Don’t Blame the Italians

by , November 15, 2005

Cornered by their critics, overwhelmed by massive antiwar sentiment, and pursued by the relentless Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the War Party is in full retreat, hiding behind the ramparts of an elaborate edifice of lies. The administration’s defenders are shooting blindly, averring – per Norman Podhoretz – that, since “everybody” believed what the administration was claiming about Iraq’s alleged WMD prior to the invasion, we’re all living in the same alternate universe. In the Bizarro World of the neocons, if we all believe a lie, that makes it true. Or, rather, that makes the whole idea of truth irrelevant, and we should all “move on,” as the Clintonites used to say.

Ken Mehlman was on Meet the Press Sunday morning, invoking the Select Senate Committee Report [.pdf], the Silbermann-Robb report, and – laughably – the Butler report as evidence that we should all move along, there’s nothing to see here. The argument from authority is a favorite debating tactic of the neocons, second only to smearing their opponents as “anti-Semites.” You have to dig deep down in the archives and retrieve news articles as well as the texts of these various official and definitive-sounding “reports” to realize that they say no such thing – and that, furthermore, an explicit political decision was made in the case of the SSCI report and the Silbermann-Robb whitewash not to address the question of manipulated intelligence. No ordinary American has the time or inclination to do that kind of research, however, and that is what they are counting on – just as they counted on this same conceptual lethargy to deliberately create the widespread impression that Iraq was behind 9/11.

We are supposed to believe that critics of the war who see a pattern of deception in the administration’s pre-invasion pronouncements are deluding themselves into believing a “conspiracy theory,” as the Weekly Standard‘s new blog puts it. In an effort to calm the “frenzy” created by my piece unmasking the authors of the Niger uranium forgeries, they cite the FBI’s determination that “financial gain, not an effort to influence U.S. policy, was behind the forged documents.” Why the two motivations – financial gain and a desire to manipulate the making of policy – are mutually exclusive is a mystery known only to the editors of the Weekly Standard. As we have seen, neocons have been experts at profiting from the policies they advocate: the name of Richard Perle comes to mind. In any event, the efforts of the Italians to cash in don’t quite measure up in terms of entrepreneurial acuity. As one ex-CIA officer put it to me: “If the objective was to make money, it’s curious that the documents were dumped on Panorama after the request for a payment was refused.”

The boys over at the Standard are real sensitive to jabs from us on this issue because the Niger uranium forgeries are, for the Peace Party, the gift that never seems to stop giving. This is the weakest link in the chain of deception forged by the neocons in the run-up to war, and it is visibly falling to pieces as news of yet another break in the story of Niger-gate blows in on an Italian wind.

La Repubblica writers Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe d’Avanzo are back with another scoop, unraveling a particularly thorny knot in the Niger uranium forgery mystery that has, until now, proved most baffling. The mystery is this: how is it that the U.S. government was taken in by such crude forgeries?

After all, names of Niger officials who were supposed to be overseeing the transaction with Iraq were flat out wrong, as were certain dates and other telling details. That’s why it was only a few hours before International Atomic Energy Agency scientists had unmasked the original documents as fraudulent. So how come the U.S. government – with so many intelligence analysts, experts, and other resources at its command – was so easily fooled? The answer is that the “intelligence” supposedly contained in the forgeries was filtered – laundered – through various foreign intelligence agencies, including the Italians and the British.

The Italians approached the U.S. in 2001 and 2002 in an effort capped by a personal visit to Washington by Nicolo Pollari, the head of Italian military intelligence, who met with then-Assistant National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley on Sept. 9, 2002 – at precisely the moment the issue of Iraq’s nuclear program became paramount.

Now comes the story from La Repubblica that on the second attempt to pass off the forgeries as authentic, the Italians – or someone – corrected the errors in their transcription of the original documents, and that’s what made its way to policymakers. So what happened to the original forgeries? A partial answer is on pages 58-59 of the SSCI report [.pdf]:

“On October 16, 2002, INR [the State Department] made copies of the documents available at the NIAG [Nuclear Interdiction Action Group] meeting for attendees, including representatives from the CIA, DIA, DOE and NSA. Because the analyst who offered to provide the documents [who had already determined they were of a dubious nature] was on leave, the office’s senior analyst provided the documents. She cannot reveal how she made the documents available, but analysts from several agencies, including the DIA, NSA and DOE, did pick up copies at that meeting. None of the four CIA representatives recall picking up the documents, however, during the CIA Inspector General’s investigation of this issue, copies of the documents were found in the DO’s CPD vault. It appears that a CPD representative did pick up the documents at the NIAG meeting, but after returning to the office, filed them without any further distribution.

“The CIA told the Committee its analysts did not seek to obtain copies of the documents because they believed that the foreign government service reporting was verbatim text and did not think it would advance the story on the alleged uranium deal. One analyst noted that, at the time, the CIA was preparing its case [redacted] on reconstitution and since the uranium reporting was not significant to their argument, getting the documents was not a priority.”

The U.S., prior to the surfacing of the forgeries themselves, had only been seeing reports filtered via Italian intelligence. When the forgeries themselves turned up, they were locked away at Langley. The Americans were being spoon-fed transcriptions – forgeries of a forgery! – via their Rome-to-Washington conduit, which, according to La Repubblica and my own sources, was Michael Ledeen and the Office of Special Plans. But there was something awfully suspicious about these transcriptions, as The Left Coaster – who has been all over this story – points out, indicating that

“Someone was clearly, deliberately passing on information from forgeries – and correcting some information to keep the fact that they were forgeries, hidden.”

We often refer to the “Niger uranium forgeries,” but there were two sets of documents – the original copies of the forgeries, and the transcriptions. La Repubblica traces their circuitous path from Rome to Washington:

“SISMI [Italian military intelligence] is familiar with the spectacularly phony dossier on the Niger uranium, assembled ‘by private motivation for lucre’ by three characters on the SISMI’s payroll (Rocco Martino, Antonio Nucera and La Signora, who worked at the Embassy). SISMI is aware of the information contained [in] the dossier. SISMI ‘doctors’ the mistakes and absurdities contained in the documents. It does not entrust the dossier to the CIA but instead to a ‘field officer’ of the Agency stationed in Rome, who is permitted to ‘view’ the documents. The US agent scribbles a few notes resulting in the first report drafted in Washington. When the (false) news that Saddam is moving to acquire the bomb causes consternation (or joy) in the US intelligence community, Nicolò Pollari’s SISMI prepares a second report confirming the first, this time with the inclusion of a transcription of the Niger-Iraq agreement confirming ‘the credibility of the source (La Signora).’ With a third cable comes notification that finally, ‘500 tons of uranium have already been shipped to Iraq.'”

When the actual forgeries turn up at the U.S. embassy in Rome, on Oct. 9, 2002, courtesy of Panorama magazine reporter Elisabetta Burba, they are sent to the CIA and locked up in a vault, while the transcriptions – corrected for obvious errors – are filtered to the White House and other policymaking agencies. The CIA, which sat on the “authentic” forgeries, nevertheless made a strong bid to delete the uranium claims from the president’s 2003 State of the Union address and earlier presidential pronouncements. Langley clearly knew they were forgeries – if some bloggers can go to the trouble to compare the Italian transcriptions with the “authentic” forgeries, does anyone imagine the CIA neglected to do so? Yet, as The Left Coaster points out:

“In a mysterious twist to the CIA’s earlier position on the ‘uranium from Africa’ claim, between Oct. 2, 2002, and Oct. 6, 2002prior to the CIA’s ostensibly seeing the forged documents – top players in the CIA (including the Deputy DCI and the DCI) personally made efforts to try and dissuade the White House, and strongly so, from including the ‘uranium from Africa’ claim in speeches. Clearly, this raises the question as to what the CIA knew even before they ostensibly received a copy of the forged documents, that changed their minds regarding the ‘uranium from Africa’ claim. (Remember, the CIA kept claiming that they did not know the documents were forgeries until after the IAEA exposed them in March 2003.) And why, despite the above, did the Bush State of the Union claim on ‘uranium from Africa’ persist?”

By comparing what the Senate report says about the transcriptions with the actual forgeries, we can see that the errors are cleaned up. But who were the janitors? A key signature, substituting the name of one Niger official for another, was forged: but who were the forgers? Who suppressed the evidence that the Niger uranium claims were based on forgeries, and who made sure that the doctored transcriptions were given the most weight? The Italians were pushing this story for all it was worth, but who on the inside greased the skids? Was it, perchance, the same crew that channeled Ahmed Chalabi‘s fabrications, and those of his fellow “heroes in error,” into administration policy papers and the front page of the New York Times? The same cabal that went after Ambassador Joe Wilson and his wife, CIA agent Valerie Plame, because they were drawing too much attention to the Niger uranium scam.

The big-but-overlooked story of the past few months has been how much of the phony “intelligence” that corrupted U.S. intelligence-gathering mechanisms is being sourced back to our foreign “allies.” The Brits, after all, took the brunt of the credit – or blame – in the beginning when a compromise was reached between the contending factions in the administration, who were fighting over the veracity of the Niger uranium claims. In the end, it was decided to attribute the African uranium claim to the Brits – who, it turns out, had received the same “intelligence” via the Italians. Yet this cacophony of “reports” – coming from the Brits and the Italians – consisted only of echoes reverberating from the original source, which remains hidden, though not for long. Because whoever corrected the errors in the “authentic” forgeries and passed them on for American consumption is at the very center of the conspiracy to lie us into war.

The Senate Committee on Intelligence is well aware of these discrepancies between the “real” forgeries and the transcriptions received via whomever, and if the much-vaunted second “phase” of their investigation into prewar intelligence doesn’t cover this topic in public hearings – or even closed sessions – we’ll know there’s a bipartisan cover-up in progress.

Once we lift this rock, I can guarantee you it won’t just be a bunch of Italian con artists and their enablers in SISMI who scuttle away – and Scooter Libby won’t be the only U.S. government official in prosecutors’ sights. This may be an incentive for the Democrats, but there are plenty of issues here that may also make them wary. I won’t go into that now, but for a hint of what I’m talking about, check out Julian Borger’s piece on the Office of Special Plans. According to La Repubblica, it was this mysterious entity – which, as Seymour Hersh says, called itself only half-mockingly “the cabal” – that reportedly funneled the Italian transcriptions to Washington policymakers. Borger, like Karen Kwiatkowski and Robert Dreyfuss, makes the connection to a certain foreign intelligence agency, and from this my readers are free to draw their own conclusions as to why the Democrats, as much as the Republicans, are not too eager to uncover the real source of the Niger uranium forgeries.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

Run, do not walk, over to David Henderson’s latest column for Antiwar.com, and check out his analysis of the unintended consequences of U.S. military intervention. Lefties – not an inconsiderable portion of my audience, from what I can tell – will learn a few lessons in economics, as well as how one military (or political) overseas intervention leads ineluctably to another…

 

Read more by Justin Raimondo