In the spring of 2001, long before Sept. 11 and the American focus on Iraq, the CIA asked its Paris station about rumors that 200 tons of nuclear material had vanished from two French-owned mines in the West African nation of Niger.
"We heard stories this stuff had gone to Iraq, or to Syria, or Libya, or China or North Korea. We heard all kinds of stories," said a now-retired CIA officer.
But the CIA soon concluded that a French-run consortium maintained strict control over stockpiles of uranium ore in Niger, a former French colony, and that none had been illegally diverted.
"Everything was accounted for," the former spy said. "Case closed."
Over the next two years, other U.S. intelligence, military and diplomatic officials in cities across Europe sent Washington a growing stream of cables and reports suggesting that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from Niger.
Experienced intelligence officers repeatedly knocked down those reports, sometimes after painstaking inquiry.
But like the carnival game "Whack-a-Mole," similar reports kept popping back up in different places. The unconfirmed reports were embraced by the White House, which began to repeatedly warn that Iraq was trying to build nuclear weapons.
Those warnings in turn played a crucial role in sending America to war. They also sparked a political and intelligence scandal that still roils the Bush administration.
A review by the Los Angeles Times of those seemingly independent intelligence reports leads to the conclusion that they were based on information contained in forged documents that an Italian ex-spy was trying to sell to Western intelligence agencies in 2001 and 2002.
The story refused to die for several reasons, including a strong appetite in the Pentagon and the White House for information that supported a case for war, and a widely recognized phenomenon in the intelligence field in which bad information, when repeated by multiple sources, appears to be corroborated.
"This became a classic case of circular reporting," said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to reporters. "It seemed like we were hearing it from lots of places. People didn't realize it was the same bad information coming in different doors."
In January 2003, President Bush said in his State of the Union speech that the British government had learned that Iraq "had recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Two months later, U.S. and allied troops invaded Iraq.
Paul Pillar, who retired last year after 30 years at the CIA, said that the White House attributed the charge to the British because the CIA wouldn't vouch for it.
"U.S. analysts said it was just too squishy to use publicly," said Pillar, who was national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. But administration officials, he said, viewed the unconfirmed charge as "juicy" and easy to understand. "The public says, 'Saddam is buying uranium?' That has simplicity and appeal."
Among those surprised by the president's inclusion of the allegation in his speech was former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, whom the CIA had sent to Niger a year earlier to investigate the alleged uranium sale. He had found little evidence of it. Months after the president's speech, Wilson publicly charged that the White House "twisted" intelligence on the issue.
The White House withdrew the charge that summer after CIA officials again concluded there was no solid evidence to support it. Wilson's Niger assignment, it now appears, also was based on information contained in the forged documents.
Wilson's criticism was followed by the leak of the identity of an undercover CIA officer, Valerie Plame, who is Wilson's wife. An investigation into the leak led to a federal grand jury indictment in October of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for alleged perjury and obstruction of justice. The investigation continues.
Niger, an impoverished nation on the western edge of the Sahara desert, is the world's third largest producer of uranium. A French-run consortium, Cogema, controls the only two mines and trucks all the ore south to the distant port of Cotonou in neighboring Benin for export to France, Spain and Japan.
French intelligence agencies monitor the trade closely. Thus French officials were concerned when the CIA first asked in 2001 about rumors that 200 tons of lightly refined uranium ore -- known as yellowcake -- had disappeared. Alain Chouet, who headed the weapons proliferation and terrorism division in France's DGSE spy service, quickly confirmed that the uranium supplies were secure.
That October, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the CIA heard from another intelligence service that officials in Niamey, capital of Niger, had agreed to "ship several tons of uranium to Iraq," according to a 2004 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In February 2002, the CIA received a second, more detailed report from the same spy service. It provided "verbatim text" of a deal allegedly signed by Niger and Iraq. The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency followed a week later with a report titled: "Niamey signed an agreement to sell 500 tons of uranium a year to Baghdad."
The DIA did not assess the credibility of the information. But some intelligence analysts were impressed and noted that the text of the alleged agreement matched earlier intelligence showing that an Algerian businessman had arranged a trip to Niger by the Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican, Wissam al-Zahawi, in February 1999.
The Pentagon report quickly drew the attention of Cheney, who asked his CIA briefer for more information.
The agency responded by sending Wilson, a retired diplomat who previously had gone to Niger for the CIA, to Niamey in February 2002. The CIA didn't send its own operative because the agency considered it "a wild goose chase," said a former senior intelligence official.
Before his departure, Wilson was called to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and asked to check on a specific transaction: an agreement to transfer 500 tons of uranium yellowcake to Iraq. The information appears to have been identical to that contained in the forged "sales agreement."
Wilson and the U.S. ambassador to Niger concluded that a sale, although possible, was highly unlikely.
The State Department's intelligence wing, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, also judged the sale "unlikely," according to a recently declassified report obtained by Judicial Watch, an independent public interest group in Washington.
Moving the yellowcake would require "25 hard-to-conceal 10-ton tractor trailers," the analysts wrote. "Because Niger is landlocked, the convoy would have to cross at least one international border and travel at least 1,000 miles to reach the sea."
The same former senior intelligence official said the deal "didn't make any sense."
"It was a French-owned mine, so any Nigerien government deal would have to go through the French company," he said. "Secondly, the size of the sale would have an impact on the national economy. The number of trucks would have been at record highs. They couldn't do it secretly."
There were other problems. The French had recently closed off access to one of the two mines in Niger by filling it with rubble -- meaning far less uranium was potentially available. Plus, Iraq already had 500 tons of yellowcake -- about 1,000 large drums -- under seal by departed U.N. nuclear inspectors, and no facilities to process it.
"It just seemed nutty on the surface," David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector in Iraq, said of the alleged scheme. "Yellowcake was the one thing Iraq didn't need to go out and buy. And they would go a different route [to enrich uranium] if they were really going to reconstitute a nuclear program."
But the story had still more legs.
The CIA issued a third report in March 2002, again based on the unidentified foreign spy service, warning of the scheme to smuggle uranium to Iraq. For the first time, the CIA noted an oddity: The supposed sales agreement named a date as Wednesday that was actually a Friday.
Spurred by the Bush administration, the CIA station in Paris again approached French intelligence in mid-2002. Chouet's staff noticed then that the agency's more precise questions -- about Iraq's purchase of 500 tons of yellowcake after a 1999 meeting -- matched details in documents peddled by a low-level Italian ex-spy. The man, Rocco Martino, had offered to sell the documents for $100,000 to the French intelligence station chief from Brussels earlier in 2002.
Martino, a white-haired, dapper man with a mustache and a military bearing, was known in Italy and Western Europe as a "security consultant" with access to intelligence tidbits useful to foreign governments and journalists.
"He came to us and others on his own during this period, frequently trying to sell bits of intelligence he could get from former colleagues in the Italian service about the former Yugoslavia," Chouet recalled.
The French were suspicious this time, he said, because nuclear smuggling was outside Martino's "usual field" of competence.
For a small fee, Martino allowed the French to review the sales agreement and accompanying documentation. Immediately, technicians for the French spy service concluded they were dealing with forged papers.
The sales agreement was stamped with a Niger government seal stolen along with stationery and other items from the Niger Embassy in Rome the previous January, Chouet recalled. There were other discrepancies, and the French rejected the papers as fake, returned them to Martino, and refused to pay his fee.
Because the CIA requests were urgent, Chouet dispatched a five- or six-man team of investigators to Niger to double-check. They found no evidence of a sale.
But the Defense Intelligence Agency and the vice president's office continued to talk with confidence about Iraq's pursuit of nuclear materials.
In September 2002, the DIA published an assessment that said "Iraq has been vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake." Later that month, the British published a report on Iraq's pursuit of weapons that said "there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
The CIA was dubious. John E. McLaughlin, the agency's deputy director, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he thought the British had "stretched a little ... about Iraq seeking uranium" from Africa. "We've looked at those reports," he said. "And we don't think they are very credible."
In October, Martino, still peddling the alleged sales agreement, offered it to Elisabetta Burba, a reporter for the Italian magazine Panorama, for about $18,000.
Burba's editor told her to ask U.S. authorities if they were authentic, so she went to the U.S. Embassy in Rome and gave photocopied letters, shipping records, government cables and other papers to the State Department officer who coordinates regional security.
"He's the one that wrote reports on the documents that got into U.S. channels," said the former CIA officer.
The State Department passed copies to the CIA as well as to nuclear experts at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Energy Department and the National Security Agency in Washington. No one apparently checked to see if the names, dates or other details were accurate.
Martino declined to speak to The Times. He has told others he got the file from a woman at the Niger Embassy in Rome who worked with Italian intelligence, and assumed it was genuine. He said he only learned in late 2002 that the documents were forged.
"At that juncture, the beans had been spilled," Martino told Milan's Il Giornale newspaper. "The file was circulating, the reports contained in it were going around the world, and Bush and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair were talking about those documents albeit without actually mentioning them. I turned the television on and I did not believe my ears."
In late October 2002, the CIA faxed a memo to the White House deputy national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, asking that a reference to African uranium be removed from a presidential speech on Iraq.
"Remove the sentence because the amount is in dispute and it is debatable whether it can be acquired from the source," the CIA wrote. "We told Congress that the Brits have exaggerated this issue."
Despite such cautions, top U.S. officials, including then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice continued that fall to make public references to a possible uranium transfer.
In late November, another uranium report hit Washington.
This time, a special agent from the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service, working counterintelligence operations in the French port of Marseilles, had received a phone call from a West African businessman. The caller said 20 barrels of Niger yellowcake were in a warehouse in Cotonou awaiting shipment to Iraq.
The Navy report ultimately reached the CIA, which contacted a French internal security agency, the DST, as well as French intelligence. They sent another team to Africa to check the warehouse and other sites.
"They both gave assurances from the French government that the material sitting in the port was under French control and wasn't going anywhere else," the former CIA officer said.
The U.S. defense attache based in Abidjan, capital of Ivory Coast, visited the warehouse in December and saw it "appeared to contain only bales of cotton," Senate investigators found.
Despite such evidence, the Defense Intelligence Agency would continue to cite the original Navy report as late as June 2003.
In December 2002, then-United Nations Ambassador John D. Negroponte, now the director of National Intelligence, charged publicly that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Africa. The State Department staff that helped prepare Negroponte's presentation ignored strongly worded cautions from department intelligence officers and distributed a fact sheet stating that Iraq had made "efforts to procure uranium from Niger."
Negroponte's remarks were followed by Bush's State of the Union speech, which attributed the information solely to British intelligence.
Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog group in Vienna, had been asking London and Washington for months for substantiation of official U.S. and British reports that publicly accused Iraq of seeking uranium for nuclear weapons.
In February 2003, U.S. officials gave the IAEA copies of the documents that Burba had provided. Several days later, Jacques Baute, who headed the energy agency's Iraq nuclear verification office, did a keyword search on Google to check a reference in the papers.
"What struck me was I had a letter from the president of Niger from 2000 referring to Niger's Constitution of 1965," Baute said. "And I got a newspaper article that showed Niger had changed its Constitution in 1999. At that point, I completely changed the focus of my search to 'Are these documents real?' rather than 'How can I catch the Iraqis?' "
Baute and his staff determined that many of the names, dates, titles and other data were wrong. On March 7, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, told the U.N. Security Council that the documents were "not authentic."
Two weeks later, the invasion of Iraq began. Two weeks after that, the National Intelligence Council, representing all U.S. intelligence agencies, issued a "Sense of the Community Memorandum" finally admitting the intelligence error, according to the Senate report.
"We judge it highly unlikely that Niamey has sold uranium yellowcake to Baghdad in recent years," the memo said. The documents "are a fabrication" and the various other reports that flooded in "do not constitute credible evidence of a recent or impending sale."
A separate CIA report that month acknowledged it had relied on reports from another spy service that were "based on forged documents" and were "unreliable." Its notice to CIA stations said "the foreign government service may have been provided with fraudulent reporting."
U.S. intelligence agencies have not determined who forged the documents. Officials believe the motive was financial gain, not politics, and a stalled investigation by the FBI into the forgery has been restarted.
It is also unclear why British intelligence has not withdrawn its claim that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa.
British intelligence officials have said their information was based on more than one source, and that they didn't see the forged documents until March 2003. A British parliamentary report later concluded the British analysis was "credible."
But Martino told Rome's La Repubblica newspaper last fall that Italy's spy service had "transmitted the yellowcake dossier" to British intelligence but "didn't want its involvement in the operation to be known." Italian authorities have denied any role in forging the papers or disseminating them.
Skeptical members of the British Parliament have continued to challenge their government's conclusion, pointing to contradictions in the British explanation and a reluctance to release information that would support it.
British officials told the IAEA that they could not share the intelligence because it came from another government. The British also refused to provide the raw intelligence to the CIA, several U.S. officials said.
"They never turned over anything to us," said another former senior U.S. intelligence official. "Never. They absolutely refused to tell us. Believe me, we asked."
After the invasion of Iraq, the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group concluded Hussein's regime had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 1991. They found no evidence that Iraq sought to buy uranium after that date.
Times staff writers Peter Wallsten in Washington and Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report.