French warned CIA on Iraq bogus intel

PARIS – More than a year before President Bush declared in his 2003 State of the Union speech that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear weapons material in Niger, the French spy service began repeatedly warning the CIA in secret communications that there was no evidence to support the allegation. The previously undisclosed exchanges, described in a Los Angeles Times interview with Alain Chouet, the retired chief of the French counterintelligence service, happened on separate occasions in 2001 and 2002.

Chouet’s claim – that the French repeatedly investigated the Niger claim, found no evidence to support it, and warned the CIA – was corroborated by a former CIA official and a current French government official, who both spoke on condition of anonymity.

It was not the first time a foreign government tried to warn U.S. officials about dubious prewar intelligence. In the notorious "Curveball" case, an Iraqi who defected to Germany claimed to have knowledge of Iraqi biological weapons. Bush and other U.S. officials repeatedly cited Curveball’s claims even as German intelligence officials argued that he was unstable and might be a fabricator, the Times reported.

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald continues to investigate whether the Bush administration unmasked a covert CIA operative in a bid to discredit her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat whom the CIA dispatched in February 2002 to investigate the Niger reports. Wilson, like the French, said he found little reason to believe the uranium story.

The CIA requested French assistance in 2001 and 2002 because French firms dominate the uranium business internationally and former French colonies lead the world in production of the strategic mineral. "In France, we’ve always been very careful about both problems of uranium production in Niger and Iraqi attempts to get uranium from Africa," Chouet said.

Chouet, who directed a 700-person intelligence unit specializing in weapons proliferation and terrorism, provided the French-U.S. communications to the Times. He said his agency was contacted by the CIA in the summer of 2001, shortly before the attacks of Sept. 11, as intelligence services in Europe and North America became more concerned about chatter from terrorist sympathizers. CIA officials asked their French counterparts to check that uranium in Niger and elsewhere was secure. The former CIA official confirmed Chouet’s account of this exchange.

Twice in 2002, Chouet said, the CIA contacted the French again for similar help. He dispatched a five- or six-man team to Niger to double-check any reports of a sale or an attempt to purchase uranium. The team found none. The information was contained in formal cables delivered to CIA offices in Paris and Langley, VA. 

When Bush gave his State of the Union address in January 2003, citing a British report that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium in Africa, French officials were flabbergasted. One government official said that French experts viewed the statement attributed to the British as "totally crazy because, in our view, there was no backup for this."

Chouet’s comments come as the FBI and the Italian government re-open investigations into the origins of the documents that surfaced in 2002 purporting to prove the Iraq-Niger link. The documents in question originally surfaced in Rome.

Before speaking with the Times last week, Chouet had told part of his story to La Repubblica, a Rome newspaper, prompting Italian investigators to resume their inquiry and seek Chouet’s testimony. The FBI also recently reopened its inquiry into the documents.