THE FORMER ENVOY, Joseph Wilson, who was acting ambassador to Iraq before the first Gulf War, was dispatched to Niger in 2002 to investigate a British intelligence report that Iraq sought to buy uranium there. Although Wilson discredited the report, Bush cited it in his State of the Union address in January among the evidence he said justified military action in Iraq.
The administration has since had to repudiate the claim. CIA Director George Tenet said the 16-word sentence should not have been included in Bush's Jan. 28 speech and publicly accepted responsibility for allowing it to remain in the president's text.
Wilson published an article in July alleging, however, that the White House recklessly made the charge knowing it was false.
"We spend billions of dollars on intelligence," Wilson wrote. "But we end up putting something in the State of the Union address, something we got from another intelligence agency, something we cannot independently verify, in an area of Africa where the British have no on-the-ground presence."
WHITE HOUSE DENIALS
The next week, columnist Robert Novak published an article in which he revealed that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA operative specializing in weapons of mass destruction. "Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate," Novak wrote.
The White House has denied being Novak's source, whom he has refused to identify. But Wilson has said other reporters have told him White House officials leaked Plame's identity.
NBC News' Andrea Mitchell reported Friday night that the CIA has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether White House officials blew Plame's cover in retaliation against Wilson. Revealing the identities of covert officials is a violation of two laws, the National Agents' Identity Act and the Unauthorized Release of Classified Information Act.
ATTEMPTS TO REMOVE CLAIM
When the Niger claim first arose, in February 2002, the CIA sent Wilson to Africa to investigate. He reported finding no credible evidence that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger.
The CIA's doubts about the uranium claim were reported through routine intelligence traffic throughout the government, U.S. intelligence officials said. Those doubts were also reported to the British.
The Niger report included a notation that it was unconfirmed when it was published in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, the classified summary of intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs.
The CIA had the Niger claim removed from at least two speeches before they were given: Bush's October address on the Iraqi threat, and a speech by U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte.
As the State of the Union address was being written, CIA officials protested over how the alleged uranium connection was being portrayed, so the administration changed it to attribute it to the British, who had made the assertion in a Sept. 24 dossier.
By MSNBC.com's Alex Johnson with NBC's Andrea Mitchell.