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June 2, 2022
Chronology of Bush Administration Claim that Iraq Attempted to Obtain Uranium from Niger (2001-2003)
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Last Reviewed: 
August 2017

Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, (202) 463-8270 x107

One of the chief arguments used by the Bush administration to justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. For example, only three days before U.S.-led coalition forces invaded Iraq Vice President Dick Cheney claimed that Iraq had "reconstituted nuclear weapons." Central to the administration's argument were erroneous claims that Iraq had recently attempted to obtain lightly-processed uranium, or "yellowcake," from Africa and that it had attempted to acquire specialized aluminum tubes as part of a uranium enrichment program to produce fissile material, which is necessary for making nuclear weapons.

The claim regarding the uranium deal has become particularly contentious because President George W. Bush cited it in his January 28, 2003 State of the Union Address and because officials in the White House and the Office of Vice President Cheney waged a public campaign to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who publicly challenged the uranium claim in the summer of 2003. The administration's claims regarding Iraq's pre-war capabilities are the subject of the delayed, "second phase" of the investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Contrary to White House assertions that the "intelligence was all wrong," as early as a year before the invasion U.S. intelligence assessments and senior U.S. officials disagreed about the reliability of the information supporting the main nuclear weapons-related assertions. Furthermore, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors working on the ground in Iraq found no evidence that Baghdad had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program.

The chronology of events involving the internal intelligence assessments and international inspections clearly demonstrates that senior Bush officials overlooked intelligence assessments that cast doubt on the claim that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program.

The chronology also highlights that senior Bush administration officials also failed to take into consideration the findings and assessments of the IAEA inspectors working in Iraq from November 2002 to March 2003 that repudiated the nuclear program reconstitution allegation. The administration also gave short shrift to proposals from other UN Security Council members based on the inspectors' finding that called for a the continuation of the inspections, as well as the UN-mandated sanctions regime to contain and dismantle any remaining prohibited weapons activities in Iraq.


Following Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the international community discovered that Baghdad had a much more advanced nuclear weapons program than the United States or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had suspected. The IAEA was charged with undertaking inspections to ensure that Iraq complied with disarmament requirements mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 687, but the United Nations withdrew the inspectors in December 1998 shortly before "Operation Desert Fox," the U.S.-U.K. military operation to strike known Iraqi weapons facilities.

The IAEA, however, reported in 1999 that, based on the inspectors' work until that time, there was "no indication that Iraq possesses nuclear weapons or any meaningful amounts of weapon-usable nuclear material, or that Iraq has retained any practical capability (facilities or hardware) for the production of such material."

The IAEA also cautioned that this statement was "not the same as a statement of [the weapons] non-existence." A 2001 Department of Defense report added that Iraq "still retains sufficient skilled and experienced scientists and engineers as well as weapons design information that could allow it to restart a weapons program."

The absence of inspectors, combined with the remaining uncertainty regarding Iraq's nuclear program, created concern that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. Long before President George W. Bush sought to do so, many arms control and nonproliferation advocates urged UN Security Council members to pursue steps that would lead to the reintroduction of weapons inspectors.

The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1441 in November 2002, requiring Iraq to comply fully with its disarmament requirements under relevant Security Council resolutions. Inspections resumed later that month. IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei reported to the Security Council March 7 that the inspectors had found "no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq."

Prior to a vote on a resolution to authorize the possible use of force to enforce UN Security Council Resolutions, congressional Democrats requested an intelligence assessment on Iraq's weapons capabilities. The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stated that that most agencies agreed that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.

However, the State Department's Bureau for Intelligence and Research (INR) did not agree. Its dissenting views were included in the full NIE report but not in the unclassified executive summary. The INR dissent stated that "available evidence indicates that Baghdad is pursuing at least a limited effort to maintain and acquire nuclear weapon-related capabilities" but that the evidence is "inadequate" to support the claim that "Iraq is currently pursuing an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons."



February 20, 2001: Secretary of State Colin Powell tells reporters that, although Iraq is pursuing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), "[c]ontainment has been a successful policy" in limiting Baghdad's ability to threaten other regional countries." "Containment" referred to such measures as UN-mandated sanctions placed on Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as well as no-fly zones.

Late 2001-early 2002: The United States gathers what Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet later terms "fragmentary intelligence" about Iraq's attempts to acquire uranium from Africa.

According to a July 2004 report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the CIA Directorate of Operations (DO) reports October15, 2001 that Niger had agreed to "ship several tons of uranium to Iraq." The DO issues a second report February 5, 2002 providing "more details" about the previously-reported agreement, including "what was said to be 'verbatim text' of the accord." Both reports are based on information from a foreign government service, widely reported to be Italian intelligence.

Based on the second report, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) produces its own report February 12 which states that Niger agreed to provide Iraq with 500 tons of yellowcake [lightly-processed uranium ore] to Baghdad, concluding that "Iraq probably is searching abroad for natural uranium to assist in its nuclear weapons program."

Shortly after, Vice President Dick Cheney reads the report and requests the CIA's assessment. The Director of Central Intelligence's (DCI) Center for Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control (WINPAC) sends a report to Cheney which includes doubts as to whether the two countries had concluded a uranium deal. It also notes that the relevant intelligence "comes exclusively from a foreign government service report that lacks crucial details." The report adds that the CIA is "working to clarify the information and to determine whether it can be corroborated."

The CIA's DO later issues a third report March 25 which is also based on Italian government intelligence reports. This report does not appear to provide any significant new information.

These reports ultimately prove to be inaccurate. The U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group - the task force later charged with coordinating the U.S.-led search for Iraqi prohibited weapons - finds no evidence that Iraq tried to procure uranium from other countries, according to 2004 and 2005 reports from the group's top CIA adviser. And the CIA concludes in March 2003 that all of the original intelligence reporting was "unreliable" because it was based on forged documents, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction reports March 31, 2005.

Late February 2002: The CIA's DO Counterproliferation Division (CPD)
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 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.

According to a March 8 report from CIA's DO, Wilson also tells the agency that former Nigerien Prime Minster Ibrahim Mayaki described a 1999 meeting with an Iraqi delegation. Prior to the meeting, an intermediary told Mayaki that the Iraqis wanted to discuss "expanding commercial relations" between the two countries - an overture Mayaki described to Wilson as an attempt to discuss yellowcake sales, the CIA report says. But Mayaki told Wilson that the two sides did not discuss uranium. Wilson tells Arms Control Today August 18, 2003 that Mayaki mentioned as an afterthought the possibility that the Iraqis wanted to discuss a uranium deal.

March 1, 2002: The State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) distributes a report stating that claims regarding Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium from Niger are not credible. The analyst who drafted the assessment later tells Senate Intelligence Committee staff that "he had been told that the piece was in response to interest from" Cheney's office in the suspected deal.

March 5, 2002: Responding to a request from Cheney earlier in the month, WINPAC analysts send an "analytic update" regarding the Niger issue to Cheney's morning briefer. According to this report, Italian intelligence has been "unable to provide new information [to the United States], but continues to assess that its source is reliable."

The report also mentions that agency officials will be debriefing Wilson later that day, though apparently does not mention him by name.

March 8, 2002: The CIA's DO "widely distributes" a summary of Wilson's report to intelligence community entities. The CIA does not brief Cheney directly about Wilson's report, according the to the Senate Intelligence Committee, because agency analysts do not "believe that the report added any new information to clarify the issue."

Previous reports from U.S. Ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick and Deputy Commander in Chief, United States European Command, General Carlton Fulford provided no information that Niger planned to sell uranium to Iraq.

May 2002-October 2002: The intelligence community appears to produce inconsistent reporting about the suspected uranium deal, according to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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.

However, according to a July 2004 UK report regarding British intelligence on Iraq, the "CIA advised caution about any suggestion that Iraq had succeeded in acquiring uranium from Africa, but agreed that there was evidence that it had been sought."

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."

According to three UK reports issued in 2003 and 2004, some British foreign ministry and intelligence officials continue to say that London had independent, reliable intelligence indicating that Iraq was indeed attempting to obtain uranium from Niger. But the United Kingdom has not disclosed this intelligence and the available public evidence suggests that it would not prove the uranium claim true.

October 1, 2002: A classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a portion of which is 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."

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." National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice does not read the INR dissent, a senior administration official says July 18, 2003.

October 1-2, 2002: U.S. intelligence officials tell the Senate Intelligence Committee about the U.S. intelligence community's differences with the British report containing the Iraq uranium claim

October 5-7, 2002: Tenet calls Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to request that a line referring to Iraqi attempts to obtain "substantial amounts of uranium oxide" be removed from a draft of a speech President George W. Bush is scheduled to give October 7.

The CIA's Associate Deputy Director for Intelligence 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 agency 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.
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.

October 8, 2002: After several weeks of debate, the House of Representatives passes a resolution providing Bush with the authority to use military force against Iraq to enforce UN Security Council resolutions. The Senate follows suit October 11 and Bush signs the resolution October 16.

October 9, 2002: An Italian journalist provides the U.S. Embassy in Rome with "copies of documents pertaining" to the suspected uranium deal, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee. The embassy gives copies of the documents to both the State Department and CIA.

INR subsequently distributes copies of the documents to the relevant U.S. intelligence agencies, alerting them that it has "serious doubts about the authenticity of the documents," according to the 2005 WMD Commission report. Nevertheless, the agency continues to reference the suspected uranium transaction in several later assessments. WINPAC does not learn until mid-January 2003 that other intelligence agencies received the documents, the CIA later tells the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

October 16, 2002: Bush signs the congressional resolution authorizing him to use military force against Iraq.

The resolution authorizes Bush to use military force to "defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq" and "enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq."

It also requires Bush to submit to Congress his "determination" that reliance on "further diplomatic or other peaceful means alone" will either be insufficient to protect U.S. national security "against the continuing threat posed by Iraq" or "not likely to lead to enforcement of all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq."

November 22, 2002: A French foreign ministry official tells State Department officials that Paris has "information on an Iraqi attempt to buy uranium from Niger" which it regards as "true," according to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The forged documents also formed the basis for this intelligence, France later informs the United States.

December 17, 2002: WINPAC produces an analysis of Iraq's 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 analysis omits INR's dissenting viewpoints and states that Baghdad's declaration "does not acknowledge efforts to procure uranium from Niger."

The next day, the Department of State's Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Public Affairs Richard Boucher asks Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton for assistance in drafting a response to Iraq's declaration. Bolton assigns the task to the State Department's Nonproliferation Bureau, who prepares a fact sheet based on a draft of a December 20, 2002 speech by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte.

December 19, 2002: The State Department fact sheet charges Iraq with omitting its "efforts to procure uranium from Niger" from its declaration. INR does not clear the fact sheet, according to knowledgeable sources. INR requests that the fact sheet be modified to say the uranium procurement effort is "repeated" and notes its assessment that the validity of the allegation is "dubious," but the final fact sheet does not contain INR's suggested language. WINPAC approves the Niger language when it reviews the fact sheet, but later asks that Negroponte's final speech use "Africa" instead.

The IAEA requests information from the United States regarding the uranium claim "immediately after" the fact sheet's release, according to a June 20, 2003, letter from the IAEA to U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA). This information is not supplied until February 4, 2003, according to a July 1, 2003, State Department letter to Waxman.


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 during 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."

February 16, 2003: Hadley writes in The Chicago Tribune that "[a]ccording to British intelligence, the [Iraqi] regime has tried to acquire natural uranium from abroad."

February 24, 2003: Russia and France submit a memorandum to the Security Council stating that military force should not yet be used because there is "no evidence" that Iraq possesses illicit weapons. The resolution suggests several measures to strengthen the UN weapons inspections, noting that they have already "produced results." China also supports the resolution.

The resolution, however, cautions that Baghdad's cooperation, although improving, is not "yet fully satisfactory." Additionally, the memorandum does not rule out the use of military force as a "last resort" and states that "inspections…cannot continue indefinitely."

March 3, 2003: The IAEA notifies the U.S. Mission in Vienna that, based on its analysis of the relevant documents, as well as interviews with Iraqi officials, the agency has concluded that the documents are forgeries.

March 4, 2003: The United States learns that the French had based their intelligence assessments regarding the suspected uranium sale on the same forged documents.

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 fake.

March 11, 2003: WINPAC issues an assessment which does "not dispute" the IAEA's conclusions regarding the documents. Although the report states "we are concerned that these reports may indicate Baghdad has attempted to secure an unreported source of uranium yellowcake for a nuclear weapons program," it describes the intelligence as "fragmentary and unconfirmed."

March 16, 2003: Cheney states on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the IAEA's March 7 assessment that there is no evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear weapons program is "wrong."

March 19, 2003: U.S.-led coalition military forces invade Iraq.

April 5, 2003: The National Intelligence Council states that the intelligence community agrees that the documents in question are forgeries. The report adds that "other reports from 2002-one alleging warehousing of yellowcake for shipment to Iraq, a second alleging a 1999 visit by an Iraqi delegation to Niamey [Niger]-do not constitute credible evidence of a recent or impending sale."

June 8, 2003: Rice acknowledges on "Meet the Press" that the intelligence underlying the Niger claim "was mistaken," but also states that "no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery."

June 17, 2003: The CIA produces a memorandum for Tenet stating that "since learning that the Iraq-Niger uranium deal was based on false documents earlier this spring, we no longer believe that there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad." The memorandum is not distributed outside the agency, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

July 6, 2003: The New York Times publishes Ambassador Wilson's op-ed.