The revelation of the warning from the closely guarded State Department memo is the first piece of hard evidence and the strongest to date that the Bush administration manipulated and ignored intelligence information in their zeal to win public support for invading Iraq.
On January 12, 2003, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) "expressed concerns to the CIA that the documents pertaining to the Iraq-Niger deal were forgeries," the memo dated July 7, 2003, says.
Moreover, the memo says that the State Department's doubts about the veracity of the uranium claims may have been expressed to the intelligence community even earlier.
"After considerable back and forth between the CIA, the (State) Department, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Association), and the British, Secretary Powell's briefing to the U.N. Security Council did not mention attempted Iraqi procurement of uranium due to CIA concerns raised during the coordination regarding the veracity of the information on the alleged Iraq-Niger agreement," the memo further states.
Iraq's interest in the yellowcake caught the attention of Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Association. ElBaradei had read a copy of the National Intelligence Estimate and had personally contacted the State Department and the National Security Council in hopes of obtaining evidence so his agency could look into it.
ElBaradei said he never received a written response to his letter, despite repeated follow-up calls he made to the White House, the NSC and the State Department.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who made the rounds on the cable news shows that month, tried to discredit ElBaradei's conclusion that the documents were forged.
"I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong," Cheney said. "[The IAEA] has consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don't have any reason to believe they're any more valid this time than they've been in the past."
As it turns out, ElBaradei was correct, the declassified State Department memo now shows.
Monday's declassified State Department memo was obtained over the weekend by The New York Sun under a Freedom of Information Act request the newspaper filed last July. The Sun's story Monday morning, however, did not say anything about the State Department's warnings more than a week before Bush's State of the Union address about the bogus Niger documents.
The memo was drafted by Carl Ford Jr., the former head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, in response to questions posed in June 2003 by I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, about a February 2002 fact-finding trip to Niger that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson undertook to investigate the uranium claims on behalf of the CIA.
It was Wilson's criticism in mid-2003 of President Bush's use of the 16 words in his State of the Union address and Wilson's subsequent allegations that the White House knowingly twisted pre-war Iraq intelligence that led to the leak of his wife's undercover CIA status.
Libby was indicted on five counts of lying to federal investigators, perjury and obstruction of justice about how he found out about Plame Wilson and whether he told anyone in the media that she worked for the CIA.