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How Bogus Letter Became a Case for War
Intelligence Failures Surrounded Inquiry on Iraq-Niger Uranium Claim

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.

Martino said he had some very interesting documents to show her, and asked whether she could fly down to Rome right away.

They met at a restaurant in Rome on Oct. 7, where Martino showed Burba a folder filled with documents, most of them in French. One of the documents was purportedly sent by the president of Niger to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, confirming a deal to sell 500 tons of uranium to Iraq annually. This was the smoking gun in the package, claiming to show the formal approval of Niger's president to supply Iraq with a commodity that would in all likelihood only be used for a nuclear weapons program: Iraq had no nuclear power plants.

Though the document was in French it would later come to be known as "The Italian Letter." It was written in all capital letters, in the form of an old telex, and bore the letterhead of the Republic of Niger. The letter was dated July 27, 2000, and included an odd shield on the top, a shining sun surrounded by a horned animal head, a star and a bird. The letter was stamped Confidential and Urgent.

The letter said that "500 tons of pure uranium per year will be delivered in two phases." A seal at the bottom of the page read "The Office of the President of the Republic of Niger." Superimposed over the seal was a barely legible signature bearing the name of the president of Niger, Mamadou Tandja.

Burba listened without saying much as she took a first look at the documents. She recognized right away that the material was hot, if authentic. But confirming the origin would be difficult, she recalled thinking at the time. She didn't want to fall into a trap.

Burba and Martino made an agreement; she would take the documents, and if they checked out as authentic, then they could talk about money.

'Let's Go to the Americans'

Back in her magazine's Milan newsroom, Burba told her editors she thought it would make sense to fly to Niger and check around for confirmation. The editor of the magazine, Carlo Rossella, agreed. He then suggested they simultaneously pursue another tack.

"Let's go to the Americans," Rossella said, "because they are focused on looking for weapons of mass destruction more than anyone else. Let's see if they can authenticate the documents." Rossella called the U.S. Embassy in Rome and alerted officials to expect a visit from Burba.

On Wednesday morning, Oct. 9, Burba returned to Rome and took a cab to the U.S. Embassy, which is housed at the old Palazzo Margherita.

Burba came to a security gate and walked through a magnetometer, where an Italian employee of the embassy press department came down to meet her.

After a few formalities, an Italian aide introduced her to Ian Kelly, the embassy press spokesman. Kelly and Burba walked across the embassy's walled grounds and sat down for a cup of coffee in the cafeteria.

Burba told Kelly that she had some documents about Iraq and uranium shipments and needed help in confirming their authenticity and accuracy.

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.

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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