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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Merit Seen in Claims That Iraq Sought Uranium

British and U.S. panels say there was evidence that the Hussein regime tried to deal with Niger.

July 15, 2004|Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In reports released during the last week, U.S. and British panels sharply criticized their two governments for making ill-founded claims about Iraq's efforts to build weapons of mass destruction -- claims that were the central rationale for the U.S.-led invasion of the country in March 2003.

But on at least one hotly debated issue -- Iraq's purported interest in buying uranium from the West African nation of Niger -- the two governments may have been on stronger footing than generally believed, both investigations found.

In a report issued Wednesday, the British commission of inquiry, headed by Lord Robin Butler, a retired civil service chief, found that Saddam Hussein's government had no usable stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons, contrary to assertions by President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But on the issue of Hussein's interest in nuclear weapons, the commission said, "The British government had intelligence from several different sources" indicating that Iraqi officials sought to buy uranium from Niger in 1999.

"The intelligence was credible," the report says.

Last week, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence excoriated U.S. intelligence agencies for assessments of Iraq's weapons programs that "either overstated or were not supported by" the evidence. But on the question of whether Iraq had sought uranium from Africa for nuclear weapons, the committee found that the CIA's statement, in a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, "was reasonable" at the time. The committee added, however, that the evidence behind the assertion turned out to be weak, and charged that the CIA failed to make that clear to policymakers.

The issue has been a point of unusual contention for two reasons: Bush mentioned Iraq's alleged uranium-buying effort in his State of the Union speech in January 2003, as he was urging the nation to war, only to acknowledge later that the assertion was not backed by conclusive evidence.

And the controversy led to a criminal investigation after an administration official leaked the name of an undercover CIA officer to a newspaper columnist in an apparent attempt to discredit the operative's husband, a prominent critic of the administration.

In the State of the Union address, Bush said that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

But as the White House later acknowledged, CIA analysts did not believe that the British report was well-founded, and although the administration never stated that the allegation was false, it did admit that the evidence behind the statement did not support the inclusion in a major presidential address. The Senate report quoted a written CIA warning to the White House three months before the speech: "The Africa story is overblown.... We differed with the British."

As a result, the controversy over uranium from Niger turned into a political embarrassment for Bush -- and spawned a second imbroglio, over the role played by Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador.

In February 2002, the CIA sent Wilson to Niger to investigate reports that Iraqi officials had sought to buy uranium. Wilson reported that "there was nothing to support allegations either that Iraq had tried to obtain or succeeded in purchasing uranium from Niger."

More than a year later, in July 2003, Wilson went public, telling the story of his secret mission and denouncing the administration for "twisting" intelligence.

Eight days later, in his syndicated column, Robert Novak wrote that Wilson had been sent to Niger on the recommendation of his wife, a covert CIA officer named Valerie Plame. Novak said his information had come from "two senior administration officials."

Plame's unmasking created an uproar in Congress and prompted the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation of the White House staff to determine who had disclosed her identity and whether laws were broken. The investigation is continuing.

The Senate committee report questioned Wilson's account on several issues. Wilson has maintained that his wife did not suggest him for the mission to Niger, but the committee found that she did, noting that another CIA official said Plame had "offered up his name."

"That's just false," Wilson said in a telephone interview Wednesday. He said he was preparing a written rebuttal to the Senate report.

A senior intelligence official said the CIA supports Wilson's version: "Her bosses say she did not initiate the idea of her husband going.... They asked her if he'd be willing to go, and she said yes," the official said.

The Senate report also accused Wilson of exaggerating his knowledge of forged documents that purported to be evidence of an Iraqi purchase of uranium. Wilson acknowledged that he might have "misspoken" on that issue.

The committee found that intelligence analysts recalled Wilson's report on his mission to Niger as ambiguous and unimpressive, not as the conclusive refutation he has sometimes described.

In a strange mirror-image reaction, the State Department's intelligence bureau, which was skeptical of the uranium story, believed that Wilson's report supported its view -- but the CIA, which at the time believed the uranium story, also thought that Wilson's report supported its position, the report found.

The CIA's summary of Wilson's 2002 mission said he reported that an Iraqi delegation had attempted to start trade discussions with a former prime minister of Niger and that the former prime minister believed the Iraqis were after uranium.

"That's legitimate," Wilson said Wednesday. "But the administration's assertion was that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium, and what I reported didn't support that."

Times staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.

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