Key documents on Iraq forged, experts say

March 7, 2003, 11:35PM
By JOBY WARRICK
Washington Post

A key piece of evidence linking Iraq to a nuclear weapons program appears to have been fabricated, the United Nations’ chief nuclear inspector said Friday in a report that called into question U.S. 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 careful scrutiny by U.N. and independent experts, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the U.N. Security Council.

ElBaradei also rejected a key Bush administration claim — made twice by the president in major speeches and repeated by Secretary of State Colin Powell on Friday — that Iraq had tried to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes to use in centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Also, ElBaradei reported finding no evidence of banned weapons or nuclear material in an extensive sweep of Iraq using advanced radiation detectors.

“There is no indication of resumed nuclear activities,” ElBaradei said.

Knowledgeable 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 were given to U.N. inspectors by Britain and reviewed extensively by U.S. intelligence.

The forgers had made relatively crude errors that eventually gave them away — including names and titles that did not match up with the individuals who held office at the time the letters were purportedly written, the officials said.

“We fell for it,” said one U.S. official who reviewed the documents.

A spokesman for the IAEA said the agency did not blame either Britain or the United States for the forgery. The documents “were shared with us in good faith.”

The discovery was a further setback to U.S. and British efforts to convince reluctant U.N. Security Council members of the urgency of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Powell, in his statement to the Security Council on Friday, acknowledged ElBaradei’s findings but also cited “new information” suggesting that Iraq continues to try to get nuclear weapons components.

Last September, the U.S. and British governments issued reports accusing Iraq of renewing its quest for nuclear weapons.

President Bush, in his speech to the U.N. Security Council on Sept. 12, said Iraq had made “several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.”

Doubts about both claims began to emerge shortly after U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq last November. In early December, the IAEA began an intensive investigation of the aluminum tubes, which Iraq had tried for two years to purchase by the tens of thousands.

A number of independent experts on uranium enrichment have sided with IAEA’s conclusion that the tubes were at best ill-suited for centrifuges. Several have said that the “anodized” features mentioned by Powell are actually a strong argument for use in rockets, not centrifuges.

The Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based research organization that specializes in nuclear issues, reported Friday that Powell’s staff had been briefed about the implications of the anodized coatings before Powell’s address to the Security Council last month. “Despite being presented with the falseness of this claim, the administration persists in making misleading arguments about the significance of the tubes,” the institute’s president, David Albright, wrote in the report.

 

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