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WASHINGTON (AP) -- An intelligence assessment last October cites "compelling evidence" that Saddam Hussein was attempting to reconstitute a nuclear-weapons program, according to documents released Friday by the White House.
Mounting a campaign to counter criticism that it used flawed intelligence to justify war with Iraq, the White House made public excerpts of the intelligence community's October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. That report helped shaped now-challenged comments by President Bush in his State of the Union address that Iraq was attempting to buy uranium in Africa.
The report asserts that Baghdad "if left unchecked...probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."
It also cites unsubstantiated reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from three African countries: Niger, Somalia and "possibly" Congo.
The White House sought to bolster its case as U.S. officials said that documents alleging Iraq sought uranium from Africa were obtained months before Bush cited them in making his case for war. But intelligence analysts did not look at them closely enough to know they were forgeries until after Bush had made the claim, U.S. officials say.
Bush in his State of the Union address in January asserted that, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
However, while the British government has stood by the assertion, U.S. officials, including CIA Director George Tenet, have subsequently challenged the allegation -- which was based at least in part on forged documents -- and have said it should not have been included in Bush's speech.
The intelligence assessment is put together by all the agencies in the intelligence community, with the CIA overseeing the presentation of the report.
The report cites "high confidence" within the intelligence community that "Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material."
Under the category of "moderate confidence," the report states that "Iraq does not yet have a nuclear weapon or sufficient material to make one but is likely to have a weapon by 2007 to 2009."
A senior administration official briefed reporters at the White House on the document and sought to explain how the information it included provided, in part, the basis for comments made by Bush in his State of the Union address.
As a result of the flap, the White House pledged to redouble efforts to make certain that questionable material did not find its way into presidential speeches.
The material released by the White House also included a "footnote" by the State Department that said "claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are...highly dubious."
On Thursday, U.S. officials offered new information which suggested a disconnect between the CIA and the State Department over the handling of what turned out to be a crucial but faulty piece of intelligence -- the forged documents -- used to make the Bush administration's case for war.
Officials acknowledged that had U.S. intelligence analyzed the documents sooner, they could have discovered the forgeries before the information was used as fodder for Bush administration statements vilifying Iraq.
The State Department said it obtained the documents in the fall of 2002, but intelligence officials said the CIA didn't get them until the following February. The State Department said it made them available to other agencies in the government shortly after acquiring them; officials could not explain why the CIA did not get copies of them sooner.
The U.S. Embassy in Rome obtained the documents, which purported to show contacts between officials in Iraq and Niger over the transfer of uranium, from a journalist there in October 2002, officials said. They were shown to CIA personnel in Rome and sent to State Department headquarters in Washington. But the CIA's station in Rome did not forward them to CIA headquarters outside Washington, where they would have been analyzed.
"We acquired the documents in October 2002 and they were shared widely within the U.S. government, with all the appropriate agencies," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. Those agencies included the CIA, another U.S. official said.
But an intelligence official said the CIA didn't obtain the documents from the State Department until February 2003. The official suggested analyzing the documents was not a top priority at the time because the CIA had already investigated their substance.
The CIA only got the documents to respond to a request from the United Nations, the intelligence official said. U.N. officials, trying to run a weapons inspections regime in Iraq, asked for evidence behind the allegation in Bush's Jan. 28 speech that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
The CIA provided them to the United Nations. U.N. officials announced in early March the documents were fakes, and the CIA concurred, the intelligence official said.
The Italian government, which also obtained a copy of the documents, had passed on their contents -- but not their source -- to the CIA several months earlier. The CIA had sent a retired diplomat to Africa to investigate but found little to substantiate the claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger.
Still, the CIA included the claim, with a note that it was unconfirmed, in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, the classified document that summarized information on Iraq's weapons programs.
The estimate also noted the U.S. government had other, "fragmentary" intelligence suggesting that Iraq sought uranium for its nuclear weapons program in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Despite the uncertainties, Bush administration officials tried repeatedly to use this information in speeches and statements. The CIA protested several times as the statements were being prepared, but the Niger claim made it into a State Department fact sheet in December, and the more general Africa claim was used in the president's State of the Union address.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)