A high-ranking American official who investigated claims for the CIA that Iraq was seeking uranium to restart its nuclear programme last night accused Britain and the US of deliberately ignoring his findings to make the case for war against Saddam Hussein.
The retired US ambassador said it was all but impossible that British intelligence had not received his report - drawn up by the CIA - which revealed that documents, purporting to show a deal between Iraq and the west African state of Niger, were forgeries. When he saw similar claims in Britain's dossier on Iraq last September, he even went as far as telling CIA officials that they needed to alert their British counterparts to his investigation.
The allegation will add to the suspicions of opponents to the war that last week's row between the BBC and Tony Blair's director of communications Alastair Campbell was a sideshow to draw attention away from more serious questions about the justification for the war.
The comments of the former US diplomat appear to be at odds with those of the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. Appearing before a parliamentary committee last week, Mr Straw said the British intelligence community had not known of the forged documents' existence "at the time when [the September dossier] was put together".
But in his first interview on the issue, the former US diplomat told The Independent on Sunday: "It is hard for me to fathom, that as close as we are and [while] preparing for a war based on [claims about] weapons of mass destruction, that we did not share intelligence of this nature."
Asked if he felt his findings had been ignored for political reasons, he added: "It's an easy conclusion to draw." Though the official's identity is well-known in Washington - he was on the National Security Council under President Clinton - he asked that his name be withheld at this stage.
During last week's hearings by the Foreign Affairs Committee, MPs cited repeated reports that the forged documents - a letter on which the signature of Niger's president had been faked, and another carrying the signature of a man who had not held office in the country since the 1980s - had originally reached the CIA via British intelligence.
Mr Straw not only denied that the forged documents came from British sources, but said Britain's allegations about Iraq's quest for uranium in Africa came from "quite separate sources". He said he would give further details of these sources for the uranium allegation in a closed session on Friday, during which he was fiercely cross-questioned by Sir John Stanley, the committee's chief sceptic. After hearing what the Foreign Secretary had to say, the Tory MP is reported to have told Mr Straw he did not believe him.
The testimony of the former US diplomat further undermines the claims of both the British and US governments that Saddam had developed, or was developing, weapons of mass destruction.
The Niger connection became one of the most important and most controversial elements in the build-up to war, and both Britain and the US used it to claim that Iraq was "reconstituting" its nuclear programme. It later emerged that the report was based on forged letters obtained by Italian intelligence from an African diplomat. The Italians were said to have passed the letters to their British counterparts, from where they reached the CIA.
When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) finally had the opportunity to inspect the documents, nearly a year later, they were dismissed as fakes in less than a day. Neither the US nor Britain ever gave the IAEA any other information to back up their allegations on Iraq's uranium-buying activities, despite the "separate sources" cited by Mr Straw.
In February 2002, the former diplomat - who had served as an ambassador in Africa - was approached by the CIA to carry out a "discreet" task: to investigate if it was possible that Iraq was buying uranium from Niger. He said the CIA had been asked to find out in a direct request from the office of the Vice-President, Dick Cheney.
During eight days in Niger he discovered it was impossible for Iraq to have been buying the quantities of uranium alleged. "My report was very unequivocal," he said. He also learnt that the signatures of officials vital to any transaction were missing from the documents.
On his return he was debriefed by the CIA. One senior CIA official has told reporters the agency's findings were distributed to the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Justice Department, the FBI and the office of the Vice President on the same day in early March.
Six months later the former diplomat read in a newspaper that Britain had issued a dossier claiming Iraq was seeking to buy uranium in Africa. He contacted officials at CIA headquarters and said they needed to clarify whether the British were referring to Niger. If so, the record needed to be corrected. He heard nothing, and in January President Bush said in his State of the Union speech that the "British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa".
The ex-diplomat says he is outraged by the way evidence gathered by the intelligence community was selectively used in Washington to support pre-determined policies and bolster a case for war.