Lesson From FBI’s ‘Niger Uranium Forgeries’ File

An analysis of 640 pages of FBI investigatory records obtained by IRmep under the Freedom of Information Act reveals how the FBI Director limited Senator John D. Rockefeller’s urgent 2003 written demand for accountability over faulty Iraq war intelligence into a narrow overseas investigation. The released files, originally scheduled for declassification on December 31, 2028 document how FBI special agents from the Washington Field Office trailed Niger uranium sale forgery suspects in European regions where they held little jurisdiction – but were not allowed by FBI Director Robert Mueller to pursue any officials in their own back yard that twisted dubious intelligence to support the US invasion of Iraq. The lesson is clear. Despite subsequent years of Senate investigations into pre-invasion claims that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program, Americans are still vulnerable to the misuse of real and fabricated intelligence deployed by unscrupulous US government officials seeking to plunge the nation into war.

To justify the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, White House officials repeatedly used dubious intelligence to publicly make accusations that Iraq had a clandestine nuclear weapons program. The most compelling accusation was that Iraq secretly sought to purchase 500 tons of yellowcake uranium from Niger to refine and produce nuclear weapons. It was compelling because Iraq had only one plausible use for uranium – making nuclear weapons.

Wissam al-Zahawie, an Iraqi diplomat stationed at the Vatican traveled to Niger’s capital Niamey on February 1, 1999. Al-Zahawie solicited the Niger government’s support for lifting UN trade embargoes imposed against Iraq after the Persian Gulf War (Iraq War I). In the year 2000 Rocco Martino, a former Italian Carabinieri policeman, was allegedly asked by Italian intelligence agency officer Antonio Nucera if he was interested in earning money. Martino accepted and was placed in contact with Laura Montini, an Italian intelligence (SISMI) agent working inside the Niger embassy in Rome, who began passing documents about a Niger sale of uranium to Iraq – allegedly the true purpose of the Wissam al-Zahawie trip – for Martino to shop around to his European intelligence agency clients. The documents had been faxed from Niger phone numbers, presumably so that French, British and other electronic eavesdroppers could pick them up. By the end of the year 2000 a UK intelligence commission derived from the forgeries a report claiming, "unconfirmed intelligence indicates Iraqi interest in acquiring uranium." UK later released a White Paper claiming Iraq "sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite having no active civil nuclear power programme that could require it."

By the summer of 2001, Martino assembled an entire dossier of Niger uranium documents based on forgeries from stolen Niger embassy papers and SISMI intelligence files. Their centerpiece was written in French on Niger government stationary stamped "confidential." This fake July 27, 2000 letter was from Niger’s President to Iraq’s, signed with the seal of the President of Niger. It read, "I have the honor of referring to accord No. 381-N1 2000, concerning the provision of uranium, signed in Niamey on the 6th of July between the Government of the Republic of Niger and the Government of Iraq…" The letter described future shipments of 500 tons of yellowcake uranium. Different compilations of the Niger dossier circulated in Europe, some with handwritten corrections of the most obvious errors, with an asking price of up to $100,000 euros. On October 15, 2001 the CIA Rome station received SISMI reports of a Niger uranium deal with Iraq, and passed the information to Washington with the caveat that it was uncorroborated.

Americans were subsequently bombarded by US officials in the runup to the US invasion of Iraq with Niger uranium sale claims. Vice President Richard Cheney set the stage, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on March 14, 2001 that Saddam Hussein was actively pursuing nuclear weapons. On December 7, 2002, Iraq declared to UN weapons inspectors it did not have a nuclear weapons program. But State Department Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton oversaw the official US response, issued on December 19, 2002 charging Iraq with omitting its "efforts to procure uranium from Niger."

In January 2003, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice echoed Bolton, claiming in the New York Times that Iraq had "failed to account for or explain Iraq’s efforts to get uranium from abroad." Secretary of State Colin Powell followed on January 26 asking, "Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium?" Most critically, on January 28, President Bush delivered his State of the Union Address, claiming “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” These words stoked fears among Americans that the US was vulnerable to a nuclear attack from Iraq. Polling at the time revealed 90 percent of Americans believed Iraq was trying to develop nuclear weapons before the war.

In October of 2001, Italian journalist Elisabeta Burba of the magazine Panorama received a copy of the dossier from Martino including the fabricated July 2000 “agreement” between Iraq and Niger for the purchase of 500 tons of yellowcake uranium. Martino was asking 15,000 Euros for the publication of 17 pages of the documents in Panorama. Burba was encouraged by her editor Carlo Rosella to try to authenticate the dossier at the US Embassy in Rome before publishing any stories. Burba delivered the dossier to lower level US embassy employees, asking for authentication on October 9. The employees, foreign national officers, refused to provide any but sent the dossier to the US Department of State in Washington.

The International Atomic Energy Agency had heard that a dossier on Niger was behind US and British Niger claims since at least the fall of 2002, but the US refused to turn over any copies to the IAEA until February 4, 2003. Two weeks before the US invasion, Mohamed ElBaradie, director general of IAEA, testified before the UN Security Council that the much touted Niger dossier was based on forged documents. It took IAEA staff only a matter of hours of Internet searches to see the documents were fraudulent. Forgery documents cited Niger officials who were not in power during the time of "negotiations" and disbanded official agencies as instrumental in the so-called plot to sell Niger uranium to Iraq. Neoconservatives inside the administration and outside excoriated ElBaradei, but presented no evidence about why he was wrong.

On March 14, 2003 ranking Democrat of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia sent a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate whether the forgeries – so quickly and easily debunked by the IAEA – were misused or even possibly created by the US intelligence community or US actors "to build support for the Administration’s policies."

On March 16, four days before the invasion, Dick Cheney told MSNBC, "I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong" but also provided no evidence for why. On March 20, 2003 the "Coalition of the Willing," led by the United States, invaded Iraq.

An analysis of 640 pages of FBI investigatory records obtained by IRmep under the Freedom of Information Act reveals how the FBI translated Senator Rockefeller’s 2003 request into an investigation. The released files, originally scheduled for declassification on December 31, 2028 details how FBI special agents operated in European regions where they held little jurisdiction but were never tasked by FBI Director Robert Mueller to pursue the officials in their own back yard twisting dubious intelligence in support of the US invasion of Iraq.

The Washington Field Office (WFO) was designated as the investigation’s "office of origin" from Counterintelligence at FBI headquarters according to an internal June 3, 2003 communication. WFO was told to "give priority attention to this matter" and "immediately identify the responsible squad and points of contact." The WFO noted that the IAEA "publicly discredited documentary information that purported the Government of Iraq (GOI) sought uranium for its weapons of mass destruction program from individuals in Niger." WFO further noted a lead, "According to media reports, an unnamed individual had provided an Italian journalist with documents that purported GOI’s attempts to obtain the uranium. The source reportedly received 15,000 Euro dollars for the information. Italian authorities (not further identified to the FBI) reportedly were aware of the transaction, and may have provided the material to the American Embassy in Rome."

FBI HQ clearly wanted the WFO to focus its efforts entirely in Rome, according to communications initiating the investigation, "FBI Headquarters believes it necessary to interview the above USDS [State Department] employee. The interview is critical, as it will shape the direction of the FBI investigation. The interview will also allow the FBI direct linkage to the actual material for analysis, and the parallel construction…"

The US Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research provided the 17 pages of documents received from Burba to FBI headquarters complete with English translations. WFO, wrote, "the documents purportedly consisted of diplomatic notes between the Iraqi Embassy to the Holy See and the Embassy of Niger to Rome, internal communications within the Government of Niger, telexes between GOI and the Embassy, and an accord for uranium transaction between the two Governments."

The WFO continued to focus its efforts on Panorama reporter Elisabetta Burba, her editor and how to obtain direct access to her source. By June 23, 2003, the WFO concluded that, "Based upon investigation to date, it appears as though the person(s) responsible for the false information/documents was acting on his/her own (i.e., there was no foreign government involvement), and their goal was to profit financially. However, investigation is continuing."

The WFO closely followed press accounts, including a July 2003 Panorama article describing Burba’s efforts to validate the Niger dossier, which in addition to her embassy visit, included a trip to Niger. She publicly determined the whole Niger uranium affair was a "hoax" while her editor stated he believed "that whoever was the originator of this information did not believe that Panorama would check this information as closely as they did…"

In December the WFO constructed a timeline of key events, and included as an entry the October 1, 2002 CIA National Intelligence Estimate which reversed the agency’s previous consensus that Iraq had no active nuclear program. But the FBI investigation product focused on events in Rome. On September 14, 2004 FBI drafted a secret report titled, "Documents Provided to an Italian Journalist Purporting Government of Iraq Efforts to Obtain Uranium from Niger; FCI-Perception Management (Unknown Government)" for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The draft cited its interviews with Burba about her source, what the IAEA found as erroneous in the forgeries, the FBI lab analysis of forgery photocopies and the FBI’s official conclusion that the motive behind the forgeries was personal financial gain.

But the report was a flop, drawing a flurry of emails and immediate requests for a new round of WFO investigations. Internally, WFO communications revealed its investigatory scope had been severely restricted by FBI Director Robert Mueller’s office. In a September 23, 2004 internal WFO memo, the WFO circulated a classified two page fax received on September 15, 2004 of the complete Rockefeller letter, complaining "Prior to 9/15/2004, WFO had never been provided with a copy of the Senator’s letter." It was 551 days before the unit leading the investigation fully understood what the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had requested, and the trail was growing cold.

Rockefeller letter requesting the FBI investigation. Source: FBI Niger uranium investigation file

WFO’s investigatory scope was limited by FBI Director Mueller to Rome and the forgeries – rather than bad actors in Washington as implied by the final paragraph of the Rockefeller letter. Even after finally being allowed to read the letter in its entirety, the WFO was never apparently allowed by HQ to focus on "why the Intelligence Community did not recognize the documents were fabricated…and to allay any concerns that the US Intelligence Community, or other elements of the US government, were involved in the creation of these documents in order to build support for the Administration’s policies."

Based on its own investigations, the Senate ultimately issued two volumes of reports on pre-war intelligence on Iraq. The first, released on July 9, 2004 unanimously found numerous intelligence "failures" produced inaccurate assessments that "misled" policy makers and the American public. However, the committee’s Republicans and Democrats sharply disagreed on the impact of allegations made by senior Bush administration officials as pretexts for war. The FBI investigation contributed little because as noted in the report section on Niger, the FBI investigation was still ongoing.

The long-delayed second Senate prewar intelligence report released on May 25, 2007 focused on how senior policymakers used intelligence. A portion published June 5, 2008 included a detailed review of public statements by Bush administration war proponents, versus actual available intelligence to back up their claims, but did not focus on their many false Niger claims. Yet another fascinating volume 2 annex detailed how Iran-Contra affair intriguer Michael Ledeen leveraged his incredible ongoing access to neocon officials ensconced in high national security positions to solicit funding and support for covert actions aimed at regime change in Iran proposed by serial fabricator Manucher Ghorbanifar.

Guided by Niger intelligence twist veterans such as John Bolton, the US is again careening toward war – this time with Iran. It is more important than ever to understand how dubiously sourced "intelligence" can be used by US officials. The US still has no effective investigation or accountability mechanisms in place that can prevent or conduct a postmortem on high-level, across-the-board misuse of intelligence. The most likely lesson from Iraq War II for present day intelligence-wielding officials pushing for an attack on Iran is simple. It is safe to obliquely refer to sketchy foreign intelligence assessments as pretexts for war while citing the need to safeguard "sources and methods." Once any specifics, including "dodgy intelligence dossiers" behind such claims begin publicly circulating for scrutiny, the invasion had better begin before White House credibility and momentum are lost.

Grant F. Smith is the director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy in Washington and the author of the 2016 book, Big Israel: How Israel’s Lobby moves America which is now available as an audiobook. IRmep is co-sponsor of the annual Israel Lobby & American Policy Conference at the National Press Club.