WASHINGTON — Contrary to Italian government denials, a powerful Italian military intelligence agency passed bogus allegations to the United States of an Iraqi effort to buy uranium ore from the African nation of Niger for a nuclear bomb program, U.S. officials said Friday.
The purported deal, which President Bush cited in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address, was a key argument that Bush and his senior aides advanced for invading Iraq and toppling dictator Saddam Hussein. It remains unclear, however, who forged the documents, why and how information from such crude forgeries got into a major presidential speech.
No nuclear weapons program was found after the March 2003 invasion.
Four U.S. officials said the Italian military intelligence agency known as SISMI passed three reports to the CIA station in Rome between October 2001 and March 2002 outlining an alleged deal for Iraq to buy uranium ore, known as yellowcake, from Niger. Yellowcake is refined into the uranium fuel that powers nuclear weapons.
The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because portions of the matter remain classified.
One of the reports passed by SISMI contained language that turned out to have been lifted verbatim from crudely forged documents that outlined the purported uranium-ore deal, the U.S. officials said.
"SISMI was involved in this; there is no doubt," said a U.S. intelligence official who's closely followed the matter.
The United States obtained complete copies of the forgeries in October 2003; the International Atomic Energy Agency had determined that the documents were fakes in March 2003, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, and the White House later conceded that Bush shouldn't have made the allegation.
The Italian government has denied that SISMI was involved in concocting or passing the forged documents.
A July 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee report said three reports on the alleged deal were passed to the CIA during that period, but it didn't disclose the name of the foreign intelligence service that provided them.
Two of the U.S. officials said SISMI passed similar reports about the alleged deal, based on the forgeries, to the intelligence services in Britain, France and Germany.
Britain has continued to stand by a 2002 white paper that charged that Iraq had sought to buy yellowcake in Africa.
Bush cited the British assertion in his 2003 State of the Union address rather than the U.S. intelligence reports, which had been disputed by some CIA experts and by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
The U.S. officials were reacting to the reported testimony by SISMI Director Nicolo Pollari on Thursday in a closed-door Italian parliamentary committee hearing.
After the hearing, Italian lawmakers said Pollari had pinned the passing of the forgeries on a former SISMI informer named Rocco Martino and had denied that any Italian intelligence agency was involved in concocting the fakes or disseminating them.
News reports have quoted Martino as saying he'd obtained the documents from a contact at the Niger Embassy in Rome, but this was the first time that he'd been officially identified.
In a related development, the FBI on Friday confirmed Pollari's assertion that FBI Director Robert Mueller wrote a letter to Italian officials in July in which he said an investigation into the forgeries had determined that they weren't part "of an effort to influence U.S. foreign policy."
"The investigation discounted that motive, confirmed the documents to be fraudulent, and concluded they were more likely part of a criminal scheme for financial gain," an FBI statement said.
Sen. John "Jay" Rockefeller of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who'd asked the FBI to investigate the forgeries in March 2003, said he wasn't ready to declare himself satisfied.
"While I greatly appreciate all of the FBI's efforts into completing the investigation of the Niger documents, some questions remain," Rockefeller said in a statement. "Until I receive additional information about the thoroughness of the investigation, I cannot make a judgment on the accuracy of the conclusions."
Key questions remain about how the Niger claim made it into the Bush administration's case for war, including who concocted the forged documents and why the claim was in Bush's State of the Union address after being knocked out of a draft of a nationally televised presidential speech some two months earlier.
The issue is receiving new attention because of last week's indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on charges of lying to a grand jury that investigated who leaked the identity of a CIA officer after her husband, a former U.S. diplomat, accused Bush of twisting the intelligence on the alleged uranium deal.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Need to map