CIA Lacked Key Documents

John Cusack on The Early Show.
CBS
A visit by the CIA director to Capitol Hill did not quell the controversy over the claim that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from Africa, as word emerged that the agency did not possess the documents behind the claim until after the president's speech.

The Senate and House intelligence committees are holding inquiries on whether prewar intelligence was inaccurate or mishandled to help President Bush make the case for war. Democrats have stepped up demands for a formal investigation after the White House acknowledged that the uranium claim, made in the State of the Union speech, was based on unreliable intelligence.

That claim, supported by British intelligence but discounted by U.S. officials, was apparently based on a series of forged documents suggesting that Saddam Hussein sought uranium from the African nation of Niger.

Last week, Mr. Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, blamed CIA Director George Tenet for failing to seek removal of the statement from the speech. Tenet issued a statement accepting responsibility.

Tenet made a 4½-hour closed-door appearance Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, again accepting responsibility for the lapse. But that did not satisfy Democrats.

"All roads still lead back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said, referring to the White House address. "The question is, who in the White House was so determined to put information in the State of the Union which had been discounted so dramatically by American intelligence sources?"

That skepticism will likely be fueled by claims of some U.S. officials that the CIA didn't receive the Niger documents until February 2003, nearly a year after the agency first began investigating the alleged Iraq-Africa connection.

Even as the CIA found little to verify the reports, Bush administration officials repeatedly tried to put them into public statements. Sometimes the CIA succeeded in getting the information removed.

Without the source documents, the CIA could investigate only their substance, which it had learned from a foreign government around the beginning of 2002. One of the key allegations was that Iraq was soliciting uranium from the African country of Niger.

When the Niger claim first arose, the CIA sent a retired diplomat to Africa to investigate in February 2002. The diplomat, Joseph Wilson, reported finding no credible evidence that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger.

Tenet said the CIA was unaware of any documents purporting to show such transactions at the time, and it is unclear when the U.S. government learned that the documents existed and were the source of the Niger claim.

The CIA's doubts about the uranium claim were reported through routine intelligence traffic throughout the government, one U.S. intelligence official said. Those doubts were also reported to the British.

Despite those doubts, the British included the charge in a September dossier. The Blair administration says it did not view the now-discredited documents until October 2002. It claims to have had other intelligence but has not described it.

The Niger report, along with a notation that it was unconfirmed, was also included in the CIA's October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, the classified summary of intelligence on Iraq. Tenet said the report was not a key part of the CIA's judgment that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.

Bush administration officials have said other information pointed to possible Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But Tenet has called these reports "fragmentary" — a term in intelligence circles for unconfirmed information of suspect accuracy.

The agency tried to have the Niger reference removed from a State Department fact sheet in December 2002, but the document was published before the change could be made, one U.S. intelligence official told The Associated Press, speaking only on condition of anonymity.

The CIA had the Niger claim removed from at least two speeches before they were given: Mr. Bush's October address on the Iraqi threat and a later speech by U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte, officials said.

On Jan. 28, 2003, the Africa allegation went into the State of the Union speech. As the speech was being written, CIA officials protested the line, so the administration changed it to attribute it to British intelligence instead of U.S. intelligence. Tenet said last week it should have been removed.

The uranium claim didn't appear in Colin Powell's address to the United Nations on Feb. 5.

The discredited documents at the center of the controversy are a series of letters purportedly between officials in Iraq and Niger. The letters indicated Niger would supply uranium to the government of Saddam in a form that could be refined for nuclear weapons.

The CIA declined to say how the agency eventually obtained the documents. When it received the documents, the government provided them to the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, which quickly determined them to be forgeries. The U.N. Security Council was alerted March 7, two weeks before American and British forces invaded Iraq.

The chain of possession of the forged documents remains unclear. The documents were first acquired in Rome, a Bush administration official said. Another administration official said the Italian government possessed them. Italy denies it.

An Italian newspaper, La Republicca, has published documents it claims are the ones used as evidence of the Niger link.

According to the Times of London, the papers are obvious forgeries: One is both addressed to and signed by Niger's president, another is dated in 1999 but refers to a treaty signed in 2000, and a third bears the name of a minister who'd left his post 11 years before the document was signed.

CBS Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts reports the FBI has launched a preliminary investigation into the sourcing of the intelligence on the Iraq.

A senior law enforcement official said the FBI is not investigating the U.S. government, but is looking at a variety of foreign entities, from other governments to anti-Saddam groups that favored a U.S. invasion.