WASHINGTON -- The FBI has reopened an inquiry into one of the most intriguing dramas of the pre-Iraq-war intelligence fiasco: how the Bush administration came to rely on forged documents linking Iraq to nuclear weapons materials as part of its justification for the invasion.
The documents inspired intense U.S. interest in the buildup to the war - and they led the CIA to send a former ambassador to Niger to investigate whether Iraq had sought the materials there.
While the ambassador, Joseph C. Wilson IV, found little evidence to support the claim and the documents were later deemed to have been forged, President Bush made a reference to the claims in his 2003 State of the Union address making the case for the invasion.
The FBI's decision to reopen the investigation reverses the agency's announcement last month that it had finished the two-year inquiry and concluded that the forgeries were part of a moneymaking scheme and not an effort to manipulate U.S. foreign policy.
Those findings had surprised some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which had requested the investigation, because reports were published that the FBI had not interviewed a former Italian spy named Rocco Martino who was identified as the original source of the documents.
After talking with committee members, FBI officials decided to pursue "additional work" on the case, exploring the origins of the forgeries and whether the documents had been created specifically to help make the case for ousting Saddam Hussein.
"This is such a high-profile issue for a lot of reasons, and we think it's important to make sure there aren't lingering questions," said an aide to Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "There's always a chance that you do a little more investigating and you uncover something you hadn't seen before or you hadn't realized."
A senior federal law enforcement official confirmed late yesterday that the bureau has been asked to reopen the investigation.
The senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the request to reopen the investigation was prompted primarily by recent information made available to the FBI and more cooperation from undisclosed participants.
Federal officials familiar with the case say investigators could examine whether the forgeries were instigated by U.S. citizens who supported the Iraq war or by members of the Iraqi National Congress, the group led by Ahmad Chalabi that worked closely with Bush administration officials in the buildup to the war.
The FBI's inquiry has been limited to investigating whether foreign governments were involved in the forgeries, despite a broader request from Rockefeller that the FBI look into whether the forgeries reflected a "larger deception campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion and foreign policy regarding Iraq."
The claim that Iraq had obtained or was seeking uranium in Niger was a central part of the administration's case for war. The claim was mentioned explicitly in late 2002 by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and in January 2003 by President Bush to illustrate the threat posed by Hussein.
In March 2003, the CIA acknowledged that the documents on which the Niger claim was partly based were forgeries. Later that year, the then-director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, took responsibility for allowing the claim into Bush's State of the Union speech.
The issue erupted as a controversy in 2003, when Wilson published his findings in a newspaper op-ed piece. Administration officials leaked the identify of Wilson's wife, a covert CIA agent named Valerie Plame, as part of an effort to discredit Wilson's claims - prompting a separate investigation into the illegal outing of a covert agent.
The Plame case, which has led to the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, has raised questions about the administration's use of intelligence and how it targeted its critics.
Rockefeller had initially requested that the FBI determine the source of the forgeries, and why the intelligence community did not realize earlier that the documents were fraudulent, among other questions.
The FBI's initial inquiry was assigned to the bureau's counterintelligence unit and focused on whether foreign governments had attempted to influence the U.S. A senior FBI official said the investigation found no evidence of foreign government involvement in the forgeries.
But the FBI did not interview Martino, a central figure in a parallel drama unfolding in Rome. In late October, Martino told the Los Angeles Times through his lawyer that he was responsible for the documents but that he did not realize they were forged.
Italian journalists recently reported that Martino, a businessman and former freelance spy who was fired from the Italian military intelligence agency, obtained the documents from a friend employed at the Niger Embassy in Rome.
Peter Wallsten, Tom Hamburger and Josh Meyer write for the Los Angeles Times.