Could a Google Search Have Helped Prevent the War in Iraq?

It was a simple letter, just more than 100 words on two pieces of paper.

But this singular document became one of the key pieces of evidence, the smoking gun, touted by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq. It's also the same piece of "evidence" that led to a perjury conviction for Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide, I. Lewis Libby.

The July 2000 letter, which was obtained from Italian intelligence services, appeared to be an official correspondence from the Niger government to the president of Iraq, confirming a deal to sell 500 tons of pure uranium to Iraq annually.

But if the CIA had done a simple Internet search on some of the terms used in the letter, the agency would have quickly learned that it was a forgery.

Instead, the letter was later cited by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address as proof that Saddam Hussein was determined to build nuclear weapons, justifying a preemptive invasion of the country.

That revelation is one of the central themes of "The Italian Letter," a new book by Washington Post editor Peter Eisner and journalist Knut Royce.

"That document has mistakes in it that are sufficient to show that it's impossible that this operation could be real," Eisner told "Anybody, you or I, could have taken this and fact-checked this thing and we would have learned that this was nonsense. We would have learned that the organization in the letterhead hadn't been in existence for many years, that the person who signed it last served in that post in 1989 and that the court in Niger had been renamed in 1990."

If the CIA had done a Google search on the documents, it could have altered the course of history, according to Eisner and Royce.

Although the CIA was highly suspicious of the claims in the letter and didn't include it in a public white paper on Iraq's WMD arsenal, the letter was included in a report from the agency's Rome station.

That report was picked up by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which highlighted the erroneous claims about the agreement to sell 500 tons of uranium to Baghdad, and quickly caught the attention of Cheney.

But even if the letter had been sufficiently fact-checked, confirmation that the letter was a forgery might not have been enough to stop the administration's determination to unseat Saddam, according to the author.

"The Bush administration was looking for a way to go to war," Eisner said. "And they were looking at every possible means to go to war."

Some intelligence analysts are more skeptical about the ease with which the document could have been exposed and its potential impact on the path to war.

Anthony Cordesman, an ABC News consultant and the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes that the story told in "The Italian Letter" is accurate and that "some people knew early on that this was not authentic and that this should have been communicated to the highest levels."

But he emphasizes that uncovering that the letter was a forgery might not have been as simple as a Google search.

"Most people can't detect a forgery," Cordesman said. "You are talking about a Third World country whose letterheads are uncertain at best. It's a country that many people don't know very much about."

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