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Remembering the Hoax That Helped Launch the U.S. Invasion, and Later Disintegration, of Iraq

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More than a decade after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, veteran journalists Peter Eisner and Knut Royce are releasing a new edition of their groundbreaking book, The Italian Letter. More relevant than ever, The Italian Letter provides explosive, historic insights for a greater understanding of the Iraq War and how the United States got there. Here is a report by Royce on the hoax that helped launch the U.S. invasion and led to today's disintegration of the country.

The never-ending war in Iraq and the birth of the newly declared Islamic State -- the first caliphate since the fall of the Ottoman Empire -- are the unintended consequences of a set of crudely forged intelligence documents we collectively call The Italian Letter.

Introduced to the CIA in bits and pieces beginning shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attack on America, the bogus reports were key to generating critical public support for the invasion of Iraq. That war, in turn, has led to that country's disintegration and helped usher in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), run by a well-funded, growing terrorist organization described by experts as more threatening to the U.S. than al Qaeda. It rules the Islamic State and dreams of expansion.

The forged reports alleged that Saddam Hussein had been secretly buying the raw material to build an atomic bomb, uranium ore, and became George W. Bush's most compelling selling point for the invasion some eleven years ago. Many intelligence officials and members of his administration at the time suspected that, at the very least, the intelligence was questionable.

The documents were crafted by rogue Italian intelligence officers who wanted to peddle them to unsuspecting countries, including Britain and the U.S. -- or anyone else with cash. The centerpiece, or The Italian Letter, was a July 27, 2000, letter purportedly written to Saddam by the president of Niger, an impoverished African country. It allegedly formalized an agreement reached by representatives of both countries three weeks earlier for the supply of 500 tons of uranium ore, also known as yellow cake. The Italian intelligence service, SISMI, first alerted the CIA to the alleged transaction on Oct. 15, 2001, when America was still reeling from al Qaeda's attacks. But it gave no details, such as the tonnage being purchased, and provided no documentation.

The CIA was skeptical but asked SISMI for more. The Italians showed a little more leg in early Feb. 5, 2002, and provided a few details, including the 500 tons allegedly being purchased and delivered in two shipments. They also gave what they claimed was the verbatim text of a two-page "accord," or contract, between the buyer and seller. It was not, in fact, an accord. It was legal mumbo jumbo labeled "Annex 1" in the pile of junk documents. A simple Google search would have unraveled the hoax and halted the CIA-SISMI correspondence. The text, for instance, misidentified Niger's highest court, which supposedly ratified the contract on July 7, 2000. It said the signing was on a Wednesday, but July 7 fell on a Friday. The five signing officers were with the court only between February and May 1989, and one of them, described in the document as Iraq's attorney general, was Niger's attorney general in 1989.

The Defense Intelligence Agency, which also received the report, apparently did not check the facts and produced an intelligence summary that landed on Cheney's desk on Feb. 12. He pounced on the report and ordered the intelligence community to go on a full-court press for more detail. By the fall the U.S. obtained virtually all the bogus documents from an Italian reporter, Elisabetta Burba, who had received them from a SISMI agent trying to sell them. Burba had wanted U.S. verification and reaction. Most of the documents had other factual errors and made little sense to U.S. experts.

But Bush and Cheney were seeking support for war and truth was not critical. Bush shocked many U.S. intelligence officials with the inclusion of 16 words in his Jan. 28, 2003 State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

What U.S. intelligence officials and many in the administration knew was that Bush had omitted very important facts:

He didn't say, for instance, that America had the same bogus documents that had prompted the British claim; that the CIA had warned the British that the uranium intelligence was highly suspect and shouldn't be used in a public "dossier" Prime Minister Tony Blair was prepared to release; that former ambassador to Niger Joseph Wilson had returned to the country at the behest of the CIA, reporting back that no such uranium deal had ever transpired; that many U.S. officials who had reviewed the documents, including the State Department's nuclear weapons specialist, Simon Dodge, had spotted numerous factual errors in the phony papers. "The uranium purchase agreement," he e-mailed to colleagues in the intelligence community a week before Bush's speech, "probably is a forgery."

Yet the Bush and Cheney inner circle had already decided on war. Rallying public support was critical. No one wanted a repeat of the Vietnam War syndrome, a malaise that afflicted national morale for two decades. And they wanted no congressional resistance. To that end, in the late summer of 2002, the administration formed the so-called White House Iraq Group for the sole purpose of selling the war.

Nothing -- not the repeated threat of non-existent chemical or biological weapons, not erroneous claims that Saddam supported al Qaeda -- could galvanize American support like the specter of mushroom clouds.

Shortly after the creation of the Iraq Group, the administration leaked to The New York Times an intelligence-based story alleging that Saddam was purchasing thousands of aluminum tubes for centrifuges to enrich uranium. This U.S.-generated intelligence was the result of sloppy analysis. The Sept. 8, 2002, bombshell blanketed American newspapers and TV news shows. To ensure the message eluded no one with access to cable or rabbit ears, top administration officials, armed with The Times' expose, went on the stump that same day with their synchronized pitch.

Not surprisingly, Cheney sounded the most cataclysmic. Citing the administration-leaked aluminum tubes expose in The Times, he said on NBC's Meet the Press that the United States "may well become the target" of Saddam's nuclear program. Iraq "is, in fact, actively and aggressively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons," he warned America. "...If we have reason to believe someone is preparing an attack against the U.S., has developed that capability, harbors those aspirations, then I think the United States is justified in dealing with that, if necessary, by military force."

Condoleezza Rice, at the time Bush's national security adviser, also issued a full-throated warning on CNN's Late Edition. "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein's regime is a danger to the United States and to its allies, to our interests," she said. "We know that there have been shipments going ... into Iraq, for instance of aluminum tubes that really are only suited ... for nuclear weapons." While there was uncertainty about "how quickly (Iraq) can acquire nuclear weapons ... we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

Within days, before Americans could rush to rebuild their Cold War bomb shelters, news began to leak that the aluminum tubes may have been designed for something else -- the casings for rockets. The Times had not mentioned that the aluminum tubes had been the subject of contentious debate within the intelligence community, and its leading experts on nuclear weapons, scientists from the Energy Department, had concluded that the tubes were unsuited for centrifuges. Rather, the scientists insisted, the tubes matched exactly what Iraq needed to replenish its depleting stockpile of Nasser 81 rockets. The tubes, in fact, were used for rockets manufactured by 14 other countries, including Switzerland. Even the State Department, populated mostly by diplomats and not engineers, insisted the tubes were for rockets.

Having to drop the aluminum tube canard was only a glancing blow to the administration's continuing campaign to convert Iraq into a nuclear power. After all, centrifuges are very complex machines and hard to explain to the average American.

But everyone knows that you need uranium (or plutonium) to build a nuclear bomb. So the faux-uranium story continued to resurface. The most important pitch was in Bush's State of the Union address. The information itself was not new. But it was improved, and delivered to a massive audience. Britain, four months earlier, had produced Blair's controversial "dossier" that also claimed that Iraq was seeking "significant quantities of uranium" from Africa. The British, too, had been sold the bill of goods from SISMI. All Bush's speechwriters changed from the British text was the identity of the purchaser. It dropped the reference to Iraq and substituted it with Saddam Hussein. It was, well, more personal.

Saddam really did not want another war with the United States. His military had been devastated by the 1991 Operation Desert Storm. He was cooperating, in a way he had never before, with United Nations weapons inspectors. They were poking under every grain of sand in the vast Iraq landscape looking for morsels that would belie his insistence that he had no nukes and wasn't seeking any. Under a UN resolution, Iraq had to supply a detailed reporting telling the truth about its weapons of mass destruction. It did so on Dec. 7, 2002, and, in 12,000 pages, declared it had none.

The administration pounced on the report. The State Department, on Dec. 18, issued an official rebuttal to the Iraq report, publicly disclosing, for the first time, that the African country supplying the yellow cake was Niger. The White House on Jan. 20 said that Iraq's report was a shameless lie. Rice three days later told The New York Times that the report "fails to account for or explain Iraq's efforts to get uranium from abroad." And on Jan. 26 Secretary of State Colin Powell asked, rhetorically, "Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium?"

At the United Nations, meanwhile, the secretary general of its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradai, was panicking. He wanted his inspectors to complete their work in Iraq before the U.S. made a final decision to invade. The day before Bush's State of the Union, he told the Security Council that his UN team had so far "found no evidence that Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons program" since its elimination in the 1990s. He asked for a little more time to complete the work. He did not get it.

On March 7, two weeks before the invasion, ElBaradai declared to the Security Council that the Niger uranium documents, which the UN also had finally received, were totally bogus and that Iraq was not building a nuclear bomb.

"Based on thorough analysis, the IAEA has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents -- which formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger -- are in fact not authentic. We have therefore concluded that these specific allegations are unfounded." As for the aluminum tubes, he said that inspectors had found "no indication that Iraq has attempted to import aluminum tubes for use in centrifuge enrichment." Moreover, the team also had found "no evidence of nuclear-related prohibitive activities."

For a week the administration maintained stony silence on the IAEA conclusions. But on March 16, four days before the invasion, Cheney appeared on NBC's Meet the Press and declared, "I think Mr. ElBaradai frankly is wrong." The invasion was a go.

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Knut Royce was a major contributor to three Pulitzer Prize-winning stories in three different decades as national security correspondent for Newsday's Washington bureau. He has won numerous journalism awards and was named by the Washingtonian as one of the two best investigative print reporters in the nation's capital. He lives in Fairfax, Virginia.