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CNN AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

U.N. Saying Documents Were Faked

Aired March 14, 2003 - 08:18   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Documents cited as proof by President Bush and the secretary of state, Colin Powell, and also the British government suggest there is strong evidence of Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium for nuclear weapons. Now the U.N. is saying this week those documents were faked.
Our national security correspondent David Ensor now joins us from Washington with more on this story -- David, what are we learning now?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bill, there really is very little question at this point that the documents are forgeries and the question at this point is why did the United States pass them off to the United Nations as being worthy of any kind of seriousness?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ENSOR (voice-over): For the Bush administration and for U.S. intelligence, the matter of the apparently forged documents on Iraq pursuing African uranium is turning into a world class embarrassment.

RAY CLOSE, FORMER CIA OFFICER: I'm sure that the FBI and the CIA must be mortified by this, because it's extremely embarrassing to them.

ENSOR: The question is why did the U.S. and the British government pass on to the International Atomic Energy Agency documents which the IAEA officials say are obvious forgeries, passed on as evidence Iraq might have tried to buy 500 tons of uranium in Niger?

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: It was provided in good faith to the inspectors and our agency received it in good faith, not participating, if that's the suggestion of your question, in any way in any falsification activities.

ENSOR: Knowledgeable sources tell CNN one of the documents purports to be a letter signed by Tandjia Mamadou, the president of Niger, talking about the uranium deal with Iraq. On it, a childlike signature that is clearly not his. Another, written on paper from a 1980s military government in Niger, bears the date of October 2000 and the signature of a man who by then had not been foreign minister of Niger for 14 years.

MOHAMED ELBARADEI, DIRECTOR GENERAL, INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY: The IAEA has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents which formed the basis for the report of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger are, in fact, not authentic. ENSOR: A former CIA operations official says the Central Intelligence Agency should have known better.

CLOSE: They have tremendously sophisticated and experienced people in their technical services division who wouldn't allow a forgery like this to get by. I mean it's just, it's mystifying to me. I can't understand it.

ENSOR: A U.S. intelligence official says the documents were passed on to the IAEA with the comment, "We don't know the provenance of this information, but here it is." If a mistake was made, a U.S. official suggested, it was more likely incompetence, not malice.

CLOSE: That's a convenient explanation but it doesn't satisfy me because incompetence I have not seen in those agencies. I've seen plenty of malice, but I've never seen incompetence.

ENSOR: What makes the matter all the more embarrassing is that the African uranium plot was highlighted by the president himself.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ENSOR: U.S. officials say that assertion by the president and the British was also based on additional evidence of Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium from another African country. The other countries on that continent that have uranium deposits are Namibia, Gabon and South Africa. U.S. officials would not say which one, but they say that additional evidence was also passed on to the IAEA -- Bill.

HEMMER: Obvious question here, David, as you go forward, trying to figure all this out, who made these apparent forgeries, then?

ENSOR: No one knows, and it's a bit of a mystery. But some of the experts say that the suspects have to include the intelligence services of Iraq's neighbors and other pro-war nations, as well as, of course, Iraqi opposition groups. Most rule out the U.S. or Britain, which, if they wanted to make forgeries, could have made much more convincing ones. U.S. officials are saying that they got the documents from the intelligence service of another country, which was not Britain and was not Israel, which they will not name -- Bill.

HEMMER: The riddle continues.

David Ensor in Washington.

David, thanks.

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