Sunday, March 23, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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CIA warned White House nuclear claims were dubious

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — CIA officials now say they told the Bush administration that they had significant doubts about evidence that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Africa for nuclear weapons.

The charges found their way into President Bush's State of the Union address, a State Department "fact sheet" and public remarks by numerous senior officials.

That evidence was dismissed as a forgery early this month by United Nations officials investigating Iraq's chemical, biological and missile programs. The Bush administration does not dispute this conclusion.

Asked how the administration came to back up one of its principal allegations against Iraq with information its own intelligence service considered faulty, officials said all such assertions were carefully tailored to stay within the bounds of certainty.

As for the State of the Union address, a White House spokesman said, "all presidential speeches are fully vetted by the White House staff and relevant U.S. government agencies for factual correctness."

Questioned about the forgery during a recent congressional hearing, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "We were aware of this piece of evidence, and it was provided in good faith to the (U.N.) inspectors."

But in the days preceding the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq, some intelligence officials had begun to acknowledge more openly their doubts about how this and other information were used to support charges that Iraq has a significant covert program to produce chemical and biological and nuclear weapons.

"I have seen all the stuff. I certainly have doubts," said a senior administration official with access to the latest intelligence. Based on the material he has reviewed, the official said, the United States will "face significant problems in trying to find" such weapons. "It will be very difficult."

According to several officials, decisions about what information to declassify and use to make the administration's public case have been made by a small group that includes top CIA and National Security Council officials.

"The policy guys make decisions about things like this," said one official, referring to the uranium evidence. When the State Department "fact sheet" was issued, the official said, "people winced and thought, 'Why are you repeating this trash?' "

Some have questioned whether the United States was duped by a foreign government or independent group.

"There is a possibility that the fabrication of these documents may be part of a larger deception campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion and foreign policy regarding Iraq," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., wrote last Friday to FBI Director Robert Mueller. An FBI inquiry, Rockefeller wrote, "should, at a minimum, help to allay any concerns" that the U.S. government itself created the papers to build support for the war.

The first public charge that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium for nuclear weapons in Africa came from Britain, in a document published last Sept. 24. In December, a State Department "fact sheet" said that the African country in question was Niger, and that Iraq's failure to declare the attempted purchase was one of the many lies it told about its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

In his State of the Union address in January, Bush said "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." In separate statements in January, national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made the same charge, without mentioning the British.

British officials said they "stand behind" the original allegation. They note they never mentioned "Niger," the subject of the forged documents, and imply, but do not say, that there was other information, about another African country. But an informed U.N. official said the United States and Britain were repeatedly asked for all information they had to support the charge. Neither government, the official said, "ever indicated that they had any information on any other country."

U.S. intelligence officials said they had not even seen the actual evidence, consisting of supposed government documents from Niger, until last month. The source of their information, and their doubts, officials said, had been a written summary provided more than six months ago by the Italian intelligence service, which first obtained the documents.

Shortly after receiving the documents, the United States turned them over to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Within weeks, U.N. inspectors, along with an independent team of international experts, determined that the documents were fake.


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