Blame It on Rocco

by , November 08, 2005

Poor Rocco Martino – he’s the ex-agent of Italy’s military intelligence agency (SISMI) who’s at the heart of the Niger uranium forgery scandal, and, it seems, the designated fall guy. Rocco says he didn’t realize the import of the forged documents that eventually passed into the hands of the White House and crept into President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address. He was just the salesman, peddling his wares to various intelligence agencies – the British, the French, the Americans. Is it right to be blaming the retail outfit that sells ersatz goods and is caught out? The real question is: who was the manufacturer? The closer we get to unraveling that mystery, however, the more smoke is blown by the main participants…

Let’s begin at the beginning: In 2003, the president gave a State of the Union address that contained the by-now-infamous “16 words” in which Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein was seeking to procure uranium in “an African nation” – and had to be stopped before he nuked, say, New York. This contention led to all sorts of unforeseen consequences, not the least of which was the “outing” of Valerie Plame, CIA agent and wife to former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who was sent to Niger by the CIA to check up on the allegations.

Wilson came back and reported there was nothing to the story, but the source of that tall tale had a life of its own: there were a number of people high up in the U.S. government, centered chiefly around the office of the vice president (OVP), who had a vested interest in validating the Niger uranium story. In spite of the CIA’s objections, the Niger claim made it into the president’s speech anyway, and that turned out to be a very big problem for the president and his administration, with consequences that continue to play out. The documents on which the Niger allegations were based turned out to be forgeries – a fact that caught the White House flat-footed and sparked an FBI investigation.

It also led to the current brouhaha over the outing of CIA agent Plame. The neocons in the OVP, angered when Wilson revealed his mission to Niger in a New York Times op-ed piece, retaliated by outing CIA agent Plame. If not for the Niger uranium forgeries, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby would still be chillin’ with Judy Miller, watching the aspens turn.

The question of who forged these documents – and crudely, at that – has always been central to the controversy of who lied us into war. We aren’t talking about a “mistake” here, or an error of judgment, but a deliberate attempt to fake the evidence. If we trace the path of the documents to their originators, we’ll likely find the answer to the question bedeviling so many of us: who lied us into war, and why?

Everyone is now running as fast as they can from the forgeries, trying to blame someone else: the Italians deny passing them to the U.S. and are putting the blame on poor Rocco Martino, who peddled them initially to Panorama magazine, which passed them on to the U.S. embassy in Rome. Their route to the White House from that point on becomes rather vague, but eventually we heard the allegations contained therein articulated by the most powerful man on earth, who utilized them as a rationale for an ill-thought-out and ultimately disastrous war.

The Americans have always maintained they were depending on the British “dossier” that mysteriously maintains there is evidence Saddam sought uranium in Niger: this, they insist, is entirely separate from the forgeries, but, as Andrew Buncombe explains in the Independent, it looks like Rocco palmed off the same shoddy merchandise on the Brits, who bought the goods and integrated them into their collection of cherrypickings, which is how they eventually wound up in Tony Blair‘s September 2002 “dossier.” All roads, in this case, lead to Rome, i.e., the forgeries, but is SISMI really the culprit here?

As the La Repubblica series of articles exposing the Italian side of this scandal makes clear, the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was clearly trying to score brownie points with the Bush administration in an attempt to sell this Niger uranium story in Washington. SISMI chieftain Nicolo Pollari traveled to Washington and met with Stephen Hadley, then assistant to Condi Rice, as the culmination of several attempts to overcome the CIA’s initial skepticism. This not-so-tasty Italian dish had been cooking on the backburner for so many years that by the time it reached Washington, it was pungent with the smell of deception, but somehow that didn’t make any difference: it was served up piping hot and eagerly consumed anyway. Rocco says he was set up by a SISMI official, Antonio Nucera, who put him in touch with the mysterious “La Signora,” a woman of indeterminate nationality working in Niger’s Rome embassy. They passed it off to Elisabetta Burba, a journalist working for Panorama, who passed it on – at Panorama‘s publisher’s request – to the American embassy. Tracing the provenance of the forgeries farther back in time, was it “La Signora” – hey, does this sound like a bad made-for-TV movie, or what? – who had something to do with the rather odd robbery that took place at Niger’s Rome embassy on New Year’s Day 2001, in which only stationery and embassy seals were taken and not anything of inherent value? Hmmm…

In any case, it’s best not to go down that particular rabbit hole: instead, let’s focus on the American side of this scandal and ask the all-important question: how did the forged documents wind up, in effect, on the president’s desk and insinuate themselves into the content of one of the most widely discussed and fateful presidential speeches of modern times?

Everybody’s blaming Rocco, but how in the name of all that’s holy does the product of an amateurish scam supposedly masterminded by a has-been-ex-spook get finagled into the White House? The FBI “investigation,” which seems more like a cover-up, was ended, we are told, when the investigators concluded the whole thing was just a for-profit scheme, “not an attempt to influence U.S. policy.”

Let’s see: a document shows up in the nick of time to buttress the administration’s case that Saddam was building nukes – at the very moment when Congress was considering this issue – and it’s all just a great big coincidence. We are supposed to believe that a couple of Italian grifters staged a robbery at the Niger embassy in Rome, cut-and-pasted a “dossier” of fake evidence that Saddam was purchasing uranium from Niamey, and, a couple of years later, the president of the United States suddenly started spouting the same nonsensical claims. There’s a transition missing here, one that explains how two Italian scam artists out to make a fast buck managed to bamboozle not only the White House but the various agencies that vet the intelligence that winds up on Bush’s desk.

At last count, no less than three U.S. officials have taken the fall: George Tenet, Stephen Hadley, and Robert Joseph.

However, this doesn’t quite answer the question of how, where, and when the forgeries made the transition from two Italian grifters to the highest reaches of the U.S. government. This timeline puts the acquisition of the documents – or copies of them – by the U.S. State Department in October 2002, although the CIA says they never saw the documents until February 2003. We now know that Pollari and Hadley met secretly in Washington on Sept. 9, 2002. Hadley denies any connection to the forgeries, however, and a more fruitful inquiry might lead us to the door of one Michael Ledeen, neocon ideologue and no stranger to political intrigue, who has been identified by La Repubblica as the go-between, connecting SISMI with elements in the U.S. government who proved more sympathetic to the Niger uranium story than was the CIA.

Now we’re getting much warmer.

I was first to name Ledeen, along with Duane Clarridge and the late Alan Wolf, as the central players in this game, basing my claim on a source I trust. This trust was confirmed when La Repubblica came out with its three-part series, naming Ledeen and fingering the Office of Special Plans – a parallel intelligence operation set up by Paul Wolfowitz and placed under Pentagon policy chief Douglas Feith, which was the subject of this remarkable study by Seymour Hersh early on. It is ironic, and weird, that these characters jokingly called themselves “the Cabal,” and that, today, all these months later, the whole country is talking about the cabal that lied us into war.

So what sort of “cabal” are we talking about? Were they free-lancers, pro-war ideologues who, entirely on their own initiative and without any help from anyone, successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of the U.S. government and embarrassed an American president, provoking the only known incidence of a retraction by this White House with regard to the subject of Iraq’s alleged WMD?

The elaborate smokescreen and series of cut-outs distancing the forgeries from their real source suggest otherwise. Somebody has gone to an awful lot of trouble to throw sand in our eyes, as Patrick J. Fitzgerald would put it. This wasn’t the work of amateurs: it looks like a professional job to me. But which professionals? Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and counterintelligence expert, has a theory, which he related to MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann when the AIPAC spy story broke:

“I’ve heard about this investigation for, you know, several months now. And you know it is – it actually is tied into the forged memo regarding the sale of uranium to Iraq from Niger. What I’ve been told is that there’s a strong belief that the forgery was carried out by Israel in an effort to help build up the evidence to allow the United States to justify going to war. So, this whole thing that started with the outing of Valerie Plame, the CIA officer, started growing and expanding when they saw that there’s this forged memo and then people linked to the office of – in the office of Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith at the Department of Defense were seen as having some very close contacts and sharing information with the Israeli intelligence sources.”

According to Johnson’s sources, the AIPAC spy scandal reached into the National Security Council – Hadley’s domain – where “targets were being looked at.”

Was it just a coincidence that Larry Franklin, the Pentagon analyst who pled guilty to charges of spying for Israel, showed up at a meeting in Rome with Ledeen, neocon Harold Rhode (of the Office of Special Plans), Pollari, Manucher Ghorbanifar (Ledeen’s pal from the good old days of Iran-Contra), and various and sundry Iranians?

The Democrats made a very big show the other day of stopping the Senate in its tracks and taking it into special session in order to complain about the lack of an investigation into the “intelligence failure” around the issue of Iraq’s WMD. One wonders, however, if this angle will enter into it, or whether we’ll just get a bipartisan cover-up on the question of who forged the Niger uranium documents – and who made sure they weren’t vetted properly before being including in the administration’s talking points.

Who poisoned the well of American intelligence with fifth-rate forgeries? Somehow, I don’t think it was a washed-out spook and the mysterious “La Signora,” whose antics might qualify for a comedy show spoofing the trade of spycraft. The neocon cabal that infested the upper reaches of the national security bureaucracy didn’t do it by themselves, either: they had to have help, if only logistical, from overseas – perhaps from a foreign intelligence agency. If they were acting at the behest of that agency, then what we’re talking about here is espionage: planting false intelligence at the behest of a foreign power. If, by some chance, the perpetrators of the Niger uranium hoax are ever prosecuted, their apologists will no doubt come up with some variation of the Scooter Libby defense: Hey, you’re just criminalizing politics! But there is a crime, and a heinous one, at the core of the convoluted and distinctly odd story behind the Niger uranium forgeries: it is called treason.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

It’s gratifying that the Niger uranium mystery, which Antiwar.com has publicized and analyzed for years, is unraveling in the international media, and we don’t mind taking some of the credit for that. It was inevitable, in any event, that the indictment of Scooter Libby would draw attention to the underlying issue around which the “outing” of Valerie Plame took place. In the intervening space, however, we did much to keep the story alive, and we’ll continue to emphasize the importance of this story because it dramatizes, more than any other, the lengths to which the War Party went to push us into the Iraqi quagmire. Over 2,000 Americans, and tens of thousands of Iraqis, have died on account of a campaign of deception, one quite self-consciously and conscientiously taken up by a cabal of professional liars and – yes – traitors in Washington. In exposing this neocon fifth column, we at Antiwar.com are not afraid to name names – but we can’t continue to do it without your help.

You’ll note, by going to our front page, that today is the first day of our winter fundraising drive, and I’m not going to go into a long spiel about how important it is. Today’s column speaks for itself – and so does our record. Antiwar.com was exposing the War Party’s fabrications long before the present liar-in-chief took office: we called out the neocons on the WMD issue years before that statue of Saddam fell in a carefully choreographed photo op and America entered its present state of extended agony. The phony Niger uranium documents, the invented “centrifuges,” the imaginative Saddam-is-going-to-bomb-us-with-UAVs scenario conjured by President Bush – it was all lies, and we told our readers so at the time.

I emphasize those three words because there are plenty of commentators, and not a few politicians, who are now saying they were duped into supporting the war, and that if only they’d known then what they know now they would never have rolled over and played dead while the neocons rolled over Iraq. We, on the other hand, weren’t taken in for a moment: we provided our readers with real-time analysis of the bogus claims, debunking them on a daily basis.

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