The FBI, plunging full steam into the Iraq intelligence controversy, is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into the forged documents that purported to show that Saddam Hussein's regime was seeking to buy significant quantities of uranium, NEWSWEEK has learned.
The previously undisclosed probe is being conducted by the FBI's Counter-Intelligence Division and, although formally labeled a "preliminary inquiry," is described by knowledgeable sources as active and ongoing.
Only three months ago, FBI director Robert Mueller had brushed aside a request from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to probe the Niger documents. Bureau officials concluded then that the forgeries did not appear to be part of a broader disinformation campaign to influence U.S. policy by a foreign intelligence service.
But more recently, the Counter-Intelligence Division, overseen by its aggressive assistant director, David Szady, has revisited the matter--in part after further prodding by Rockefeller's office, three sources tell NEWSWEEK.
Agents have been dispatched to Italy and other foreign countries to look into the murky origins of the documents. In addition, Szady has ordered the questioning of officials at the State Department and the CIA, a particularly awkward development given the longstanding rivalry between the bureau and the agency.
The probe thus injects a new wild card into the mounting controversy over how bogus information gleaned from the documents made its way into President Bush's State of the Union Message.
Already, the FBI--along with parallel probes by House and Senate investigators--have turned up significant and potentially embarrassing new details about how the documents came into the possession of the U.S. government in the first place and the apparent mishandling of the material by officials at both CIA and State once they arrived, sources say.
In a bureaucratic snafu that some investigators are calling inexplicable, the CIA never arranged to obtain the forged documents until February 2003--nearly four months after they had been delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Rome and been passed along to the State Department.
The FBI's principal focus, sources said, is to determine who forged the documents and why. Were they part of an orchestrated covert operation--by Iraqi exiles or others--designed to build international support for a war to topple Saddam?
Or were the documents, as some investigators suspect, a scam perpetrated by con men who sought to make money off the material by exploiting the widely known American interest in finding damaging evidence about the Iraqi regime?
Either way, answer is crucial. "This was high-stakes poker," said an aide to Rockefeller, whose office is closely monitoring the probe. "Whoever did this was messing with the minds of the American people."
The new details about the handling of the documents may prove just as significant, however, and are likely to be a focus of questioning today when CIA director George Tenet appears in closed session before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Although far from conclusive, the new information points to a larger problem that has been a consistent theme in major terrorism and intelligence failures in the past: a lack of communication and ingrained bureaucratic resistance to the sharing of information.
The disputed documents were first provided to Italian intelligence services in late 2001, and information about them was then passed along to allied intelligence agencies, including Britain's MI6 and the CIA.
But the documents themselves didn't come into the possession of the U.S. government until nearly a year later, in October 2002, sources said, when a foreign individual--described by one source as a journalist--turned them over to the U.S. Embassy in Rome. The motivations of the foreign journalist are unclear but one U.S. intelligence official says he "may have been looking for money"--either for himself or a source who provided the material to him. (The sources did not disclose the identify of the journalist.)
All sources agree that the U.S. Embassy did not in fact pay for the material. What is most baffling, however, is what happened after that.
The U.S. Embassy quickly passed the documents along to the CIA station chief in Rome--as well as the State Department's Office of Intelligence and Research. But the station chief didn't send them along to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., apparently believing they were being sent instead through State Department channels.
In fact, CIA headquarters--including its nuclear-weapons analysts--never got the documents until four months later, in early February 2003--well after CIA officials and White House aides had already had several discussions about whether the information about Iraqi attempts to buy Niger uranium was reliable enough to be mentioned by the president in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address.
Two sources said, at one point, State Department's INR division--which had long since concluded there was no reliable evidence that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program--offered the documents to the CIA.
But for reasons that are unclear, the CIA never followed up on the offer. One explanation, sources said, is that the CIA had gotten a report from the Italians about the documents, including what agency officials believed was a "verbatim text" and didn't believe it was necessary to have the primary source material themselves.
An agency official acknowledged "there were some discussions" between the State Department and the CIA about turning the material over to the agency, but no follow up took place. "It's unclear" why, the official said.
In any event, the failure has proven in retrospect to be a much bigger, if not catastrophic, bureaucratic foul-up. Throughout the fall and in the weeks prior to the State of the Union address, the CIA had tried to warn the White House that the intelligence reporting about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger was "fragmentary" and not reliable. At one point, CIA director Tenet himself personally advised deputy national-security advisor Steve Hadley to remove a reference to the uranium purchases from a speech Bush was preparing to give in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002.
But the idea that the documents themselves--which underlay the claims--was based on forged material did not become known until after Feb. 4, 2003, when the International Atomic Energy Agency asked the U.S. government to back up some of the allegations it was making about Iraq's nuclear program.
At that point, the U.S. mission to the United Nations turned the documents over Jacque Baute, an aide to IAEA executive director Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei who was responsible for monitoring Iraq-related nuclear issues.
Once IAEA forensic analysts got them, it became immediately clear that the documents were not genuine. "Within two hours they figured out they were forgeries," said one IAEA source familiar with the material.
The source explained that all the IAEA analysts really had to do was conduct a Google search. The documents purported to be letters between Niger and Iraqi officials in July 2000 and October 2000 that describe an agreement for the delivery of two lots of 500 tons of uranium over two years.
But the correspondence was on obsolete letterhead, including the wrong symbol for the presidency of Niger, and made reference to state bodies that no longer existed at the time that the letters were written. In addition, an Oct. 10, 2000, letter, allegedly signed by the foreign minister of Niger, had the signature of a man who hadn't served in that position since 1989.
These were all conclusions that, investigators believe, should have been easily deciphered by the CIA much earlier--had it not been for the bureaucratic foul-ups that are just now coming to light.