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 Africa, 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 between the U.S. and the French, described in interviews last week by the retired chief of the French counterintelligence service and a former CIA official, came on separate occasions in 2001 and 2002.
The French conclusions were reached after extensive on-the-ground investigations in Niger and other former French colonies, where the uranium mines are controlled by French companies, said Alain Chouet, the French former official. He said the French investigated at the CIA's request.
Chouet's account was "at odds with our understanding of the issue," a U.S. government official said. The U.S. official declined to elaborate and spoke only on condition that neither he nor his agency be named.
However, the essence of Chouet's account — that the French repeatedly investigated the Niger claim, found no evidence to support it, and warned the CIA — was extensively corroborated by the former CIA official and a current French government official, who both spoke on condition of anonymity.
The repeated warnings from France's Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure did not prevent the Bush administration from making the case aggressively that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons materials.
It was not the first time a foreign government tried to warn U.S. officials off of 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.
To review: France told Bush he was full of shit on WMD. Germany told Bush he was full of shit on WMD. And, don't forget, Italy told Bush he was full of shit on WMD.
Why did we go to war to eliminate non-existent WMDs? Because of bad intelligence.
(Apologies to Lisa Loeb. And see? Not all of my music references are 20 years old.)