WASHINGTON — The FBI has reopened an inquiry into one of the most intriguing aspects of the pre-Iraq war intelligence fiasco: how the Bush administration came to rely on forged documents linking Iraq to nuclear weapons materials as part of its justification for the invasion.
The documents inspired intense U.S. interest in the buildup to the war -- and they led the CIA to send a former ambassador to the African nation of Niger to investigate whether Iraq had sought the materials there. The ambassador, Joseph C. Wilson IV, found little evidence to support such a claim, and the documents were later deemed to have been forged.
But President Bush referred to the claim in his 2003 State of the Union address in making the case for the invasion. Bush's speech, Wilson's trip and the role Wilson's wife played in sending him have created a political storm that still envelops the White House.
The documents in question included letters on Niger government letterhead and purported contracts showing sales of uranium to Iraq. They were provided in 2002 to an Italian magazine, which turned them over to the U.S. Embassy in Rome.
The FBI's decision to reopen the investigation reverses the agency's announcement last month that it had finished a two-year inquiry and concluded that the forgeries were part of a moneymaking scheme -- and not an effort to manipulate U.S. foreign policy.
Those findings concerned some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee after published reports that the FBI had not interviewed a former Italian spy named Rocco Martino, who was identified as the original source of the documents. The committee had requested the initial investigation.
"This is such a high-profile issue for a lot of reasons, and we think it's important to make sure there aren't lingering questions," said an aide to Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee. "There's always a chance that you do a little more investigating and you uncover something you hadn't seen before or you hadn't realized."
A senior federal law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation, confirmed late Friday that the bureau had reopened the inquiry.
Federal officials familiar with the case say investigators might examine whether the forgeries were instigated by U.S. citizens who advocated an invasion of Iraq or by members of the Iraqi National Congress -- the group led by Ahmad Chalabi that worked closely with Bush administration officials in the buildup to the war.
But the senior federal official said, "I don't expect the results to be any different. I think the answer is going to be that [Martino] wasn't acting in behalf of any government or intelligence agency. This guy was trying to peddle this to whoever he could."
Until now, the FBI's inquiry had been limited to probing whether foreign governments were involved in the forgeries, despite a broader request from Rockefeller that the FBI look into whether the forgeries reflected a "larger deception campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion and foreign policy regarding Iraq."
"I was surprised that [the FBI] ever closed it without coming to a conclusion as to the source," said former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who was chairman of the Intelligence Committee when the Niger uranium claims first surfaced in the U.S. "It looks as if it's a fairly straightforward investigation trail to who the source was. And I'm glad the FBI has resumed the hunt."
The claim that Iraq had obtained or was seeking uranium in Niger was a central part of the administration's case for war. It was mentioned explicitly in late 2002 by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and in January 2003 by Bush to illustrate the threat posed by Iraq's then-president, Saddam Hussein.
In March 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that the documents on which the Niger claim was partly based were forgeries. Then-CIA Director George J. Tenet later took responsibility for allowing the claim into Bush's State of the Union speech.
The issue erupted in July 2003, when Wilson published his findings in a New York Times opinion piece. Administration officials leaked the identity of Wilson's wife, covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, allegedly as part of an effort to discredit Wilson -- prompting a separate investigation into the potentially illegal unmasking of a covert agent.
The Plame case -- in which Vice President Dick Cheney's former Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby has been charged with obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements -- has raised questions about the administration's use of intelligence and how it targeted its critics.
Citing concern that the forged Niger documents might be evidence of a "larger deception campaign," Rockefeller initially had requested that the FBI determine the source of the forgeries and why the intelligence community did not realize earlier that the documents were fraudulent, among other questions.