During the Iraq disarmament crisis, crudely forged documents claimed to reveal that Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase 500 tons of yellowcake uranium powder from the north African country of Niger. This kind of uranium can be enriched and used in nuclear weapons. The UK and US were not pleased, and, believing that Iraq was attempting to build weapons of mass destruction, accused it of breaching United Nations’ sanctions. The hoax resulted in a baffling international situation and even made its way into a speech by President George W. Bush.
It all began in October 2001, when an intelligence brief entitled “Iraq: Nuclear Related Procurement Efforts” was delivered to a CIA office in Rome by Italian military intelligence. At the time nothing much was done about the unsubstantiated claims. Then, in February 2002, the CIA sent Ambassador Joseph Wilson to investigate the claims. Wilson spoke with the former prime minister of Niger who stated that he knew of no attempts to sell uranium to Iraq. It was concluded that it would be impossible to produce and export such an enormous quantity. Wilson returned to the CIA to tell them, in no uncertain terms, that the accusation was unequivocally wrong. Remarkably, this information was not delivered to the top brass, and the rumor began to spread even further throughout the CIA.
In May 2002, the CIA prepared a briefing book on Iraqi weapons programs. It stated that a foreign government service had suggested Iraq was trying to acquire 500 tons of uranium from Niger. By July 2002, the United States Department of Energy produced an intelligence report which claimed that the Iraq–Niger uranium deal was one of a few major indications that Iraq may be “reconstituting its nuclear program.”
The rumor dissemination intensified three months later when stories of potential Iraqi uranium wrangling reached the White House. The Deputy National Security Advisor, Stephen Hadley, caught wind of this, and the Defense Intelligence Agency published its own report which said that Iraq had been “vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake.” One month later, staff from the National Security Council met with the CIA in order to agree on language that could be used by President Bush in his speeches, which included the phrase, “Iraq has resumed efforts to obtain large quantities of a type of uranium oxide known as yellowcake.”
Soon after, the Bush administration set in motion its efforts to raise support for the war in Iraq, at one point stating that it had “intelligence from Italy, Britain, and France” which referred to “interactions between Saddam Hussein and the government of Niger in relation to acquiring uranium.” The UK government then publicly stated that there had been an attempted Iraqi uranium purchase from an “African country.”
In January 2003, President Bush said the following in a State of the Union speech: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Two months later, the United States invaded Iraq. At this time the vast majority of American people strongly believed that a ruthless dictator was constructing weapons of mass destruction.
Actual analysis of the original documents began in the background at around the same time. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) took a look. Only a very quick look was required. Within a few hours they had determined that the documents were entirely fake. The crude forgery even included incorrect names of officials from Niger.
So where did these documents come from? Nobody has ever been convicted of forging them, but multiple theories remain. Some say they were acquired by Rocco Martino, a security consultant working for Italian military intelligence, who had received them from a member of staff at the Niger embassy. Martino then apparently passed the documents to Elisabetta Burba, an Italian journalist, who herself passed them on to the American embassy in Rome. Burba’s editors apparently discouraged her from investigating the source and authenticity of the documents.
The New Yorker speculated that the forgery may have originated from the CIA itself. The author of the article, Seymour Hersh, a controversial security journalist, claimed a former officer had said that “somebody deliberately let something false get in there,” and that a small group of disgruntled retired CIA clandestine operators had “banded together and drafted the fraudulent documents themselves.” The officers were said to have bragged about their work, calling the forgeries “cool, cool, cool.”
By 2006, Vanity Fair had dug deeper and interviewed a number of former intelligence and military analysts. Some of them referred to the Niger documents as a “classic psychological operations campaign.” Nine of the interviewed officials strongly believed that the forged documents were part of a “covert operation to mislead the American people.”
Whoever the culprit was, the hoax was extremely effective, to the point of accelerating a catastrophic war.
This article is part of the SPYSCAPE forgery series, which delves into the history of forged and faked physical items, from war documents to valuable historical artifacts to great works of art. For more articles in the series, click here.