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New Fight Over Iraq Nuke Claim

Recent reports by a British panel and a Senate committee have done much to undermine the case for the war in Iraq, but have also revived the debate over a controversial Bush administration claim: that Iraq sought uranium in Africa.

The claim, contained in Mr. Bush's State of the Union speech, was one of the few allegations against Saddam that the administration disowned, after a former diplomat who had investigated the matter published his doubts.

The phrase in question was 16-words long: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

There remains no evidence that Iraq actually did try to buy uranium. But the recent reports suggest it was reasonable for Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair to believe that Iraq may have tried to do so.

The recent British report by Lord Butler — while finding that the intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons was "seriously flawed" — concluded that Mr. Bush's statement and a similar one by Blair were "well-founded."

The Senate Intelligence Committee report — which said most of the pre-war claims were not supported — cited various reports that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa. Thus, although Mr. Bush cited only British evidence that was determined to have been inconclusive, other intelligence files clearly contained other inconclusive evidence of the truth of the claim.

The committee chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, said he believed last year that the White House was correct in repudiating the uranium claim. "Now I don't know whether it's accurate or not. That's the whole question," Roberts, a Republican, said in an interview.

But the former diplomat, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, says the recent reports change nothing.

"I don't think that the body of the report sustains the conclusion that was suggested," Wilson told Monday, pointing to numerous cases in which CIA officials told administration about problems with the intelligence on the alleged uranium bid.

"All that suggests that the 16 words should not have been in the State of the Union."

The Africa claim came under scrutiny after the International Atomic Energy Agency determined that documents purportedly showing Iraq buying uranium from Niger were fake. The FBI is investigating those documents.

The White House's repudiation came after The New York Times published an op-ed column by Wilson, who was sent by the CIA to Niger to determine if Iraq had been acquiring uranium. Wilson said it was unlikely any uranium transaction had taken place and the administration appeared to have been manipulating the intelligence.

The White House said including the 16 words in the State of the Union was a mistake because the assertion was not well enough corroborated to merit mention in a State of the Union speech. The British have maintained consistently that their intelligence was not based on the forged documents.

But the Senate committee disclosed other intelligence suggesting that Iraq was pursuing uranium. It cited separate reports received from foreign intelligence services on Oct. 15, 2001, and Feb. 5, 2002, and March 25, 2002. The State Department doubted the accuracy of the reports, but the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency had more confidence in them.

The Senate committee also described various reports about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from French, British and unidentified foreign governments. Some of the reports went beyond Niger, to address claims that Iraq had sought uranium from Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But how much credibility these reports had was not clear. The Senate committee criticized the CIA for "inconsistent and at times contradictory" reports to policy-makers on the uranium issue

The Butler report, meanwhile, said that Britain's intelligence services did not base their assessment of the Africa allegation on any forged documents.

The Senate report also challenges the importance and the circumstances of Wilson's trip to Niger. For instance, intelligence analysts didn't expect the Nigeriens to admit to dealing with Saddam. And because of diplomatic protocol, Wilson was only going to meet with former Nigerien officials.

Wilson says he concluded that the Iraq-uranium charge was unlikely based on what he learned about the structure of the Niger uranium industry. The Senate panel concluded that Wilson's conclusions "did not change analysts' assessment of the Iraq-Niger uranium deal."

Wilson's trip, rather than discrediting the Iraq-Niger link, actually bolstered the views of some analysts who suspected Saddam was seeking uranium because it confirmed a previously uncorroborated report about a meeting between Nigerien and Iraqi officials in 1999.

Wilson said the meeting did not discuss uranium, and says the CIA's apparently low-key reaction to his findings may be reflective of the trait that the Senate committee faults in the CIA: its unwillingness to challenge pre-conceived notions.

The Senate report also raises doubts about the veracity of some of Wilson's statements. It says that he claimed in a Washington Post article to have seen the documents purporting to prove the Iraq-Niger link, when in fact he had not. It also says he falsely claimed Vice President Dick Cheney was briefed on his Niger visit.

Wilson says the articles all quoted "anonymous sources" that "were either misquoted or were misattributed to me."

In an addendum to the report, Roberts and two other Republicans accused Wilson of providing "inaccurate, unsubstantiated and misleading" information.

Asked about the discrepancies between what the CIA says Wilson reported, and what Wilson told the committee, Wilson says, "I told them everything I told the CIA."

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