WASHINGTON — In the spring of 2001, long before Sept. 11 and the American focus on Iraq, the CIA asked its Paris station about rumors that 200 tons of nuclear material had vanished from two French-owned mines in the West African nation of Niger.
"We heard stories this stuff had gone to Iraq, or to Syria, or Libya, or China or North Korea. We heard all kinds of stories," said a now-retired CIA officer.
But the CIA soon concluded that a French-run consortium maintained strict control over stockpiles of uranium ore in Niger, a former French colony, and that none had been illegally diverted.
"Everything was accounted for," the former spy said. "Case closed."
Over the next two years, other U.S. intelligence, military and diplomatic officials in cities across Europe sent Washington a growing stream of cables and reports suggesting that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from Niger.
Experienced intelligence officers repeatedly knocked down those reports, sometimes after painstaking inquiry.
But like the carnival game "Whack-a-Mole," similar reports kept popping back up in different places. The unconfirmed reports were embraced by the White House, which began to repeatedly warn that Iraq was trying to build nuclear weapons.
Those warnings in turn played a crucial role in sending America to war. They also sparked a political and intelligence scandal that still roils the Bush administration.
A review by the Los Angeles Times of those seemingly independent intelligence reports leads to the conclusion that they were based on information contained in forged documents that an Italian ex-spy was trying to sell to Western intelligence agencies in 2001 and 2002.
The story refused to die for several reasons, including a strong appetite in the Pentagon and the White House for information that supported a case for war, and a widely recognized phenomenon in the intelligence field in which bad information, when repeated by multiple sources, appears to be corroborated.
"This became a classic case of circular reporting," said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to reporters. "It seemed like we were hearing it from lots of places. People didn't realize it was the same bad information coming in different doors."
In January 2003, President Bush said in his State of the Union speech that the British government had learned that Iraq "had recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Two months later, U.S. and allied troops invaded Iraq.
Paul Pillar, who retired last year after 30 years at the CIA, said that the White House attributed the charge to the British because the CIA wouldn't vouch for it.
"U.S. analysts said it was just too squishy to use publicly," said Pillar, who was national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. But administration officials, he said, viewed the unconfirmed charge as "juicy" and easy to understand. "The public says, 'Saddam is buying uranium?' That has simplicity and appeal."
Among those surprised by the president's inclusion of the allegation in his speech was former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, whom the CIA had sent to Niger a year earlier to investigate the alleged uranium sale. He had found little evidence of it. Months after the president's speech, Wilson publicly charged that the White House "twisted" intelligence on the issue.
The White House withdrew the charge that summer after CIA officials again concluded there was no solid evidence to support it. Wilson's Niger assignment, it now appears, also was based on information contained in the forged documents.
Wilson's criticism was followed by the leak of the identity of an undercover CIA officer, Valerie Plame, who is Wilson's wife. An investigation into the leak led to a federal grand jury indictment in October of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for alleged perjury and obstruction of justice. The investigation continues.
Niger, an impoverished nation on the western edge of the Sahara desert, is the world's third largest producer of uranium. A French-run consortium, Cogema, controls the only two mines and trucks all the ore south to the distant port of Cotonou in neighboring Benin for export to France, Spain and Japan.
French intelligence agencies monitor the trade closely. Thus French officials were concerned when the CIA first asked in 2001 about rumors that 200 tons of lightly refined uranium ore -- known as yellowcake -- had disappeared. Alain Chouet, who headed the weapons proliferation and terrorism division in France's DGSE spy service, quickly confirmed that the uranium supplies were secure.
That October, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the CIA heard from another intelligence service that officials in Niamey, capital of Niger, had agreed to "ship several tons of uranium to Iraq," according to a 2004 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee.