July 16, 2003 — -- The forged documents detailing the supposed sale of uranium from Niger to Iraq were published today in a Rome newspaper — obvious flaws and all.
Among the many glaring errors evident in the documents, which were allegedly produced by an underpaid Nigerien diplomat and published in La Repubblica, are the use of obsolete letterheads, incompatible dates and poorly forged signatures.
In one document that supposedly formalizes the sale of uranium to Iraq, dated October 2000, bears the signature of a man who has not been Niger's foreign minister since 1989.
Another letter is both addressed to the president of Niger and signed by the president of Niger — although it uses the wrong symbol for the president's office.
The forger also had a difficult time keeping his dates straight. A third document, dated July 1999, refers in the past tense to a supposed agreement in June 2000.
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A congressman is calling for an investigation.
"The U.S. government still considers these documents to be classified and the discussion about them is taking place behind closed doors," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. "I think we need public hearings now that ABC has made them available and we know they are a hoax."
The same questions are being raised in Britain. Prime Minister Tony Blair also relied on the forged documents when making the case for war in Iraq.
In a combative session in Parliament, Blair insisted it still might be true that Iraq attempted to buy uranium from Niger.
"It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, let's at least put it like this, that they went back to Niger again," he said. "And that is why I stand by entirely the statement that was made in the September dossier."
Following the Paper Trail
For more than a week, the Bush administration has been trying to explain how it came to pass that the president, 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."
Bush's claim that Saddam was 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 Denies Its Diplomat Involved
In Rome today, Niger's ambassador to Italy denied the story. She said no one from her country's diplomatic corps had created any fabrication, and that Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja met with Bush last week to tell him that.
As is now known, the documents were soon spotted as forgeries by the International Atomic Energy Agency and made public when the agency's chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, 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.