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Diplomat: U.S. knew uranium report was false

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A former U.S. diplomat said Sunday he told the Bush administration that Iraq had not tried to buy uranium from Niger in the late 1990s to develop nuclear weapons.

Former Ambassador to Gabon Joseph Wilson told NBC's "Meet the Press" he informed the CIA and the State Department that such information was false months before U.S. and British officials used it during the debate that led to war.

During his State of the Union address in January, two months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, President Bush accused Iraq of trying to buy "significant quantities of uranium" from an unnamed African country. He cited British intelligence, which had published a similar report in September 2002.

"If they were referring to Niger when they were referring to uranium sales from Africa to Iraq, ... that information was erroneous and ... they knew about it well ahead of both the publication of the British white paper and the president's State of the Union address," Wilson said.

In an op-ed piece published in Sunday's New York Times, Wilson wrote that the CIA sent him to Niger in February 2002 at the request of Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

"I have every confidence that the answer I provided was circulated to the appropriate officials within our government," wrote Wilson, who opposed the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"The question now is how that answer was or was not used by our political leadership."

An administration official told CNN that Cheney and his aides were "unaware of the mission, and unaware of the results or conclusion of his mission."

U.N. weapons inspectors determined that documents supporting the Niger report were faked, and U.S. and British officials eventually acknowledged the claim was erroneous.

The Niger report has fueled allegations that the Bush administration exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq in order to justify a preventive war to oust Saddam.

"Either the administration has some information that it has not shared with the public, or, yes, they were using the selective use of facts to bolster the decision in a case that had already been made -- a decision that had been made to go to war," Wilson told NBC.

Wilson was the American charge d'affaires in Baghdad before the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the last U.S. diplomat to meet with Saddam.

The first President Bush appointed Wilson ambassador to Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe, and he was a National Security Council aide during the Clinton administration.

The White House has stood by its assessment that Iraq tried to obtain nuclear weapons in recent years, though little evidence has emerged since U.S. troops deposed Saddam in April.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told NBC last month that "maybe somebody knew down in the bowels of the agency" that the Niger report was false, but she said it was "a relatively small part of the case."

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday his committee has asked for explanations about the Niger issue from the CIA and FBI.

But both he and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Virginia, said there was no evidence the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to justify war.

"I have found no evidence to date in the rather voluminous material, floor to ceiling, that we have 10 staffers going over, that there was any manipulation on the part of the administration," Roberts told CNN.

"We will have hearings on that. Those hearings have yet to be held, and we'll let the chips certainly fall where they may."

Wilson said he has told his story to Intelligence Committee staff.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the committee's ranking Democrat, said whether the intelligence was wrong or whether it was misrepresented, "It's not a happy outcome and it has to be fixed."

The uranium report was an easy one to debunk, Wilson wrote in the Times.

"It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place," he wrote.

Because Niger's uranium industry is run by European, Japanese and Nigerian companies and closely watched by international monitors, "there's simply too much oversight over too small an industry for a sale to have transpired."

If his findings were ignored because they did not support the administration's case for war, however, "then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses," he wrote.

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