More Evidence Bush Administration was Cherry-Picking
More than a year before those 16 words, France had begun telling the CIA in secret communications that there was no evidence that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger or other African countries.
"In France, we've always been very careful about both problems of uranium production in Niger and Iraqi attempts to get uranium from Africa," Chouet [French former official] said. "After the first Gulf War, we were very cautious with that problem, as the French government didn't care to be accused of maintaining relations with Saddam in that field."
Chouet said the cautions from his agency grew more emphatic over time as the Bush administration bolstered the case for invading Iraq by arguing that Hussein had sought to build a nuclear arsenal using uranium from Niger.
Chouet recalled that his agency was contacted by the CIA in the summer of 2001 — shortly before the attacks of Sept. 11 — as intelligence services in Europe and North America became more concerned about chatter from known terrorist sympathizers. CIA officials asked their French counterparts to check that uranium in Niger and elsewhere was secure. The former CIA official confirmed Chouet's account of this exchange.
Then twice in 2002, Chouet said, the CIA contacted the French again for similar help. By mid-2002, Chouet recalled, the request was more urgent and more specific. The CIA was asking questions about a particular agreement purportedly signed by Nigerian officials to sell 500 metric tons of uranium to Iraq.
Chouet dispatched a five- or six-man team to Niger to double-check any reports of a sale or an attempt to purchase uranium. The team found none.
Chouet and his staff noticed that the details of the allegation matched those in fraudulent documents that an Italian informant earlier had offered to sell to the French.
When Bush gave his State of the Union address in January 2003, citing a report from the British that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium in Africa, other French officials were flabbergasted.
One government official said that French experts viewed the statement attributed to the British as "totally crazy because, in our view, there was no backup for this." Nonetheless, he said, the French once again launched an investigation, turning things "upside-down trying to find out what was going on."
The British government maintains that its conclusions were based not on the forged documents but on other, more reliable sources. In fact, British officials have said that they reached their conclusions long before the forged documents surfaced.
Still, Chouet said in the interview that the question from CIA officials in the summer of 2002 seemed to follow almost word for word from the documents in question. He said that an Italian intelligence source, Rocco Martino, had tried to sell the documents to the French, but that in a matter of days French analysts determined the documents had been forged.
"We thought they [the Americans] were in possession of the documents," Chouet said. "The words were very similar." The former CIA official said that in fact the U.S. had been offered the same documents in 2001 but had quickly rejected them as forgeries.
White House officials scrambled to explain how the 16 words found their way into the 2003 speech when so much doubt surrounded the claims. Ultimately, then-deputy national security advisor Stephen Hadley took responsibility for allowing them to remain.
On June 17, 2003, five months after Bush's State of the Union, the CIA clarified its position on whether Iraq had sought uranium from Africa. "Since learning that the Iraq-Niger uranium deal was based on false documents earlier this spring, we no longer believe that there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad," the agency said in an internal memorandum that was disclosed by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Bush critics now say that — in light of the warnings from the French and others — the White House owes the public a better explanation.
The CIA had been repeatedly told the Niger documents were not based in reality since 2001, and had in fact determined for themselves the documents were forgeries in 2001. At the very least, they knew the documents were forgeries in 2002. The CIA was lying about when they learned of the forgeries and the lack of evidence to help get Bush off the hook.
Another source the Bush Administration relied on for evidence that Iraq was seeking