LONDON — The French secret service is believed to have refused to allow Britain’s MI6 to give the United States “credible” intelligence showing that Iraq was trying to buy uranium ore from Niger, U.S. intelligence sources said yesterday.
Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service had more than one “different and credible” piece of intelligence to show that Iraq was attempting to buy the ore, known as yellowcake, British officials insisted. But it was given to them by at least one and possibly two intelligence services and, under the rules governing cooperation, it could not be shared with anyone else without the originator’s permission.
U.S. intelligence sources believe the most likely source of the MI6 intelligence was the French secret service, the DGSE. Niger is a former French colony, and its uranium mines are run by a French company that comes under the control of the French Atomic Energy Commission.
A factor in the refusal to hand over the information might have been concern that the U.S. administration’s willingness to publicize intelligence would lead to sources being inadvertently disclosed.
U.S. sources also point out that the French government was vehemently opposed to the war with Iraq and suggest that it would have been instinctively against the idea of passing on the intelligence.
British sources yesterday dismissed suggestions of a dispute between MI6 and the CIA on the issue. But they acknowledged to being surprised that George J. Tenet, the CIA director, had apologized to President Bush for allowing him to cite the British government and its claim that Saddam had sought to acquire uranium from Africa in his State of the Union speech in January.
The apology follows the International Atomic Energy Agency’s dismissal of documents given to it by the CIA, which purported to prove the link, as forgeries.
Those documents have been widely identified with September’s British dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which said Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium ore from an unnamed country in Africa.
British officials acknowledged that the country was Niger, but insisted that the intelligence behind it was genuine and had nothing to do with the fake documents. It was convincing and they were sticking with it, the officials said.
They dismissed a report from a former U.S. diplomat who was sent to Niger to investigate the claims and rejected them.
“He seems to have asked a few people if it was true, and when they said ‘no’ he accepted it all,” one official said. “We see no reason at all to change our assessment.”
The fake documents were not behind that assessment and were not seen by MI6 until after they were denounced by the IAEA. If MI6 had seen them earlier, it would have immediately advised the Americans that they were fakes, these officials said.
There had been a number of reports, in the United States in particular, suggesting that the fake documents — which came from another intelligence source — were passed on via MI6, the officials said. But this was not true.
“What they can’t accuse MI6 of doing is passing anything on this to the CIA because it didn’t have the fake documents and it was not allowed to pass on the intelligence it did have to anyone else.”