How Bogus Letter Became a Case for War

By Peter Eisner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 3, 2007

It was 3 a.m. in Italy on Jan. 29, 2003, when President Bush in Washington began reading his State of the Union address that included the now famous -- later retracted -- 16 words: "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Like most Europeans, Elisabetta Burba, an investigative reporter for the Italian newsweekly Panorama, waited until the next day to read the newspaper accounts of Bush's remarks. But when she came to the 16 words, she recalled, she got a sudden sinking feeling in her stomach. She wondered: How could the American president have mentioned a uranium sale from Africa?

Burba felt uneasy because more than three months earlier, she had turned over to the U.S. Embassy in Rome documents about an alleged uranium sale by the central African nation of Niger. And she knew now that the documents were fraudulent and the 16 words wrong.

Nonetheless, the uranium claim would become a crucial justification for the invasion of Iraq that began less than two months later. When occupying troops found no nuclear program, the 16 words and how they came to be in the speech became a focus for critics in Washington and foreign capitals to press the case that the White House manipulated facts to take the United States to war.

Dozens of interviews with current and former intelligence officials and policymakers in the United States, Britain, France and Italy show that the Bush administration disregarded key information available at the time showing that the Iraq-Niger claim was highly questionable.

In February 2002, the CIA received the verbatim text of one of the documents, filled with errors easily identifiable through a simple Internet search, the interviews show. Many low- and mid-level intelligence officials were already skeptical that Iraq was in pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The interviews also showed that France, berated by the Bush administration for opposing the Iraq war, honored a U.S. intelligence request to investigate the uranium claim. It determined that its former colony had not sold uranium to Iraq.

Burba, who had no special expertise in Africa or nuclear technology, was able to quickly unravel the fraud. Yet the claims clung to life within the Bush administration for months, eventually finding their way into the State of the Union address.

As a result of the CIA's failure to firmly discredit the document text it received in February 2002, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV was called in to investigate the claim. That decision eventually led to the special counsel's investigation that exposed inner workings of the White House and ended with the criminal conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was forced to resign as chief of staff to Vice President Cheney.

"You know I feel bad about it," Burba said later, discussing her frustrations about her role in giving the dossier to the Americans. "You know the fact is that my documents, with the documents I brought to them, they justified the war."

The Tip

In early October of 2002, a man mysteriously contacted Elisabetta Burba at her Milan office.

"Do you remember me?" the deep voice said, without identifying himself outright. It was Rocco Martino, an old source who had proved reliable in the past. He was once again trying to sell her information.

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