The FBI is investigating the origin of forged documents indicating that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger, and one candidate for the forgeries is an Iraqi opposition group, U.S. officials said.
The documents, obtained first by Italy’s intelligence service, ended up fooling the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies into believing Baghdad was trying to buy uranium ore from the African nation, U.S. officials say.
The documents ended up “tainting” other reliable intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs and undermining the credibility of U.S. intelligence reports, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
One official said that the documents were provided first to the Italians and then to journalists before they ended up in the hands of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which dismissed them as fakes.
FBI spokesman Bill Carter said in an interview that a preliminary inquiry into the documents was undertaken after recent meetings between senior FBI officials and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Mr. Carter declined to comment further, citing a policy of not discussing FBI investigative matters.
Other officials said the FBI has sent agents to Italy and other nations to find out the origin of the documents, and the bureau’s counterintelligence agents also are questioning officials at the CIA and State Department. The probe was first reported by Newsweek magazine.
Other intelligence obtained by Britain is considered reliable and indicates Niger had tried to sell uranium ore to Saddam Hussein’s government, said officials familiar with U.S. intelligence reports.
President Bush chastised senior advisers, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and outgoing press spokesman Ari Fleischer, about the uranium intelligence flap and the White House’s handling of it several times during the recent trip to Africa.
Spokesmen at the time initially said the White House was provided with bad intelligence from the CIA, only to reverse course a day later and claim the intelligence may still be valid although it should not have been included in a presidential speech.
“The president wanted the matter settled,” one official said of Mr. Bush’s harsh words for his advisers.
Although it received intelligence from the documents earlier, the CIA did not obtain copies of the forged documents until February 2003 — months after the Italians first obtained them and after the president’s State of the Union address.
A U.S. official said the Italians initially only described the documents to the CIA. Then the State Department obtained a set from a journalist and that led to an investigative trip to Niger by former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson.
Mr. Wilson said Niger’s government told him that the country would not sell uranium to Iraq, but also informed him that Iraqis were in the country discussing unspecified commercial transactions, which could have included uranium-ore purchases, the U.S. official said.