The main argument George W. Bush used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a claim that Saddam Hussein was ramping up his nuclear weapons program - an accusation based on forged documents promoted in the president’s State of the Union address in January 2003, two months before the start of the war.
The allegation was largely based on forged documents claiming Iraq tried to purchase 500 tons of yellowcake uranium powder from Niger, a country in North Africa, which could be enriched and used in nuclear weapons. But who forged the documents and why weren’t they immediately dismissed as fake?
Mohamed ElBaradei, then head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the UN Security Council that his staff and independent experts concluded within hours that the documents were forged. They were printed, after all, on obsolete Iraqi and Niger letterheads citing officials who were no longer in power at agencies that had been disbanded. One letter, dated October 10, 2000, was reportedly signed with the name of Allele Habibou, a Niger Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, who left office in 1989.
"It was not really very difficult for us to come to the quick conclusion that these documents were forgeries," ElBaradei said at the time.
And yet, an estimated 100,000 lives were lost in Iraq - some even put the death toll as high as 1m - because the US government was either unable or unwilling to accept that the Niger documents were a hoax.
The ambassador and the spooks
It all began in October 2001, a month after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC, when an intelligence briefing was delivered to a CIA office in Rome. Exactly who provided the documents is in dispute, but at the time not much was done about the unsubstantiated claims.
In February 2002, former ambassador Joseph Wilson was sent to Niger to investigate. Wilson spoke with Niger’s former prime minister, who wasn’t aware of any attempt to sell uranium to Iraq. In any case, Wilson - married to CIA officer Valerie Plame - concluded that it would be impossible to produce and export such an enormous quantity of uranium.
Wilson, who wrote about his experiences in The Politics of Truth, told the CIA that the accusation was unequivocally wrong. But this information was apparently not delivered to the top brass (or it was delivered and dismissed). The rumor spread even further throughout the CIA.
By May 2002, the CIA had 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 US Department of Energy produced an intelligence report claiming the Iraq-Niger uranium deal was one of a few major indications that Iraq may be 'reconstituting its nuclear program'.
The White House on war footing
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's government had weighed in with an intelligence report released in September 2002 stating Iraq had attempted to purchase a ‘significant’ quantity of uranium from an African country.
The story intensified again when Stephen Hadley, then deputy national security advisor, and the US Defense Intelligence Agency published a report saying Iraq had been vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake.
By November 2002, the National Security Council was meeting with the CIA to agree on language that could be used by President Bush including 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 that referred to “interactions between Saddam Hussein and the government of Niger in relation to acquiring uranium”.
In January 2003, then-President Bush gave his State of the Union speech: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
The IAEA gave their verdict on the fake documents two weeks before the invasion, but there was no turning back. By the time the US invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, a vast number of Americans believed what they were told: a ruthless dictator was constructing weapons of mass destruction.
As for the yellowcake uranium, the only uranium found in Iraq was left over from Saddam Hussein’s defunct nuclear weapons program. It was sealed in containers, kept under guard since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 and later sold to a Canadian company.
“There was no evidence of any yellowcake dating from after 1991,” a senior US official told the Associated Press in 2008.
So where did the fake documents come from?
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. The Wall Street Journal described Martino as a man who “floated in obscurity on the margins of the global spy game”, working briefly for Italian military intelligence then operating as a freelancer selling intelligence tips to foreign agencies and journalists.
The Italian daily La Repubblica claimed that the forged documents were fed by the Italian intelligence agency to eager officials in Washington and London. But other reports suggest Martino passed the documents to Elisabetta Burba, an Italian journalist, who told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that she handed them directly to the US embassy in Rome.
Seymour Hersh, a New Yorker journalist, speculated that the CIA may have forged the documents itself. Hersh claimed a former officer 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”.
By 2006, Vanity Fair had also interviewed a number of former intelligence and military analysts. Some referred to the Niger documents as a classic psychological operations campaign. Nine of those interviewed officials strongly believed that the forged documents were part of a covert operation to mislead the American people.
Other journalists also had a spin on who was to blame. In The Italian Letter, Peter Eisner and Knut Royce argue that the Bush administration used information it knew to be false to convince Congress and Americans that Saddam Hussein was seeking materials to make a nuclear bomb.
In a 2019 CNN article, Eisner pointed the finger at Bush, his Vice President Dick Cheney, and John Bolton, who in the early 2000s was undersecretary of state for arms control in Colin Powell’s State Department.
“The CIA and other US intelligence analysts had cast doubt on the notion promoted by Bolton, then-Vice President Dick Cheney, and others in the administration that Iraq had sought to buy yellowcake uranium from the African nation of Niger,” Eisner wrote. “Nevertheless, with the connivance of Cheney and Bolton, President George W. Bush, and his administration frightened Americans about the dangers of a mushroom cloud if no action was taken.”
Whoever the culprits were, the story was effective.
It accelerated a catastrophic war that (at least officially) ended when America formally withdrew in December 2011. In reality, the US had 2,500 US troops stationed in Iraq in 2021.