Follow The Yellowcake Road

Did it start with a break-in? On the morning of Jan. 2, 2001, Italian police discovered that the Niger Embassy in Rome had been ransacked. Not much was reported missing--only a watch and two bottles of perfume--but someone had apparently rifled through embassy papers, leaving them strewn about the floor. Some months after the break-in, the Italian intelligence service--the SISME--obtained a stack of official-looking documents from an African diplomat. Signed by officials of the government of Niger, the papers revealed what purported to be a deal with the Devil. Agents of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, it appeared, were angling to purchase from the cash-starved, mineral-rich African nation some 500 tons of yellowcake, the pure uranium that can be used to build nuclear bombs. Excited by their intelligence coup, the Italians quickly notified the CIA and British intelligence.

A bombshell in the war on terrorism? More like an exploding cigar. The documents, a series of letters dated from July to October 2000, were actually crude forgeries. They referred to Niger agencies that no longer existed and bore the signature of a foreign minister who had not served in the post for more than a decade. Italian investigators, who only last week reopened the case, have theorized that the thieves who broke into the Niger Embassy had come looking for letterhead stationery and official seals that could be copied to create bogus documents.

It was the sort of flimsy scam that could have been exposed by a two-hour Google search (and eventually was). Somewhat implausibly, however, the break-in at a small African embassy in Rome has set off a chain reaction that has erupted into a full-fledged Washington summer scandal, serious enough to shake President George W. Bush's poll ratings. Democrats and much of the press are in full cry, accusing the White House of hyping, if not outright fabricating, intelligence in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. With American soldiers dying at the rate of about one a day in Iraq, a growing number of Americans are beginning to wonder if the war was worth the cost.

Last week Bush defiantly insisted that the United States would find WMD in Iraq, but privately, according to a White House source, the president was more circumspect with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose own government is wobbling under charges that Blair grossly overstated the Iraqi threat. Bush and Blair are awaiting word from former U.N. arms inspector David Kaye, who has been sent to Iraq to hunt for WMD and is expected to report back in September. As the two world leaders stood on the Truman Balcony last Thursday evening, Bush said to Blair that Kaye's analysis would be the final assessment, as the president guardedly put it, one way or the other.

A break-in, forged documents; in England, even a corpse. Last week David Kelly, a biological-weapons expert, questioned by Parliament for possibly leaking to the BBC, was found dead, his wrist slashed, probably a suicide but sure to be inspiration for endless conspiracy theories. Who was to blame for intelligence on Iraq's WMD that was exaggerated or, as the BBC story put it, "sexed up"? The intrigues and backstabbing at the highest levels have some of the qualities of a John le Carre spy story. For a moment, it looked as if CIA Director George Tenet might have to offer himself as a noble sacrifice in a Greek tragedy. On the other hand, the bungling involved seems more reminiscent of a rerun of "Get Smart."

The White House communications shop, normally a smooth-running operation, made matters worse by initially dismissing the fracas as a passing storm, then offering up confusing and conflicting versions. Finally, last week the Bush administration was forced to reveal declassified excerpts of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, a consensus summary from the nation's various intelligence agencies. The document makes clear that the CIA strongly believed that Iraq "has chemical and biological weapons," and "if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."

Some old hands at the CIA charged that the hard-liners in the Defense Department and vice president's office had "pressured" agency analysts to paint a dire picture of Saddam's capabilities and intentions. "Crybabies," scoffed one top Defense Department official. In truth, the tension between policymakers and intelligence analysts is built in. Intelligence analysts, dealing with fuzzy scraps of information and guesswork, are naturally reluctant to connect the dots. Policymakers have no choice; they have to decide.

The more serious issue is the quality of intelligence. In an age when American policy is to strike first, before the enemy can strike the American homeland, intelligence needs to be very precise. In real life, it rarely is. Intelligence officials say they are careful --to weigh and double-check tips and leads. But the behind-the-scenes story of the handling of the bogus documents about Saddam's attempts to buy uranium in Africa, pieced together by NEWSWEEK, does not present a reassuring picture.

The report from Italy's SISME--that Iraq was trying to buy 500 tons of pure yellowcake uranium from Niger--made it into the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. But the CIA did not bother to first examine the documents. An Italian journalist turned the papers over to the American Embassy in Rome that same month, but the CIA station chief in Rome apparently tossed them out, rather than send them to analysts at Langley. At a congressional hearing last week, the CIA's Tenet was unable to explain why. "The CIA dropped the ball," said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. (Incredibly, the Italian press, which doesn't let the facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory, appeared to have higher standards than the CIA. The Italian reporter, Elisabetta Burba, worked for Panorama, a weekly magazine owned by Italy's conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. She went to Niger and checked out the documents but declined to use them because she feared they were bufala--fraudulent--and she would lose her job.)

Tenet did have qualms about using the Niger information in a presidential speech. The DCI warned deputy national-security adviser Steve Hadley not to include a reference to Niger in a speech delivered by President Bush on Oct. 7 in Cincinnati. But according to a top CIA official, another member of the NSC staff, Bob Joseph, wanted to include a mention of Iraqi efforts to buy uranium from Niger in the president's State of the Union speech. According to this CIA official, an agency analyst cautioned him not to include the Niger reference. The NSC man asked if it would be all right to cite a British intelligence report that the Iraqis were trying to buy uranium from several African countries. The CIA official acquiesced. Though the British have not backed off that claim (a British official told NEWSWEEK that it came from an East African nation, not Niger), CIA Director Tenet publicly took responsibility for allowing a thinly sourced report by another country to appear in the State of the Union. (The White House last week denied that the Niger reference had ever shown up in an SOTU draft.) What Bush said in his address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

It wasn't until February, several days after the State of the Union, that the CIA finally obtained the Italian documents (from the State Department, whose warnings that the intelligence on Niger was "highly dubious" seem to have gone unheeded by the White House and unread by Bush). At the same time, the State Department turned over the Italian documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which had been pressing the United States to back up its claims about Iraq's nuclear program. "Within two hours they figured out they were forgeries," one IAEA official told NEWSWEEK. How did they do it? "Google," said the official. The IAEA ran the name of the Niger foreign minister through the Internet search engine and discovered that he was not in office at the time the document was signed. The FBI is investigating the whole affair, NEWSWEEK has learned, trying to determine if the documents were just a con job by a diplomat looking for some extra cash or a more serious attempt by Iraqi nationals to plant a story. In any case, the FBI will be, in effect, investigating the CIA, a sure script for more acts in the long-playing production of Intelligence Follies.

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