It’s a crisp, clear winter morning in Rome. In the neighborhood between the Vatican and the Olympic Stadium, a phalanx of motor scooters is parked outside a graffiti-scarred 10-story apartment building. No. 10 Via Antonio Baiamonte is home to scores of middle-class families, and to the embassy for the Republic of Niger, the impoverished West African nation that was once a French colony.
Though it may be unprepossessing, the Niger Embassy is the site of one of the great mysteries of our times. On January 2, 2001, an embassy official returned there after New Year’s Day and discovered that the offices had been robbed. Little of value was missing?a wristwatch, perfume, worthless documents, embassy stationery, and some official stamps bearing the seal of the Republic of Niger. Nevertheless, the consequences of the robbery were so great that the Watergate break-in pales by comparison.
A few months after the robbery, Western intelligence analysts began hearing that Saddam Hussein had sought yellowcake?a concentrated form of uranium which, if enriched, can be used in nuclear weapons?from Niger. Next came a dossier purporting to document the attempted purchase of hundreds of tons of uranium by Iraq. Information from the dossier and, later, the papers themselves made their way from Italian intelligence to, at various times, the C.I.A., other Western intelligence agencies, the U.S. Embassy in Rome, the State Department, and the White House, as well as several media outlets. Finally, in his January 2003 State of the Union address, George W. Bush told the world, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”