BY PETER EISNER AND KNUT ROYCE
“In world affairs…it was a minor plot. In the lives of the American people it was the end of innocence.”
BARBARA W. TUCHMAN. HISTORIAN IN HER BOOK THE ZIMMERMANN TELEGRAM
Washington, Jan. 28, 2003.
The 43rd President of the United States, George Walker Bush, entered the halls of the Capitol promptly at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on January 28, 2003 to speak before a joint session of the 108th Congress . It was a typical winter evening in Washington, D.C., with the temperature just above freezing . The president, led by a traditional receiving committee, made his way up the center aisle.
After receiving several minutes of applause, Bush hopped jauntily up to the lectern and gave copies of his speech to the men seated behind him, John Dennis Hastert, a congressman from Illinois who was the 59th Speaker of the House and Richard Bruce Cheney of Wyoming, the 46th Vice President of the United States . All three men wore dark suits, Cheney and Hastert sported red ties, and Bush’s tie was light blue .
President Bush acknowledged the applause and cheers once more, and then began reading. The early portion of the 2003 State of the Union message focused on his domestic program, income tax reductions, Medicare reform, and his faith-based volunteer programs for the disadvantaged. Among other proposals, he sought $15 billion to fight AIDs in Africa and the Caribbean.
But the heart of the speech was about foreign policy, this State of the Union message would solidify a new role for the United States in world politics: He would assert the right to wage preemptive war. About forty minutes into the nationally televised address, President Bush spoke about terrorism. Step by step, he made the case for the invasion of Iraq, which he said posed a clear and present danger to the United States. It was his clearest statement of the evolving administration doctrine: the shift from deterrence to aggressive action, attacking enemies before they could strike.
The president raised the specter of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and said that al Qaeda, the Islamic terror organization, had links to Saddam Hussein. He said that Hussein “aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda.” He said that Hussein “could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.”
Bush listed those hidden weapons: Iraq had material to produce 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 500 tons of sarin, mustard gas and VX nerve agent, all of which could kill millions of people . He said that Iraq was expanding an arsenal that could deliver the weapons . After listing the chemical and biological dangers, George Walker Bush turned to the most frightening prospect, declaring:
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
The shocking sentence, which topped off a litany of evidence against Saddam Hussein, was at the heart of the Bush administration’s attempt to rally public support for the likely invasion of Iraq. This statement was particularly surprising for many members of the American Intelligence community. Bush’s assertion appeared to be based on information they had dismissed. Within hours, Bush’s charge was questioned and criticized. The statement became the single most controversial point in the State of the Union speech. After the March 20, 2003 invasion, pundits began to refer to the president’s claim in shorthand, as “the 16 words.”
In fact, on the day before the State of the Union message, members of the United Nations Security Council had heard significant doubts about the Bush administration’s charge that Iraq was reviving its nuclear program. The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, told them that his team of inspectors had to date “found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapons programme since the elimination of the program in the 1990s.”
He pleaded for more time, but to no avail. “With our verification system now in place, barring exceptional circumstances, and provided there is sustained proactive cooperation by Iraq, we should be able within the next few months to provide credible assurance that Iraq has no nuclear weapons programme. These few months would be a valuable investment.”
Though he attributed the intelligence to the British , Bush’s declaration was based on a report about Iraq’s purchase of uranium sent to the CIA fifteen months earlier, in October 2001, by the Italian Military Intelligence and Security Service, a government agency better known as SISMI. British and French intelligence agencies had also received the same Italian intelligence .
About three months before Bush’s address, a shady, former member of the Italian national police had slipped a document to Elisabetta Burba, a Milan journalist, that appeared to confirm the Iraqi uranium purchase. The letter was written in French, purported to be addressed to Saddam Hussein by Mamadou Tandja, who was president of Niger in 2000. It approved the sale to Iraq of 500 tons a year of pure uranium—uranium pur in French.
David Albright, a nuclear weapons specialist and several intelligence officials said that the term probably referred to yellowcake, a lightly processed form of the ore more easily transportable than raw uranium ore, meaning that the 500 tons could produce 10 bombs a year if refined to bomb-grade. And that, if true, could be alarming.
Without turning over a copy of the letter, SISMI officials in late 2001 and early 2002 told CIA that they had intelligence disclosing Niger’s agreement to sell the material to Iraq. Intelligence officials confirmed that this letter, the only document detailing the amount of uranium to be delivered, was critical to the administration’s successful public campaign warning Americans that Iraq was a nuclear threat.
Shortly after receiving the Italian letter, Burba handed it over to the U.S. government with a package of supporting documents.
The Italian letter and accompanying dossier of forgeries comprised one of the most damaging frauds in U.S. history. Yet the hoax should have unraveled in February 2002, when SISMI provided the CIA with the verbatim text of one of the documents . It contained numerous errors—dates were wrong, officials were misidentified and their positions outdated—easily detectable with a simple fact-check in Google.
The Bush administration highlighted the flawed intelligence as compelling evidence to convince Congress and the American public that Iraq was hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. On March 20, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, toppled Saddam Hussein, and began the disastrous occupation . By the end of 2006, nearly 3,000 Americans had been killed, 22,000 were wounded ; estimates of Iraqis killed in the four years of violence as the country disintegrated in civil war ranged from 50,000 to 600,000.
Rarely in the history of the United States has a fraudulent premise brought such wide-ranging consequences. The case rivaled the explosion of the battleship Maine in 1898, which provoked the Spanish-America War, based on a report still disputed more than a century later that Spain had deliberately mined the U.S. ship in Havana harbor ; or the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution after the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson reported that North Vietnamese ships had attacked two U.S. destroyers on Aug. 4, 1964, leading to expanded U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Perhaps no single document had such an impact on U.S. policy and opinion since the detection of the Zimmermann Telegram in 1917, a secret communication from Germany to Mexico that helped draw the United States into World War One. But there was one profound difference. The Zimmermann Telegram, written by the German foreign minister at the time, was intercepted by British intelligence. It was real. The Italian letter was an obvious fake.