WASHINGTON - Making his case for war with Iraq, President Bush in his State of the Union address this year accused Saddam Hussein of trying to buy uranium from Africa even though the CIA had warned White House and other officials that the story didn't check out.
A senior CIA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the intelligence agency informed the White House on March 9, 2002 - 10 months before Bush's nationally televised speech - that an agency source who had traveled to Niger couldn't confirm European intelligence reports that Iraq was attempting to buy uranium from the West African country.
Despite the CIA's misgivings, Bush said in his State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa."
Three senior administration officials said Vice President Dick Cheney and some officials on the National Security Council staff and at the Pentagon ignored the CIA's reservations and argued that the president and others should include the allegation in their case against Saddam.
The claim later turned out to be based on crude forgeries that an African diplomat had sold to Italian intelligence officials.
The revelation of the CIA warning is the strongest evidence to date that pro-war administration officials manipulated, exaggerated or ignored intelligence information in their eagerness to make the case for invading Iraq.
"We've acknowledged that some documents were forged and we know now it was a mistake to give them credence," said a fourth senior administration official who defended the White House's handling of the matter. "But they were only one piece of evidence in a larger body of evidence suggesting that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Africa."
Noting that Iraq had obtained uranium from Africa in the 1980s, he said the most recent allegations "were not central pieces of the case illustrating Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and their WMD programs."
The CIA's March 2002 warning about Iraq's alleged uranium-shopping expedition in Niger was sent to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Justice Department and the FBI the same day it went to the White House, the senior CIA official said.
In the months before Bush's State of the Union speech, the senior CIA official said, agency officials also told the State Department, National Security Council staffers and members of Congress that they doubted that Iraq had been trying to buy uranium from Niger.
One senior administration official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity because the intelligence reports remain classified, said the CIA's doubts were well known and widely shared throughout the government before Bush's speech.
Secretary of State Colin Powell didn't include the uranium story in his Feb. 5 presentation on Iraq to the United Nations Security Council, and senior CIA officials excluded it from their assessments of Iraq's illicit weapons programs and from their congressional testimony.
"The intelligence community had generally discredited the Niger angle well before the Feb. 5 presentation, though the (CIA) had caveated the whole matter with `it's a possibility' type language," said one senior administration official. "The State Department's (Bureau of Intelligence and Research) had footnoted the caveat with a `hardly believable.' . . . It was too bad even to get on the table at the (CIA) by that time."
"However, during the time between the `almost no good' report from the agency and the `unbelievable' footnote from INR, various people tried time and again to resurrect it and use it," the official said.
Among the most vocal proponents of publicizing the alleged Niger connection, two senior officials said, were Cheney and officials in the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The effort was led by Robert G. Joseph, the top National Security Council staff official on nuclear proliferation, the officials said.
Cheney alleged in an Aug. 26, 2002, speech that Saddam "has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," and this March 16 he went much further, saying: "We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."
On last Sunday's television talk shows, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the White House was unaware of the CIA's doubts.
"Maybe someone knew in the bowels of the agency, but no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery," she said on NBC.
The CIA's March 2002 warning about the Niger connection was just one in a daily flood of diplomatic and intelligence reports on Iraq, and it's possible that Rice never saw it.
However, the inclusion of the uranium story in Bush's speech appears to support charges that some pro-invasion officials ignored intelligence that could hurt the administration's case that Saddam was pursuing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has demanded that the White House explain why the Niger uranium story was in the president's State of the Union address.
"Contrary to your public statements, senior officials in the intelligence community in Washington knew the forged evidence was unreliable before the president used the evidence in the State of the Union address," Waxman wrote in a letter Tuesday to Rice.
"This is a question that bears directly on the credibility of the United States," he contended.
The report of an Iraq-Niger deal was exposed as a fraud when U.N. nuclear officials determined that the documents on which the allegations were based - reportedly letters between Iraqi and Niger officials - were forgeries.
The signature on a letter purportedly from Niger's President Tandja Mamadou was an obvious forgery; another letter was on the wrong letterhead and signed by an official who had left the post a decade earlier.
The use of the false evidence despite the CIA warning raises questions about why some officials chose to believe the story despite the widespread skepticism in the intelligence community.
One possibility, one senior official suggested Thursday, is that some officials at the Pentagon and in the vice president's office were getting their own intelligence from Iraqi exiles who the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency warned couldn't be trusted.
Exile leader Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress told lawmakers Thursday that his group had turned three Iraqi defectors over to U.S. officials. One of the three, Chalabi said, was an Iraqi scientist who was involved in separating isotopes for Iraq's nuclear weapons program.
Bush cited allegations that Saddam was hiding chemical, biological and nuclear warfare efforts from U.N. inspectors as a main justification for the U.S.-led war.
After more than two months of searching, U.S. troops haven't discovered any illicit weapons stockpiles or any evidence that Saddam had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program.
The deposed Iraqi regime said it had destroyed its illicit weapons.
Bush and his top lieutenants say they are confident that such weapons will be found eventually, although they've recently held open the possibility that the stockpiles were destroyed before the invasion kicked off March 20.
Majority Republican lawmakers so far have spurned a public investigation, but the Senate Intelligence Committee has begun reviewing intelligence assessments of Iraq's illicit weapons programs and will start closed-door hearings next week.
The senior CIA official said the agency first heard about an alleged Iraq-Niger uranium deal in reports from unidentified European intelligence services in late 2001 and early 2002.
"There were people who had questions about the overall story. It didn't make sense. It was sketchy information that was not validated by other means," he said.
Nevertheless, continued interest in Cheney's office, the NSC, the State Department and other agencies prompted the CIA to ask a retired U.S. ambassador to Niger to go there in February 2002 to inquire into the alleged deal, he said.
The CIA kept any reference to the former diplomat's identity out of its March 2002 message to the White House.
The message quoted a CIA "source" as saying he had spoken to people close to the Niger government, former senior officials and people involved in the country's mining industry, who all rejected the reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium. The former ambassador said he believed what they were telling him.
The message contained the names of people to whom the source spoke, said the senior CIA official.
It wasn't until February 2003 that the CIA obtained the original Iraq-Niger documents on which the uranium story was based, he said.
The documents were forwarded to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency. The next month, IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei told the U.N. Security Council that the documents were forgeries, a determination subsequently confirmed by U.S. officials.
(Knight Ridder correspondents Joseph L. Galloway and John Walcott contributed to this report.)