WASHINGTON – The thrust of Britain’s uranium charge against Iraq, cited by President Bush in his prewar State of the Union speech, was indeed the alleged Niger procurement documents which turned out to be crude forgeries, suggests a State Department letter to Congress.

The White House earlier this month for the first time acknowledged the forgeries, but maintained there was other evidence backing the charge.

Pressed, it deferred to the British government, which insisted the charge was based on sources other than the Niger documents. The purported “other sources” remain unnamed.

But in a recent letter to the House Government Reform Committee, a senior State official suggests the other source is Italy, which provided the forged document information to both the U.S. and Britain.

Paul V. Kelly, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, said the administration received information about the uranium allegation from two foreign sources – the British government and a second “Western European ally,” which has since been revealed to be Italy.

“Not until March 4 did we learn that in fact the second Western European government had based its assessment on the evidence already available to the U.S. that was subsequently discredited,” Kelly wrote in his April 29 letter to the panel.

In other words, all three countries were relying primarily on the same source of information – the forgeries.

The British first made the nuclear-related allegation in their September dossier on Iraq. Then State repeated it in a Dec. 19 “fact sheet” on Iraq. So did National Security Council Adviser Condoleezza Rice in a Jan. 23 New York Times piece, before Bush amplified it in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made the charge again the next day in a Pentagon press briefing. A Feb. 20 “Voice of America” broadcast also featured the charge.

“Based on what appeared at the time to be multiple sources for the information in question, we acted in good faith,” Kelly, a Bush appointee, explained.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair insists he has sources “independent” of the Niger documents to back the claim that Saddam Hussein recently sought uranium from the African nation, though he says he has not shared it with U.S. intelligence – or with his own legislature. A parliamentary committee has demanded Blair further support the now-disputed charge. Nor has he shared it with the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, even though he’s required under U.N. Security Council resolution 1441 to do so.

The House of Commons committee said: “We conclude that it is very odd indeed that the government asserts that it was not relying on the evidence which has since been shown to have been forged, but that eight months later it is still reviewing the other evidence.”

Phone calls to the British government were not immediately returned.

During his recent visit here, however, Blair hinted that the other intelligence consists of a history of deals between Iraq and Niger.

“The British intelligence that we have is genuine. We stand by that intelligence,” he said at a July 17 White House briefing.

“In the 1980s,” he offered, “we know for sure that Iraq purchased round about 270 tons of uranium from Niger.”

In recent days, the White House, which declined comment for this story, has also offered past deals as additional evidence to buttress the uranium claim.

At Tuesday’s White House press conference, deputy NSC adviser Steve Hadley argued the Niger allegation rang true, because “we also knew that [Hussein] had uranium oxide … and that he had obtained about 200 tons of that, roughly, from Niger.” (Hadley called the briefing to disclose the CIA had in October sent two memos to the White House urging him and Rice to refrain from using the same allegation in the president’s upcoming Cincinnati speech on Iraq.)

Of course, a past commercial relationship is no proof any new deals were negotiated, as claimed.

And, UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, have known for years that Iraq had uranium concentrate, or “yellowcake” – about 550 metric tons, in fact – and have monitored its inventory in Tuwaitha through regular inspections. Iraq acquired it before the first Gulf war.

That’s nothing new.

What’s new is the claim that Hussein recently sought an additional 500 tons – a huge amount – from Niger.

The alleged attempted acquisition (couched in final
presidential speech drafts as “significant quantities
from Africa”) was critical to the administration’s
case that Iraq “has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear
weapons,” as Vice President Dick Cheney claimed just
three days before the war.

It takes hundreds of tons of unrefined uranium to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to make a single nuclear bomb. In addition, the refining process requires thousands of gas centrifuges to separate the isotopes. These centrifuges, in turn, require tubing to make the casings for the rotors that spin inside them.

In a one-two punch, Bush in his State of the Union accused Iraq of not only aggressively seeking uranium from abroad, but also thousands of aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons.

The tubing charge is now also under dispute.

Last October, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence concluded Baghdad could make a nuclear bomb in a year or less – but only if it “acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad.” The judgment was published in the recently declassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq weapons, roughly 80 pages of which is still secret (this is not the same report as the 25-page unclassified white paper the CIA made public on its website last October).

“Without such material from abroad,” however, “Iraq probably would not be able to make a weapon until 2007 to 2009,” the NIE report continues.

That’s a big difference: one year away from a nuke with large uranium imports, or five to seven years without them.

I.C. Smith, a former senior FBI counterintelligence agent who last decade helped prepare NIEs as a member of the National Foreign Intelligence Board, says that without the uranium allegation, the five-to-seven year scenario was not sufficiently alarming to justify starting a war.

It’s clear from another part of the NIE the White House knew an Iraqi agreement to purchase 500 tons or more of uranium would “shorten the time Baghdad needs to produce nuclear weapons” – if the deal were true, that is, and the CIA had serious doubts that it was.

Smith speculates that White House officials simply ignored CIA warnings to drop the spurious uranium allegation in the State of the Union speech. Why? Those 16 words were essential to conveying a sense of urgency about the alleged Iraqi threat, he says. They represented the newest thread in an otherwise old blanket of evidence recast from 1998 U.N. weapons-inspections reports and tips from Iraqi defectors who’d been out of the country for years.

“If the CIA told them to not mention the Niger business in the Cincinnati speech three months before the State of the Union, then someone at the White House knew the information was, at best, poor intelligence,” Smith said.

“I think someone at the White House made it clear they wanted to make the case for war against Iraq, and the speech was slanted to try to convince as many in the U.S. as possible,” he added. “The speech was written from that standpoint.”

Bush left the charge out of his Oct. 7 speech in Cincinnati, but it resurfaced in his State of the Union speech three-and-a-half months later.

The White House contends officials simply forgot about the earlier warnings, even though they were memorialized in at least two memos, one of which went to Rice. During the drafting of the State of the Union, moreover, CIA analysts lodged new concerns with Rice staffers, including a “neocon” nuclear expert, who insisted on reinserting the allegation in the speech. Rice maintains neither she nor the president were aware of CIA concerns at the time.

Other African countries?

In further defending its uranium charge, the White House now says there may have been other African countries contacted by Iraq. It points to the select parts of the NIE it declassified last week citing Somalia and Congo.

But there are problems with this explanation, as well.

The relevant passage states: “Reports indicate Iraq also has sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

The very next sentence, however, casts doubt on the reliability of the “reports.”

“We cannot confirm whether Iraq succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from these sources,” the NIE says, in a heavily redacted part of the report’s main “discussion” section.

Also, two things are missing from the alleged Somalia and Congo connections: the amounts of uranium and the dates they were sought.

The Niger claim, on the other hand, cites both amount and date. Discussed earlier on the same page of the NIE, it says that Iraq was “working out arrangements for … up to 500 tons of yellowcake” as of early 2001.

So it’s unlikely the president was referring to Somalia or Congo when he asserted Hussein “recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” He most likely meant Niger.

Indeed, former White House spokesman Ari Fleisher said earlier this month that “the president’s statement was based on the predicate of the yellowcake from Niger.” And Hadley has confirmed Niger was at the center of the row with the CIA over the earlier Cincinnati speech.

Further, Somalia and Congo aren’t even among the top African nations that produce uranium. Besides Niger, they are Gabon, South Africa and Namibia, notes Joseph C. Wilson, ambassador to Gabon under former President Bush. Wilson was the first to pooh-pooh the Niger rumor in a briefing to the CIA in March 2002.

Even if there were something to the Somalia and Congo rumors, CIA Director George Tenet has said the various intelligence agencies concluded that reports about the alleged African uranium deals were “fragmentary.” And none of them made it into the key judgments section of the NIE, which is meant to be read by the president and his national security adviser. And by logical extension, they were too sketchy to be used by the president in a historic war speech (yet the president’s advisers still cherry-picked the information from what was in effect the bleacher section of the report).

State’s intelligence arm, headed by Bush appointee Carl W. Ford, was less kind, calling all the Iraq-Africa allegations “highly dubious” further on in the NIE report.

NSC spokesman Michael Anton essentially agreed with Tenet on July 8, when in a prepared statement, he said: “The other reporting that suggested Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from Africa is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that such attempts in fact were made.”

But that’s not all. There’s yet another indication the administration’s uranium claim was based exclusively on the phony Niger documents.

As soon as IAEA nuclear inspectors heard State claim in December Iraq was trying to procure uranium from Niger, they asked the administration to provide “any actionable information” that would aid them in confronting Iraq and Niger with the allegation.

The information they finally received – a month-and-a-half later, and just after Bush’s State of the Union speech, interestingly enough – consisted of only the Niger documents, which they easily exposed as crude forgeries.

No other additional information was provided to IAEA by the administration to support the uranium charge, according to IAEA spokesman Piet de Klerk, in a June 20 letter to the House Government Reform Committee.

And the forgeries were likely the underlying source of the NIE report’s Niger claims, as well.

The NIE cites a “foreign government service” as its source for the Niger claim.

But in his letter to Congress, Kelly says State’s Dec. 19 fact sheet “was a product developed jointly by the CIA and the State Department.” And State’s source was Britain and Italy, whose source was the forged Niger documents, making it the central source, known at the time or not.

Technically correct

The White House has also argued the president’s State of the Union statement, while based on shaky intelligence, was nonetheless technically accurate because he attributed it in the final draft, after much back-and-forth between at least NSC staffers and concerned CIA analysts, to the “British government.”

However, that argument assumes the administration didn’t know the British government’s allegation was faulty, when in fact the CIA warned the British government to drop the uranium charge in September, after it published it in its Iraq dossier.

Also, other top administration officials, including the president’s security adviser and defense secretary, have made the accusation on their own – without any attribution to Britain.

Rice’s charge, which she made in the New York Times just five days before Bush’s, was naked: Iraq has failed to explain its “efforts to get uranium from abroad.” So was Rumsfeld’s. The day after Bush’s speech, he charged that Hussein’s regime “recently was discovered seeking significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Even some Republicans are puzzled over why the president would blindly rely on British intelligence, at least in this uranium case, to help justify a war he essentially led.

“Why should we use intelligence cited by a foreign government as justification for going to war?” asked Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.

Despite growing doubts, the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill refuses to hold open hearings to investigate the merits of the intelligence used by the administration to start the war.

Lacking subpoena power, Democrats say they aren’t having much luck compelling White House officials to comply with requests for more information.

Karen Lightfoot, minority spokesperson for the House Government Reform Committee, says the White House has not responded to several written requests for additional information to back its uranium charge.

“We’ve asked for that information,” she said. “And so far no additional information has been provided that would support it.”

Phone calls to the majority side of the panel, chaired by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., were not immediately returned.

When the scandal first broke, Bush and Rice blamed Tenet for letting the dubious charge slip into the State of the Union speech, and Tenet dutifully took the blame.

But his explanations just led to new questions, keeping the scandal alive.

After CIA memos waving Rice, Hadley and Bush’s chief speechwriter Michael Gerson off the uranium line emerged this week, Rice’s deputy stepped up and took responsibility. Why Rice didn’t herself is not clear.

Bush, for his part, has sidestepped any responsibility in the matter.

Curiously, the president has shown no outward anger over what is being spun as the shoddy speech-vetting performance of his national security and intelligence staffs, and is said to have no plans to hold anyone in his administration accountable for the lapses. No forced resignations, no demotions, no reprimands even.

And, while there have been mea culpas, no administration official has offered an apology to Congress or the American people for the misleading war allegation.

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Secret report undercuts Iraq connection to WTC

State, Energy ruled out tubes as part of Iraq program

Energy task force documents reveal Iraqi oil maps

Bush had hands-on role revising disputed speech

Rumsfeld corrects testimony – twice

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