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How Bogus Letter Became a Case for War

Kelly interrupted her, realizing he needed help. He made a phone call summoning someone else from his staff as well as a political officer. Burba recalled a third person being invited, possibly a U.S. military attache. She didn't get their names.

"Let's go to my office," Kelly said. They walked past antiquities, a tranquil fountain, steps and pieces of marble, all set in a tree-lined patio garden.

The Italian journalist's chat with Kelly and his colleagues was brief. She handed over the papers; Kelly told her the embassy would look into the matter. But Kelly had not been briefed on what others in the embassy knew.

CIA Role

One person who refused to meet with Burba was the CIA chief of station. A few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Sismi, the Italian intelligence agency, had sent along information about the alleged sale of uranium to Iraq. The station chief asked for more information and would later consider it far-fetched.

On Oct. 15, 2001, the CIA reports officer at the embassy wrote a brief summary based on the Sismi intelligence, signed and dated it, and routed it to CIA's Operations Directorate in Langley, with copies going to the clandestine service's European and Near East divisions. The reports officer had limited its distribution because the intelligence was uncorroborated; she was aware of Sismi's questionable track record and did not believe the report merited wider dissemination.

The Operations Directorate then passed the raw intelligence to the CIA's Intelligence Directorate and to sister agencies, including the Defense Intelligence Agency. A more polished document, called a Senior Executive Intelligence Brief, was written at Langley three days later in which the CIA mentioned the new intelligence but added important caveats. The classified document, whose distribution was limited to senior policymakers and the congressional intelligence committees, said there was no corroboration and noted that Iraq had "no known facilities for processing or enriching the material."

Pushing the Africa Claim

Almost four months later, on Feb. 5, 2002, the CIA received more information from Sismi, including the verbatim text of one of the documents. The CIA failed to recognize that it was riddled with errors, including misspellings and the wrong names for key officials. But it was a separate DIA report about the claims that would lead Cheney to demand further investigation. In response, the CIA dispatched Wilson to Niger.

Martino's approach to Burba eight months later with the Italian letter coincided with accelerating U.S. preparations for war. On Oct. 7, 2002, the same day Martino gave Burba the dossier, President Bush launched a new hard-line PR campaign on Iraq. In a speech in Cincinnati, he declared that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a "grave threat" to U.S. national security.

"It possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons," the president warned.

CIA Director George J. Tenet had vetted the text of Bush's speech and was able to persuade the White House to drop one questionable claim: that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. The information was too fishy, Tenet explained to the National Security Council and Bush's speechwriters.

Bush dropped the shopping-for-uranium claim, but ratcheted up the bomb threat. He said in Cincinnati that if Hussein obtained bomb-grade uranium the size of a softball, he would have a nuclear bomb within a year. This particular doomsday scenario had first been unveiled several weeks earlier, on Aug. 26, by Cheney. In a speech in Nashville to the 103rd national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he declared with no equivocation that Hussein had "resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons."

On Oct. 16, Burba sat on a plane on her way to Niger, while in Washington, copies of the Italian letter and the accompanying dossier were placed on the table at an interagency nuclear proliferation meeting hosted by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.


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