw wrote, "does indeed describe the denials of Niger government officials in early 2002 that a contract had been concluded for the sale of yellowcake to Iraq."
Yellowcake is a lightly processed form of uranium used in making nuclear weapons.
But Straw argued that part of Wilson's report bolstered the British claim. Wilson, he wrote, noted that an Iraqi delegation had in 1999 "sought the expansion of trade links with Niger — and that former Niger government officials believed that this was in connection with the procurement of yellowcake."
"Uranium is Niger's main export," Straw continued. "In other words, this element of Ambassador Wilson's report supports the statement in the government's dossier."
Niger's uranium industry is one of the most tightly controlled in the world. Tenet said information provided by a former government official there suggested it would be "very unlikely that material could be illicitly diverted."