When Joseph Wilson got the call from Vice-President Dick Cheney's office asking for assistance, the former diplomat had no qualms.
The request related to a disturbing report from Italian intelligencesuggesting Iraq was buying uranium from Niger and trying to restart its nuclear weapons programme.
In February 2002, the CIA asked Mr Wilson to go to Niger as soon as possible, speak to the contacts he developed there as ambassador between 1976-78, and establish whether the reports were true. "I had been asked to look into whether it was feasible that Niger had entered into an agreement to sell uranium to Iraq," he told The Independent on Sunday.
Mr Wilson, recently retired, was ideal for the job. He knew Niger; he knew Africa from his time on the National Security Council when Bill Clinton was President, and having been chargé d'affaires in Baghdad, he was the last US official to speak to Saddam Hussein.
Having received clearance from the State Department ("I don't do covert, I do discreet.") he left for Niger in March 2002 where he was met by the US ambassador, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick. Mr Wilson spent just eight days in the capital, Niamey, but he was able to dismiss the claim that Iraq was trying to buy uranium.
Because of how the uranium business in Niger operates, the consortium that runs the mines would have learned of Niger's efforts to mine more uranium than normal and that increase would have been noticed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). There was no such trail and Mr Wilson concluded the documents must have been fake. Having reported to Ms Owens-Kirkpatrick, Mr Wilson returned to Washington, where he was debriefed the same day by the CIA and the next day by the State Department. "My report was very unequivocal," he said.
Mr Wilson thought nothing more of his trip until 24 September 2002, when the Blair government published its dossier on Iraq, claiming that intelligence suggested Iraq was seeking "significant quantities of uranium from Africa". He advised the CIA of the error and asked them to call London.
Whether the CIA did so is not clear. Mr Wilson is convinced - and CIA officials have confirmed this - that his report had circulated in the highest circles of the US and British governments. "We have a very close working relationship between the intelligence services," he said. "It's hard for me to fathom ... as close as we are and preparing for a war based on [claims of] weapons of mass destruction, that we did not share intelligence of this nature."
But not only was the British claim not corrected, it found its way into a State Department "fact sheet" issued in December that stated that the African country in question was Niger. The next month, President George Bush again repeated the erroneous claim in his State of the Union address, quoting almost verbatim the claim in the September dossier that Iraq was seeking "significant quantities of uranium from Africa".
That lie was finally nailed in March 2003 when the documents on which the Italian report was based were given to the US and then to the IAEA, whose experts quickly found them to be bogus. In a presentation that hugely embarrassed the US and Britain, the IAEA's director general, Mohamed El Baradei, told the UN Security Council: "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."
One document was a letter discussing Iraq's plan to buy 500 tons of uranium, dated July 2000 and apparently signed by the Niger President, Tandja Mamadou. Experts quickly spotted that it was not his real signature. Another letter, dated 1999, was signed by someone who was replaced as foreign minister in 1989.
Mr Wilson, in both The Independent on Sunday and The New York Times last weekend, dismissed White House claims that no one knew of his report. Of the claim by the US National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, that it was only known by "someone ... down in the bowels of the agency", he replied that it was her job to know such information, as the US was preparing for war on such evidence. Yet it was only after the two articles and the report by the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that the White House would admit that its claims were false.
"The question is: who did [my] report go to?" asked Mr Wilson. "How did they continue to make statements [claiming they had proof] that Saddam Hussein was reconstituting his weapons programme when clearly they did not?"
URANIUM STRETCHING CREDULITY
The claim: Documents purporting to show that Saddam Hussein sought to import uranium from Niger were exposed as forgeries, but Britain insists that its informationcame from "separate sources". Tony Blair repeated this assertion before a Commons committee yesterday.
The verdict: The alleged information from "separate sources" has never been made public. A senior Foreign Office official told the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, had been briefed about the additional intelligence. Yesterday, however, a source close to the IAEA told The Independent that the only information the agency had ever seen was the Niger documents. When the Americans handed them over in March this year, after months of pressure, the IAEA realised within minutes that they were crude forgeries.
Unless more details are disclosed, the suspicion will remain that the claim of "separate sources" was designed to prevent embarrassment to President Bush.
The claim: The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, told the Foreign Affairs Committee that the Niger forgeries did not come from British sources.
The verdict: Regardless of their provenance, the US was suspicious enough of the documents to send a senior retired diplomat, Joseph Wilson, to make inquiries in Niger. He says he never saw the forgeries, but reported back that the supposed evidence they contained was false.
The claim: Mr Straw said the British intelligence community was unaware of the Niger forgeries "at the time when [the September dossier] was put together".
The verdict: This leaves unanswered the question of whether or when the British agencies saw the documents. We know they came into the possession of the Americans, because they eventually handed them over to the IAEA. Given the close relationship between London and Washington, is it conceivable that the British were never given copies? The IAEA says it took a simple internet search to establish that the documents were fake. Britain's spies would presumably have seen through them equally quickly.
The claim: Senior White House officials claim Mr Wilson's findings never reached them.
The verdict: Mr Wilson says his mission came at the request of the Vice-President, Dick Cheney.
Raymond WhitakerReuse content