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Intelligence fooled again, this time by crude forger

By Joby Warrick
March 10 2003

Evidence linking Iraq to a nuclear weapons program appears to have been fabricated, the United Nations' chief nuclear inspector said in a report that called into question United States and British claims about Iraq's secret nuclear ambitions.

Documents that purportedly showed Iraqi officials shopping for uranium in Africa two years ago were deemed "not authentic" after scrutiny by UN and independent experts, Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the Security Council.

Dr ElBaradei also rejected an important Bush Administration claim - made twice by the President in major speeches and repeated by his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, on Friday - that Iraq had tried to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes to use for uranium enrichment.

Dr ElBaradei also reported finding no evidence of banned weapons or nuclear material in an extensive sweep of Iraq.

Sources familiar with the forgery investigation described the faked evidence as a series of letters between Iraqi agents and officials in the central African nation of Niger.

The documents had been given to the UN inspectors by Britain and reviewed extensively by US intelligence. The forgers had made relatively crude errors - including names and titles that did not match with the individuals who held office at the time the letters were purportedly written, the officials said. "We fell for it," said one US official who reviewed the documents.

A spokesman for the IAEA said the agency did not blame either Britain or the US for the forgery. The documents "were shared with us in good faith," he said.

The discovery was a further setback to US and British efforts to convince reluctant UN Security Council members of the urgency of the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Powell, in his statement to the Security Council on Friday, acknowledged Dr ElBaradei's findings but also cited "new information" suggesting that Iraq continues to try to get nuclear weapons components.

President Saddam Hussein pursued an ambitious nuclear agenda throughout the 1970s and 1980s and launched a crash program to build a bomb in 1990 following his invasion of Kuwait.

But Iraq's nuclear infrastructure was heavily damaged by allied bombing in 1991, and the country's known stocks of nuclear fuel and equipment were removed or destroyed during the UN inspections after the war.

In September, the US and Britain issued reports accusing Iraq of renewing its quest for nuclear weapons. Britain's said Iraq had "sought significant amounts of uranium from Africa, despite having no active civil nuclear program that could require it".

President Bush, in his speech to the Security Council on September 12, said Iraq had made "several attempts" to buy-high-strength aluminum tubes.

Doubts about both claims began to emerge shortly after UN inspectors returned to Iraq last November.

Dr ElBaradei's report all but ruled out the use of the tubes in a nuclear program. The IAEA chief said investigators had unearthed extensive records that backed up Iraq's explanation.

Moreover, further work by the IAEA's team of centrifuge experts - two Americans, two Britons and a French citizen - has reinforced the IAEA's conclusion that the tubes were ill-suited for centrifuges.

A number of independent experts on uranium enrichment have sided with IAEA's conclusion that the tubes were at best ill-suited for centrifuges.

The Washington Post


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