One person who refused to meet with Burba was the CIA chief of station. A few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Sismi, the Italian intelligence agency, had sent along information about the alleged sale of uranium to Iraq. The station chief asked for more information and would later consider it far-fetched.
On Oct. 15, 2001, the CIA reports officer at the embassy wrote a brief summary based on the Sismi intelligence, signed and dated it, and routed it to CIA's Operations Directorate in Langley, with copies going to the clandestine service's European and Near East divisions. The reports officer had limited its distribution because the intelligence was uncorroborated; she was aware of Sismi's questionable track record and did not believe the report merited wider dissemination.
The Operations Directorate then passed the raw intelligence to the CIA's Intelligence Directorate and to sister agencies, including the Defense Intelligence Agency. A more polished document, called a Senior Executive Intelligence Brief, was written at Langley three days later in which the CIA mentioned the new intelligence but added important caveats. The classified document, whose distribution was limited to senior policymakers and the congressional intelligence committees, said there was no corroboration and noted that Iraq had "no known facilities for processing or enriching the material."
Pushing the Africa claim
Almost four months later, on Feb. 5, 2002, the CIA received more information from Sismi, including the verbatim text of one of the documents. The CIA failed to recognize that it was riddled with errors, including misspellings and the wrong names for key officials. But it was a separate DIA report about the claims that would lead Cheney to demand further investigation. In response, the CIA dispatched Wilson to Niger.
Martino's approach to Burba eight months later with the Italian letter coincided with accelerating U.S. preparations for war. On Oct. 7, 2002, the same day Martino gave Burba the dossier, President Bush launched a new hard-line PR
campaign on Iraq. In a speech in Cincinnati, he declared that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a "grave threat" to U.S. national security.
"It possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons," the president warned.
CIA Director George J. Tenet had vetted the text of Bush's speech and was able to persuade the White House to drop one questionable claim: that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. The information was too fishy, Tenet explained to the National Security Council and Bush's speechwriters.
Bush dropped the shopping-for-uranium claim, but ratcheted up the bomb threat. He said in Cincinnati that if Hussein obtained bomb-grade uranium the size of a softball, he would have a nuclear bomb within a year. This particular doomsday scenario had first been unveiled several weeks earlier, on Aug. 26, by Cheney. In a speech in Nashville to the 103rd national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he declared with no equivocation that Hussein had "resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons."
On Oct. 16, Burba sat on a plane on her way to Niger, while in Washington, copies of the Italian letter and the accompanying dossier were placed on the table at an interagency nuclear proliferation meeting hosted by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
At this point, State Department analysts had determined the documents were phony, and had produced by far the most accurate assessment of Iraq's weapons program of the 16 agencies that make up the intelligence community. But the department's small intelligence unit operated in a bubble. Few administration officials -- not even Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- paid much attention to its analytical product, much of which clashed with the White House's assumptions.
The State Department bureau, nevertheless, shared the bogus documents with those intelligence officials attending the meeting, including representatives of the Energy Department, National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency. Four CIA officials attended, but only one, a clandestine service officer, bothered to take a copy of the Italian letter.
He returned to his office, filed the material in a safe and forgot about it.
The Niger uranium matter was not uppermost in the minds of the CIA analysts. Some of them had to deal with the issue in any case, largely because Cheney, his aide Libby and some aides at the National Security Council had repeatedly demanded more information and more analysis.