By Peter Grier | Staff writer
WASHINGTON - The first time the State Department intelligence analyst saw the documents he thought there was something weird about them.
The ones dealing with a purported uranium deal between Niger and Saddam Hussein's Iraq bore a validation stamp that seemed a bit funky, for one thing. And that companion paper! It outlined some kind of bizarre military campaign against world powers. Iraq and Iran were supposedly in it together - preposterous, given their enmity - and the whole thing was being run out of the Nigerien Embassy in Rome.
"Completely implausible," the analyst later recounted for investigators.
Because the documents had come from the same source, and were similar in appearance, they were probably all suspect. Maybe now the CIA and the rest of the US intelligence community would believe what the State Department had said for months: These allegations from a foreign intelligence service that Hussein was hunting for "yellowcake" - a uranium concentrate - in Africa were unlikely to be true.
But the CIA didn't look at the documents. A little over three months later President Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union speech, said 16 fateful words: "... the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
This is the story of how those words came to be, and how their effect rippled through the years, ultimately resulting in the criminal indictment of a high administration official, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Culled primarily from US government reports and congressional testimony, it deals with nuclear materials, foreign spies, and a secret trip to the finest refueling stop in Africa. It centers on a peculiar set of documents - provenance as yet unknown - that a presidential inquiry three years later found to be "transparently forged."...