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Rumsfeld Not Aware of US General's Mission to Niger to Discuss Uranium Security

The Pentagon said a senior military official traveled to Niger in February last year to discuss the security of the West African country's uranium deposits. But there is no indication Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was ever informed of the mission.

The previously-undisclosed mission to Niger in February 2002 was carried out by General Carlton Fulford, then deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, the headquarters responsible for military relations with most of sub-Saharan Africa.

According to defense officials, General Fulford was asked by the U.S. Ambassador to Niger to meet with the country's president and to emphasize the importance of tight controls over its uranium ore deposits.

Niger had previously sold uranium ore, known as yellowcake, to Iraq two decades earlier. But the officials said General Fulford received assurances uranium mining operations in Niger were under control.

There is no indication why General Fulford was asked to undertake the mission nor whether he was aware of allegations by intelligence sources that Iraq had launched a new effort to procure yellowcake in Africa.

But the officials said the general's report on his mission was passed on to European Command Commander, General Joseph Ralston. They say General Ralston in turn passed the information along to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers.

A spokesman for General Myers said the general, America's senior uniformed officer, has no recollection of the information but does not dispute that it was passed on to him.

However the spokesman tells VOA there was no reason for General Myers to pass the information on to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Mr. Rumsfeld has said he was not aware that intelligence documents purporting to show a new effort by Iraq to purchase uranium in Africa were fabricated until March of this year. That is when the U.N. nuclear agency reported the information was fake.

President Bush referred to Iraq's efforts to obtain uranium in Africa in his State of the Union address in late January. A controversy has since arisen over whether he should have made the reference because some intelligence officials had doubts about the claim months before - including a former official who, like General Fulford, also traveled to Niger early last year to assess the validity of an alleged new contract to sell yellowcake to Iraq.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has downplayed the controversy. He recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that intelligence is regularly corrected. "The fact that the facts change from time to time does not surprise me or shock me at all," he said.