The British government yesterday bolstered President Bush’s assertion that Iraq sought uranium from Niger, casting further doubt on former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV’s claims to the contrary.
The conclusion was reached by Robin Butler, who once was Britain’s top civil servant, in a major report on prewar intelligence that came five days after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reached a similar conclusion in its report.
Taken together, the British and U.S. reports appear to undermine Mr. Wilson’s criticism of Mr. Bush, which led to a criminal investigation of the White House and made the retired diplomat a media darling.
“It is accepted by all parties that Iraqi officials visited Niger in 1999,” the British report said. “The British government had intelligence from several different sources indicating that this visit was for the purpose of acquiring uranium.
“Since uranium constitutes almost three-quarters of Niger’s exports, the intelligence was credible,” the report added.
That buttressed an assertion by Mr. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union speech: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Yesterday, the British report called that assertion “well founded.” The report was cited by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who told Parliament: “It expressly supports the intelligence on Iraq’s attempts to procure uranium from Niger in respect of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions.”
The State of the Union assertion rankled Mr. Wilson, who said he found no evidence of such an attempted purchase during a CIA-sponsored trip to Niger. Mr. Wilson arrived in the African nation in late February 2002.
“I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people,” he wrote in the New York Times 18 months later. “Niger formally denied the charges.”
Mr. Wilson, who opposed Operation Iraqi Freedom and works as an adviser to Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign, accused Mr. Bush of twisting the facts “to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”
The accusation set off a feeding frenzy in the media that intensified after conservative columnist Robert Novak mentioned in a July 2003 column that Mr. Wilson’s Niger trip had been suggested by his wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA employee.
That prompted Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, to ask the Justice Department to begin a criminal investigation into whether the White House had leaked Mrs. Plame’s name to Mr. Novak. The president himself was interviewed recently by an investigator on the case.
Mr. Wilson, who did not return phone calls yesterday, has publicly accused White House political strategist Karl Rove of leaking the name, although he has provided no evidence to back up that accusation.
“It’s of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs,” he told an audience on Aug. 21, 2003.
Earlier this year, Mr. Wilson parlayed the controversy into a book, “The Politics of Truth,” in which he insisted that his wife was not the one who had suggested that the CIA send him to Niger.
“Valerie had nothing to do with the matter,” Mr. Wilson wrote. “She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip.”
But that assertion was disputed by the Senate intelligence committee report last week.
“Interviews and documents provided to the committee indicate that his wife … suggested his name for the trip,” the report stated.
According to the Senate report, Mrs. Plame boasted to her CIA superiors about Mr. Wilson’s contacts with Niger.
“My husband has good relations with both the [prime minister of Niger] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity,” she wrote in a Feb. 12, 2002, memo to her superiors, cited in the Senate report.
When the CIA gave her the green light to enlist her husband for the mission, she told Mr. Wilson that “there’s this crazy report” on a purported deal for Iraq to buy uranium from Niger, according to the report.
Like the British report, the United States did not back away from Mr. Bush’s State of the Union assertion. The U.S. report said Mr. Wilson did little to change the CIA’s belief that Iraq had tried to buy uranium.
“The report on the former ambassador’s trip to Niger, disseminated in March 2002, did not change any analysts’ assessment of the Iraq-Niger uranium deal,” the U.S. report said. “For most analysts, the information in the report lent more credibility to the original Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports on the uranium deal.”
Mr. Wilson has defended his position by pointing out that some documents linking Iraq with Niger were forgeries. U.S. and British officials said the forgeries may have been a red herring to cloud the issue and, in any event, did not surface until after the link had been established.
“The forged documents were not available to the British government at the time its assessment was made, and so the fact of the forgery does not undermine it,” concluded the report by Mr. Butler.
White House deputy spokesman Trent Duffy said the Butler report “speaks for itself” and declined further comment, citing the Justice Department’s ongoing leak probe.