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U.S.: The Iraq-Niger Link: -- The Tangled History Of A Discredited Story

The White House is scrambling to deal with the political fallout of President George W. Bush's use of a faulty intelligence report about Baghdad seeking uranium in Africa. But the allegation used in Bush's State of the Union address in January to justify the war in Iraq was not new. It had already been cited by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and senior U.S. officials, even after the CIA had concluded the charge lacked any proof.

Prague, 16 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On 28 January, with U.S. troops pouring into the Middle East in preparation for a possible war against Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush gave perhaps the most important speech of his presidency.

Facing the full U.S. Congress, Bush in his State of the Union address sought to rally America's support for the looming conflict. He portrayed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a danger to the world -- in possession of chemical and biological weapons and with ties to Al-Qaeda terrorists.

Bush's claims have yet to be substantiated on the ground in Iraq, a fact over which his administration has taken some heat. U.S. and British officials say they are confident it is only a matter of time before evidence of Hussein's banned weapons programs are uncovered.

But it is another claim Bush made in the same speech that has caused a real firestorm of criticism in the U.S.: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

That sentence is now at the center of a controversy that is threatening Bush's domestic standing and international credibility.

Last week, the White House acknowledged that the Iraq-Africa story had been based on forged documents but was mistakenly kept in the State of the Union address. CIA Director George Tenet has accepted blame for the incident, saying his agency should have excised the passage from Bush's speech.

The origin of the Iraq-Africa documents remains unclear.

According to most press accounts, Italy in late 2001 obtained about half-a-dozen letters alleged to be correspondence between Iraqi officials and the African nation of Niger about a sale of uranium to Baghdad. Rome reportedly then passed that evidence on to both Washington and London.

Italy has repeatedly denied it had anything to do with the documents, and yesterday launched a probe into whether its intelligence service was in fact responsible for obtaining the letters and passing them to the U.S.

The credibility of the documents has also long been in question.

For example, one letter -- dated October 2000 -- was reportedly signed by Niger's Foreign Minister Allele Habibou. But Habibou had left the government in 1989. Another letter bore what an official of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency has called the "blatantly forged" signature of the president of Niger, Tandja Mamadou.

The CIA's discrediting of the story goes back at least to early 2002, when the agency sent a former U.S. diplomat to Niger to investigate Iraq's alleged bid for uranium. Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador to Gabon, reported back that he found the story to be "highly doubtful."

Earlier this month, Wilson launched a scathing attack on the White House for Bush's subsequent use of the discredited report.

"Either the administration has some information that it has not shared with the public, or yes, they were using the selective use of facts and intelligence to bolster a decision in a case that has already been made," Wilson says.

Based on Wilson's findings, the CIA warned about the story on 9 March 2002 in a memo to Congress and the White House. At roughly the same time, the State Department's intelligence arm sent a similar warning about the Iraq-Niger story to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

According to unidentified American intelligence officials quoted in U.S. media, that should have ended the story. But it didn't.

On 24 September 2002, in an address to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "We know Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa, though we do not know whether he has been successful."

The story now had the public support of America's chief ally. The citation was also reported in a British government dossier on Iraq released at the same time. To this day, Blair says Britain has other evidence proving the Iraq-Niger story that it cannot share lest it compromise its sources.

At the same time Blair spoke in parliament, senior U.S. officials were also citing the story privately, media reports say.

On 24 September 2002, as Congress prepared to vote to give Bush authorization to wage war against Iraq, Tenet appeared before a closed-door session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. According to Seymour Hersh, a respected reporter for "The New Yorker" magazine, Tenet told the panel that Iraq had recently sought uranium for nuclear arms in Africa. Tenet denies mentioning that report before the panel.

Citing sources present at the briefings, Hersh says Powell also made the same assertion when he appeared before the same panel two days later.

Just over a week later, according to White House officials, Tenet himself intervened to excise a passage about the Iraq-Niger link from a speech Bush gave on 7 October in Cincinnati.

Oddly, the story appeared to be revived in early January 2003 by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. In a "New York Times" opinion piece titled "Why We Know Iraq Is Lying," Rice said Baghdad had failed "to account for or explain Iraq's efforts to get uranium from abroad."

By then, the Vienna-based IAEA had been asking Washington for months to turn over the documents proving the Iraq-Africa story. But the papers were not delivered until a week after the story received its most prominent public airing -- in Bush's State of the Union speech.

It didn't take long for the United Nations nuclear watchdog to determine the documents had been forged. On 7 March, IAEA director Mohammad el-Baradei told the UN Security Council.

"Based on thorough analysis, the IAEA has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents which form the basis for the reports of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger are, in fact, not authentic," el-Baradei says.

A week later, on 14 March, U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia formally requested an investigation into the matter by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Rockefeller wrote to FBI Director Robert Mueller, asking him to investigate whether there was a campaign of deception to manipulate U.S. public opinion over Iraq.

The White House maintains that Bush's State of the Union speech was factually accurate, since it attributed the Iraq-Africa story to Britain.

Like London, Washington also says allegations that Baghdad sought uranium in Africa are backed up by other sources. Niger is a top producer of uranium and was a brief source in the early 1980s for Iraq's then-budding nuclear power program.

The White House is now seeking to shift the focus of the current debate. Speaking at the White House on 14 July, Bush said.

"I think the intelligence I get is darn good intelligence, and the speeches I have given were backed by good intelligence, and I am absolutely convinced today, like I was convinced when I gave the speeches, that Saddam Hussein developed a program of weapons of mass destruction," Bush said.

Despite Bush's support, the CIA remains under fire. Today, Tenet is set to appear before a select U.S. Senate panel on intelligence in a closed-door session investigating the Iraq-Africa story.

His future uncertain, Tenet is likely to be grilled about why the story was included in the "National Intelligence Estimate," an 80-page document on Iraq's weapons programs compiled by U.S. intelligence agencies and put out last October.

It was an odd inclusion, since the CIA and Tenet himself had repeatedly warned about the lack of proof behind the Iraq-Africa story.

Why the story remained in Bush's State of the Union speech almost four months later remains the key question.