CIA was warned on Africa link

French had dismissed rumors of weapons-material sales to Iraq as early as 2001


PARIS -- More than a year before President Bush declared in his 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 United States and the French, described by the retired chief of the French counterintelligence service and a former CIA official during interviews last week, 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, the former official said. He said the French investigated at the CIA's request.

The account of the former intelligence official, Alain Chouet, was "at odds with our understanding of the issue," a U.S. government official said. The U.S. official declined to elaborate and spoke 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 a former CIA official and a French government official.

The repeated warnings from France's Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure (DGSE) did not prevent the Bush administration from making the case aggressively that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons material.

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 Iraq's biological weapons. Bush and other U.S. officials repeatedly cited Curveball's claims even as German intelligence officials argued that he was unstable, unreliable and incorrect.

A special prosecutor continues to investigate whether the Bush administration unmasked a covert CIA operative in a bid to discredit her husband, a former diplomat whom the CIA dispatched to investigate the Niger reports. The diplomat, Joseph Wilson, like the French, said he found little reason to believe the uranium story. The investigation into the leak led to the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury.

The French opposed U.S. policy on Iraq and refused to support the invasion. But whether that made top U.S. officials skeptical of the French report on Niger, intelligence officials from both countries said they cooperated closely during the prewar period and continue to do so. And the French conclusions on Niger were supported by some in the CIA.

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 mineral.

French officials were particularly sensitive to the assertion about Iraq trying to obtain nuclear materials, given the role that French companies play in uranium mining in France's former colonies.

"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.

The French-U.S. communications were detailed to the Los Angeles Times last week by Chouet, who directed a 700-person intelligence unit specializing in weapon proliferation and terrorism. Chouet said the cautions from his agency grew more emphatic as the Bush administration bolstered the case for invading Iraq by arguing that Saddam Hussein had sought to build a nuclear arsenal using uranium from Niger.

Chouet recalled that 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 known 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.

Then twice in 2002, Chouet said the CIA contacted the DGSE again for similar help. By mid-2002, Chouet recalled, the request was more urgent and more specific. The CIA was asking questions about a particular agreement purportedly signed by Niger officials to sell 500 metric tons of uranium to Iraq.

Chouet 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.

Chouet and his staff noticed that the details of the allegation matched those found in fraudulent documents that an Italian informant had offered to sell to the French.

Peter Wallsten and Bob Drogin write for the Los Angeles Times.

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