The most sophisticated intelligence operation in the world was fooled by a low-level diplomat from Africa, intelligence sources told ABCNEWS.
For nearly a week, the Bush administration has been trying to explain how it came to pass that President Bush, in his State of the Union speech, erroneously claimed that Saddam Hussein was trying to get uranium in Africa.
The president said Monday the main thrust of his case for the Iraq war is, and was, accurate. "The speeches I have given were backed by good intelligence," he said. "And I am absolutely convinced today, like I was convinced when I gave the speeches, that Saddam Hussein developed a program of weapons of mass destruction."
President Bush's claim about Saddam Hussein's seeking uranium from Africa was just one part of his case for war, albeit a very important one.
However, the intelligence debacle grew out of a scam when an underpaid African diplomat who was stationed in Rome created bogus documents, which he then sold to the Italian secret service, sources said.
The Italians officially deny the sale, but intelligence sources told ABCNEWS the fake documents were produced in late 2001 in Rome, in a building that houses the tiny embassy of Niger.
The diplomat, who now has been recalled to Niger, sold the forged documents to the military branch of the Italian secret service for what sources say was a few thousand dollars.
"There had been reports circulating about Niger's sale of uranium to Iraq in the l980s and I think this diplomat apparently saw an opportunity to make some money by feeding into the current controversy about Iraq's program of weapons of mass destruction," said counterterrorism expert Vince Cannistraro, an ABCNEWS consultant.
Niger's ambassador to Italy denied the story today in Rome. She said that no one from the country's diplomatic corps had created any fabrication, and she said that Niger's president Mamadou Tandja met with Bush last week to tell him that.
The Proof They Needed
And it worked. The information was turned over first to Britain and then the United States, just as both countries were searching for proof Saddam was close to producing nuclear weapons.
"The Italians, as a NATO ally, thought they had some valuable information that played into current NATO requirements as well as U.S. and U.K. requirements about Iraq and Saddam Hussein, and they passed it on," said Cannistraro.
Because Niger's uranium is fully controlled by international companies, the claim that Niger was selling 500 pounds of "yellowcake" uranium made no sense to U.S. intelligence analysts.
And as is now well known, the documents themselves were printed with obsolete Iraqi and Niger letterheads and were soon spotted as forgeries by the International Atomic Energy Agency and made public when the agency's chief, Mohamed El Baradei, testified before the U.N. Security Council on March 8.
"It was not really very difficult for us to come to the quick conclusion that these documents were forgeries," ElBaradei told Germany's ZDF Television.
Vice President Played Key Role
Not only was Vice President Dick Cheney seated directly behind President Bush when he cited the flawed information in his State of the Union address, but Cheney played a key and personal role in pushing CIA analysts to confirm the Niger story, intelligence sources told ABCNEWS.
"The vice president and his chief of staff, Lewis Libby, took a personal interest in this matter and discussed at CIA with analysts," said Cannistraro.
Cheney made at least two trips to meet with intelligence analysts in the time leading up to the war, although the CIA says the Niger issue itself was never on the agenda.
Editor's Note: When this story originally on Tuesday, July 15, it should have acknowledged the cooperation of Germany's ZDF Television in providing ABCNEWS with video of the forged documents and comments by IEAE General Director Mohamed ElBaradei. We appreciate the cooperation of ZDF TV and regret this oversight.