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How Bogus Letter Became a Case for War

At this point, State Department analysts had determined the documents were phony, and had produced by far the most accurate assessment of Iraq's weapons program of the 16 agencies that make up the intelligence community. But the department's small intelligence unit operated in a bubble. Few administration officials -- not even Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- paid much attention to its analytical product, much of which clashed with the White House's assumptions.

The State Department bureau, nevertheless, shared the bogus documents with those intelligence officials attending the meeting, including representatives of the Energy Department, National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency. Four CIA officials attended, but only one, a clandestine service officer, bothered to take a copy of the Italian letter.

He returned to his office, filed the material in a safe and forgot about it.

The Niger uranium matter was not uppermost in the minds of the CIA analysts. Some of them had to deal with the issue in any case, largely because Cheney, his aide Libby and some aides at the National Security Council had repeatedly demanded more information and more analysis.

A Fraud Unravels

Burba arrived in Niamey, Niger's capital, on Oct. 17 and began tracking down leads on the Italian letter. Burba's investigation followed a series of similar inquiries by Wilson, the former ambassador, who investigated on behalf of the CIA eight months earlier. It became clear that Niger was not capable of secretly shipping yellowcake uranium to Iraq or anywhere else.

Burba found that a French company controlled the uranium trade, and any shipment of uranium would have been noticed. If a uranium sale had taken place, the logistics would have been daunting. "They would have needed hundreds of trucks," she said -- a large percentage of all the trucks in Niger. It would have been impossible to conceal.

Burba returned to Milan and reported her findings to her bosses in detail. She didn't believe the evidence provided by Martino; it was impossible. Her editors agreed. There was no story.

Five months later, on March 7, 2003, as preparations for the Iraq invasion were in their final stages, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, told the U.N. Security Council that the report that Iraq had been shopping for uranium in Niger was based on forged documents. The agency had received the document from the United States a few weeks earlier.

Not long after the invasion, other news media in Italy, elsewhere in Europe and then in the United States reported that the source of the information about a Niger yellowcake uranium deal had been a batch of bogus letters and other documents passed along several months earlier to an unnamed Italian reporter, who in turn handed the information over to the United States.

Although Burba knew that the Bush administration had also received information about the forged documents from Italian intelligence, she wished she could have acted earlier to reveal the fraud.

It remains unclear who fabricated the documents. Intelligence officials say most likely it was rogue elements in Sismi who wanted to make money selling them.

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