Phony weapons documents cited by the United States and Britain as evidence against Saddam Hussein were initially obtained by Italian intelligence authorities, who may have been duped into paying for the forgeries, U.S. officials said Friday.
The documents, which purport to show Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium from Niger, were exposed as fraudulent by U.N. weapons inspectors last week. The matter has embarrassed U.S. and British officials.
U.S. officials said Friday that they still do not know who forged the documents, but the disclosure that they were first obtained by Italian authorities sheds light on how they came to the attention of American intelligence.
"I don't mean to suggest that Italy created the documents. I don't think they have any reason to," one U.S. official said. "It's conceivable that some con man sold it to them."
The CIA first heard allegations that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger in late 2001 but did not obtain the documents until about a month ago, and it promptly turned them over to U.N. inspectors, the official said.
Initially, the existence of the documents "was reported to us second- or third- hand," the official said. "We included that in some of our reporting, although it was all caveated because we had concerns about the accuracy of that information."
The official also said the CIA expressed concern about the documents' authenticity when they were given to the U.N.
The disclosures came as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee called for the FBI to investigate.
The documents "may be part of a larger deception campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion and foreign policy regarding Iraq," Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) said in a letter to the bureau.
An aide to Rockefeller said he is pressing for the inquiry to allay concerns overseas that the U.S. might have forged the documents, which U.S. officials insist is untrue. FBI officials said the bureau would likely launch an inquiry, although there were questions about whether it had jurisdiction over the matter.
Rockefeller's move provoked a pointed response from the committee chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).
"The implication of Sen. Rockefeller's letter is that the intelligence community forged these documents to somehow bolster the case against Iraq," he said in a statement. "The United States does not need this one piece of evidence to make its case against Iraq."
Times wire services contributed to this report.