A newly declassified State Department memo provides the first hard evidence that the Bush administration manipulated and ignored intelligence in their thirst for war.
Sixteen days before President Bush's January 28, 2003, State of the Union address in which he said that the US learned from British intelligence that Iraq had attempted to acquire uranium from Africa -- an explosive claim that helped pave the way to war -- the State Department told the CIA that the intelligence the uranium claims were based upon were forgeries, according to a newly declassified State Department memo.
The revelation of the warning from the closely guarded State Department memo is the first piece of hard evidence and the strongest to date that the Bush administration manipulated and ignored documents information in their zeal to win public support for invading Iraq.
The memo says: "On January 12, 2003," the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) "expressed concerns to the CIA that the documents pertaining to the Iraq-Niger deal were forgeries."
Moreover, the memo says that the State Department's doubts about the veracity of the uranium claims may have been expressed to the intelligence community even earlier.
Those concerns, according to the memo, are the reason that former Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to cite the uranium claims when he appeared before the United Nations in February 5, 2003 -- one week after Bush's State of the Union address -- to try to win support for a possible strike against Iraq.
"After considerable back and forth between the CIA, the (State) Department, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Association), and the British, Secretary Powell's briefing to the UN Security Council did not mention attempted Iraqi procurement of uranium due to CIA concerns raised during the coordination regarding the veracity of the information on the alleged Iraq-Niger agreement," the memo further states.
Iraq's interest in the yellowcake caught the attention of Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Association. ElBaradei read a copy of the National Intelligence Estimate and personally contacted the State Department and the National Security Council in hopes of obtaining evidence so his agency could look into it.
ElBaradei sent a letter to the White House and the National Security Council (NSC) in December 2002, warning senior officials he thought the documents were forgeries and should not be cited by the administration as evidence that Iraq was actively trying to obtain WMDs.
ElBaradei said he never received a written response to his letter, despite repeated follow-up calls he made to the White House, the NSC and the State Department.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who made the rounds on the cable news shows that month, tried to discredit ElBaradei's conclusion that the documents were forged.
"I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong," Cheney said. "[The IAEA] has consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don't have any reason to believe they're any more valid this time than they've been in the past."
As it turns out, ElBaradei was correct, the declassified State Department memo now shows.
Monday's declassified State Department memo was obtained over the weekend by the New York Sun under a Freedom of Information Act request the newspaper filed last July. The Sun's story Monday morning, however, did not say anything about the State Department's warnings more than a week before Bush's State of the Union address about the bogus Niger documents.
The memo, dated June 10, 2003, was drafted by Carl Ford Jr., the former head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, in response to questions posed in June 2003 by I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, about a February 2002 fact-finding trip to Niger that former ambassador Joseph Wilson undertook to investigate the uranium claims on behalf of the CIA.
The memo had originally been drafted in June in response to Libby's questions about Wilson. But after Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times July 6, 2003, in which he disclosed that he had personally investigated the Niger uranium claims and found that they were false, Powell requested further information from his aides. Ford went back and retrieved the June memo, re-dated it July 7, 2003, and sent it to Powell's deputy, Richard Armitage.
The Sun reported that the memo contained no direct reference to Plame Wilson's CIA status being marked as "secret" despite the fact that the word "secret" is clearly marked on every page of the INR memo.
The memo does not say that the State Department alerted the White House on January 12, 2003, about the bogus uranium claims.
But the memo's author, Carl Ford, said in a previous interview that he has no doubt the State Department's reservations about the Niger intelligence made their way to President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
One high-ranking State Department official said that when the department's analysts briefed Colin Powell about the Niger forgeries, Powell met with former Director of the CIA George Tenet and shared that information with him.
Tenet then told Vice President Dick Cheney and then-National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and her former deputy, Stephen Hadley, that the uranium claims were "dubious," according to current and former State Department and CIA officials who have direct knowledge of what Tenet discussed with the White House at the time.
The White House has long maintained that they were never briefed about the State Department's or the CIA's concerns related to the Niger uranium claims.
"I refuse to believe that the findings of a four-star general and an envoy the CIA sent to Niger to personally investigate the accuracy of the intelligence, as well as our own research at the State Department, never got into the hands of President Bush or Vice President Cheney. I don't buy it," said a high-ranking State Department official. "Saying that Iraq sought uranium from Niger was all it took, as far as I'm concerned, to convince the House to support the war. The American people too. I believe removing Saddam Hussein was right and just. But the intelligence that was used to state the case wasn't."
A spokeswoman for Tenet said Monday that the former head of the CIA wouldn't comment on the newly declassified document but promised that Tenet would tell the "full story" about how the infamous 16 words wound up in Bush's State of the Union address, in Tenet's book, "At the Center of the Storm," expected to be published in late October.
Many career State Department officials interviewed Monday said they were upset that the so-called "16 words" made their way into the State of the Union address and they are pleased that the INR memo has been declassified, thereby proving that their colleagues sounded early warnings about the dubious Niger intelligence.
A State Department official who has direct knowledge of the now declassified INR memo said when the request came from Cheney's office for a report on Wilson's Niger trip it was an opportunity to put in writing a document that would remind the White House that it had been warned about the Niger claims early on.
Many other State Department officials believed that the existence of a memo that would, in essence, disagree with the White House's own assessment on Niger would eventually hurt the administration.
"This was the very first time there was written evidence -- not notes, but a request for a report -- from the State Department that documented why the Niger intel was bullshit," said one retired State Department official.
"It was the only thing in writing, and it had a certain value because it didn't come from the IAEA. It came from State. It scared the heck out of a lot of people because it proved that this guy Wilson's story was credible. I don't think anybody wanted the media to kn
ow that the State Department disagreed with the intelligence used by the White House. That's why Wilson had to be shut down."
Jason Leopold is the former Los Angeles bureau chief of Dow Jones Newswires where he spent two years covering the energy crisis and the Enron bankruptcy. He just finished writing a book about the crisis, due out in December through Rowman & Littlefield.