One of the chief arguments used by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons programs. Central to this argument was the claim that Iraq attempted to obtain processed uranium from Africa and that it attempted to acquire specialized aluminum tubes to enrich that uranium. Debate continues about the accuracy of the second assertion. But President George W. Bush’s inclusion of the first claim in his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address has become particularly contentious as evidence has emerged that it was based on discredited or misleading information. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice acknowledged June 8 that Bush’s claim was based in part on inaccurate information, and the controversy intensified when the White House conceded July 7 that the information should not have been included in the president’s speech. Several administration officials have accepted varying degrees of responsibility for the statement, including Rice, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, and Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, as well as President Bush himself.
This chronology details the intelligence that the United States possessed on reported Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium from Africa, along with relevant administration statements.
Late 2001-early 2002: The United States gathers what Tenet later terms “fragmentary intelligence” about Iraq’s attempts to acquire uranium from Africa.
Late February 2002: The CIA sends former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger to investigate reports about Iraq’s attempts to acquire uranium from that country. Wilson later writes in The New York Times on July 6, 2003, that “it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had taken place” because Niger’s uranium industry is closely regulated by its government and is controlled by a consortium of foreign companies monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Wilson briefs this conclusion to the CIA when he returns in March 2002.
Wilson also reports to the CIA that a former Nigerien official described a businessman’s attempt to arrange a meeting between the former official and an Iraqi delegation as “an attempt to discuss uranium sales,” Tenet says July 11, 2003. But Wilson told Arms Control Today August 18 that the official mentioned uranium as an afterthought.
CIA officials tell Wilson that his mission to Niger is in response to an interest expressed by Vice President Dick Cheney. Wilson tells CNN later on July 7, 2003, that Cheney’s office “asked the question and that office received a very specific response.”
Tenet, however, claims July 11, 2003, that CIA experts sent Wilson to Niger “on their own initiative” and that the agency never briefed Wilson’s conclusions to senior administration officials. The CIA distributed a summary of Wilson’s report to intelligence community entities on March 9, 2002.
March 1, 2002: The State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) sends a memorandum to Secretary of State Colin Powell stating that claims regarding Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium from Niger are not credible, according to a knowledgeable government official.
August 26, 2002: Cheney declares that “we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons…. Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.”
September 2002: The CIA expresses “reservations” to British intelligence about information regarding Iraqi efforts to acquire African uranium after the United Kingdom informs the agency about its plans to include the allegation in a forthcoming report about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, according to a July 11, 2003, statement from Tenet.
September 24, 2002: The United Kingdom issues a report on Iraq’s WMD program, stating that “there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Iraq has no active civil nuclear power programme or nuclear power plants, and therefore has no legitimate reason to acquire uranium.”
September/October 2002: U.S. intelligence officials tell Senate committees about their differences with the British report regarding the Iraq uranium claim, according to Tenet’s July 11, 2003, statement.
October 2002: The State Department acquires documents about the Iraq-Niger uranium deal and shares them with “all the appropriate agencies,” department spokesman Richard Boucher says later on July 17, 2003. A senior administration official, however, claims on July 18, 2003, that the CIA did not receive the documents until February 2003.
Early October 2002: A classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a portion of which was later made public July 18, 2003, states, “A foreign government service reported that as of early 2001, Niger planned to send several tons” of uranium to Iraq, adding that “Niger and Iraq reportedly were still working out arrangements for this deal, which could be for up to 500 tons of yellowcake [lightly processed uranium ore].”
The NIE also says that “reports indicate Iraq also has sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We cannot confirm whether Iraq succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from these sources.”
The NIE also contains a State Department INR dissent that characterizes “claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa” as “highly dubious.” Rice does not read the INR dissent, a senior administration official said July 18, 2003.
October 5-7, 2002: Tenet calls Hadley to request that a line referring to Iraqi attempts to obtain “substantial amounts of uranium oxide” be removed from a draft of a Bush speech scheduled for October 7.
The CIA sends a memorandum to Hadley and White House speechwriter Michael Gerson October 5, asking them to remove a similar line referring to Iraq’s attempted acquisition of “500 metric tons of uranium oxide from…Africa.”
The CIA also sends a memorandum to the White House October 6 providing additional detail about the Iraq uranium claim and noting the U.S. intelligence community’s differences with the United Kingdom over the intelligence. The memorandum is passed to both Hadley and Rice.
Per the CIA’s request, no reference to Iraqi uranium procurement attempts appears in Bush’s October 7 speech.
Hadley and White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett reveal these details in a July 22, 2003, press briefing.
December 19, 2002: A State Department fact sheet charges Iraq with omitting its “efforts to procure uranium from Niger” from its December 7 declaration to UN weapons inspectors. UN Security Council Resolution 1441, adopted November 8, 2002, required Iraq to submit a declaration “of all aspects of its [weapons of mass destruction] programmes.” The declaration is supposed to provide information about any prohibited weapons activity since UN inspectors left the country in 1998 and to resolve outstanding questions about Iraq’s WMD programs that had not been answered by 1998.
The fact sheet is “developed jointly by the CIA and the State Department,” according to an April 29, 2003, letter from the State Department to Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA). Boucher later says July 14, 2003, that the Niger information was “prepared in other bureaus of the State Department,” but he does not say which bureaus were involved. The fact sheet was not cleared by the State Department’s intelligence bureau, according to knowledgeable sources.
A State Department official interviewed August 21, 2003, however, said the State Department’s Public Affairs Bureau developed the fact sheet from a draft of a speech U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte gave December 20, 2002, to a closed session of the Security Council. The State Department would have discussed the information for that speech “at several levels with the National Security Council (NSC),” the official added. The final draft of Negroponte’s speech did not contain the reference to Niger.
The IAEA requests information from the United States on the uranium claim “immediately after” the fact sheet’s release, according to a June 20, 2003, letter from the IAEA to Waxman. This information is not supplied until February 4, 2003, according to a July 1, 2003, State Department letter to Waxman.
January 2003: White House staff members decide to include a reference to Iraqi attempts to procure uranium from Africa in the State of the Union speech. During a discussion about the intelligence on this matter, NSC staff member Robert Joseph insists that information about the uranium procurement attempt be included in the speech, according to later accounts from several U.S. senators investigating the claim. But Alan Foley, head of the Director of Central Intelligence’s Center for Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control, expresses concern about the intelligence. Foley eventually agrees to a change that appears in the final draft of the speech. According to Bartlett’s later briefing, Tenet does not review the speech, and Rice and Hadley do not recall the October memorandums or a phone call from Tenet while putting together the State of the Union remarks.
Joseph later recalls the exchange differently, believing it was only about a question of whether to cite the British report or the NIE in the State of the Union address, Bartlett says in his July briefing.
Powell reviews the State of the Union address but does not raise any objections to it, Boucher says July 14, 2003.
January 20, 2003: Bush submits a report to Congress stating that Iraq omitted “attempts to acquire uranium” from its December 7 declaration to the United Nations.
January 23, 2003: Rice writes in The New York Times that Iraq’s declaration “fails to account for or explain Iraq’s efforts to get uranium from abroad.” A White House report issued the same day asserts that Iraq’s weapons declaration “ignores efforts to procure uranium from abroad.”
January 26, 2003: Powell asks, “Why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium and the special equipment needed to transform it into material for nuclear weapons?” during a speech in Switzerland.
January 27, 2003: IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei tells the Security Council that IAEA inspectors “have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapons programme since the elimination of the programme in the 1990s.”
January 28, 2003: Bush asserts that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” during his State of the Union address.
January 29, 2003: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld states in a press briefing that Iraq “recently was discovered seeking significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
February 4, 2003: State Department officials give the IAEA the information the agency requested about Iraq’s attempts to obtain uranium from Niger, telling the agency that it “cannot confirm these reports and [has] questions regarding some specific claims.”
February 5, 2003: Powell presents evidence, based on U.S. intelligence, about Iraq’s prohibited weapons programs to the Security Council. He does not mention Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium from Africa.
February 14, 2003: ElBaradei reports to the Security Council that “we have to date found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq,” adding that “a number of issues are still under investigation and we are not yet in a position to reach a conclusion about them.”
March 7, 2003: ElBaradei tells the Security Council that the documents allegedly detailing uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger are “not authentic,” adding that “these specific allegations are unfounded.”
March 9, 2003: Powell acknowledges that the documents concerning the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium deal might be false.