by Carlo Bonnini e Giuseppe D’Avanzo of La Repubblica
[translated at the request of Antiwar.com by Azzurra Crispino]
Anything found in [ ] are translator’s notes and not originally in the article.
For Nicolò Pollari, director of SISMI [sic Military Intelligence Agency of Italy] the rules of his job are non-negotiable. He tells La Repubblica: “I am the director of intelligence, and the only person I have spoken to in Washington on an institutional level, post September 11th, has been the director of the CIA, George Tenet. Obviously, I speak only to him.” But is it really true that our undercover agents have worked exclusively with the CIA? Or, were they co-opted by the clandestine parallel intelligence efforts headed by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz over the “White House Iraq Group,” the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon, the National Security advisor’s office, who all were set out to find the necessary proof to bring about ‘regime change’ in Bagdad?
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Pollari, the director of SISMI meets in Washington with the staff of Condoleeza Rice, then White House National Security Advisor. This is done under the supervision of Gianni Castellaneta, currently the Italian ambassador to the US and then diplomatic advisor for Palazzo Chigi [Silvio Berlusconi’s official residence as Prime Minister of Italy]. La Repubblica is able to document the simultaneous travel of the Italian government and intelligence. At least one of the “unofficial” meetings Pollari holds is, as secret agents say, the the creation of a love triangle between policy, intelligence, and information.
A quick summary: the Military Intelligence of Italy under Pollari wants to confirm the Iraqi purchase of unprocessed uranium used to make a nuclear bomb. The game plan is clear. Antonio Nucera, assistant chief of the Center for Military Intelligence in Rome, gives the “authentic papers” regarding an attempted acquisition of uranium in Niger (old Italian “intelligence” from the 80s). These are then bundled with other false papers hatched together from official stationery and seals, recovered during a faked burglary of the Niger embassy. These papers are shown by Pollari’s people to CIA agents stationed in Rome. Meanwhile, a “deliveryman” for the Military Intelligence Agency, none other than Rocco Martino, delivers them to MI6 in London, run by Sir Richard Dearlove.
This is what gets the ball rolling. This will all be useful in understanding the second chapter of the great Italian deception — framing the proof used to justify military intervention in Iraq. Greg Thielmann, former director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research for the State Department, finds “the Italian report on uranium” on his desk. He claims not to recall the exact date, but it is roughly fall of 2001. The exact date may be important. We know three events coincide on the date October 15th, 2001. Nicolò Pollari, nominated on September 27th, becomes the head of SISMI, after having been the number two man at CESIS (the center coordinating intelligence for Palazzo Chigi). Silvio Berlusconi finally meets with George W. Bush at the White House and the first CIA report on the Italian evidence all occur on the same date: October 15th, 2001. One might call this nothing more than coincidence, except that it appears the Italians are desperately trying to get into the action. Berlusconi had difficulty, following an attack of “misunderstanding among civilizations,” getting a meeting with a White House far more preoccupied with meeting with moderate Arab regimes. Pollari is anxious to be on board with the Premier and the new direction. Col. Alberto Manenti, Pollari’s former boss and the newly appointed head of WMD unit at SISMI, also wants to be in tune with the new director. While Bush is showing Berlusconi the Rose Garden, writes Russ Hoyle, the CIA is taking action on the news Italian intelligence has just handed them on a silver platter: “negotiations between Niamey [the capital of Niger] and Bagdad regarding the acquisition of uranium began in the beginning of 1999. culminating in the authorization of the sale by the Nigerien government in 2000.” No additional documentation is cited able to show that the shipment of uranium actually took place. CIA analysts consider this first report “very limited” and “lacking in necessary details.” Analysts in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the State Department rate the information “highly suspect.”
Pollari’s first contact with the American intelligence community is not particularly gratifying, but nevertheless useful. The director of SISMI is not a fool, he is quick to reconstruct where the main players fall in the sordid conflict underway in the Administration between those advocating prudence and a pragmatic outlook (State Department and the CIA) versus those who are merely looking for an opportunity to justify a pre-planned war. Gianni Castellaneta advises Pollari to “look in other directions,” while Minister of Defense Antonio Martino invites him to meet “an old friend of Italy.”
This old American friend is Michael A. Ledeen, an old fox of US parallel intelligence who was declared “undesirable” by Italy in the 1980s. Ledeen is in Rome on behalf of the Office of Special Plans, created by the Pentagon by Paul Wolfowitz to gather intelligence that supports military intervention in Iraq. A source from Forte Braschi [SISMI’s headquarters in Rome] tells La Repubblica: “Jeff Castelli, head of the CIA station in Rome, gives a cold reception to Pollari’s uranium story and lets the matter drop. Pollari understands this is merely a prelude to something else and talks to Michael Ledeen….” Some unknown reason moves Michael Ledeen back to Washington, D.C. But, at the beginning of 2002, Paul Wolfowitz convices Dick Cheney to explore in depth the Italian story on the uranium. The Vice President, states the Senate Selected Committee on Intelligence, asks the CIA one more time to know more about a possible acquisition of uranium from Niger. In that meeting, Dick Cheney explicitly states this shred of intelligence was gathered by “a foreign service.”
The Pentagon parallel intelligence then spreads this “new information,” according to which “there exists an agreement between Niger and Iraq for the sale of 500 tons of uranium a year.” The technical analysts smile at this declaration: 500 tons of uranium is an astronomical quantity, and the news is clearly devoid of any accountability. All independent reports, requested following the “Italian document” warn that the two mines in Niger, Arlit and Akouta, are not capable of extracting more than 300 tons a year. But the climate is what it is. George Tenet, hobbled by the holes in intelligence surrounding 9/11, puts on a good face and turns a deaf ear when the State Department (as told to La Repubblica by Greg Thielmann) states in opposition that “the information gathered in Italy is inconsistent; the Niger-uranium story is fake; and that a bunch of things told to us were lies.”
The source in Forte Braschi continues, “Pollari is extremely shrewd. He understands that in order to push the uranium story he cannot rely on the CIA alone. He has to work, as he was advised by Palazzo Chigi and the Defense Department, with the Pentagon and the National Security Advisor, Rice.” This claim could be nothing more than a malicious rumor (as is often the case in the world of spies) but confirmation of “alternate channels” Pollari creates with Washington are within grasp in an image and a meeting.
The image: Pollari is in Washington. He meets George Tenet, as often happens, in a reserved room of a hotel near Langley. Someone who assisted with the meeting tells La Repubblica: “Pollari must not trust his English very much, because he utilizes an interpreter when speaking to the director of the CIA. George, to get the ball rolling, reveals some information on Al Qaeda and Italy that the Agency has gathered amongst the Guantanamo prisoners. Tenet expects at least a smile, if not a thank you. Instead, he gets a face of stone. At first, this upsets him, but then he lets it go. But what strikes everyone most about Pollari is the way he keeps his central boss in Washington completely marginalized from everything.” This estrangement is interesting. In 2002 the head of the SISMI station in Washington is Admiral Giuseppe Grignolo, who has important experience in the proliferation of WMDs, an excellent relationship with the CIA and is very respected by CIA number two Jim Pravitt. The source from Forte Braschi recalls, “in reality, we wanted to keep the CIA out of our work and Pollari didn’t trust Grignolo because he’s too closely connected to Langley. So, he keeps all his moves quiet, leading [Grignolo] down the wrong path, like say having him focus unnecessarily on the criminal record of the new hires to the service who have perhaps spent a few years in the States… his more important meetings happen elsewhere. With Condi Rice, through Gianni Castellaneta and for the Office of Special Plans of Wolfowitz and Dough Feith, through Leeden. Castellaneta is the one who schedules the meeting in the office of the National Security Advisor.” When? What do they discuss? “What do you think they discussed in the summer of 2002? Weapons of mass destruction.” The date of the meeting? “That I’m keeping to myself… besides, all it takes is checking with the CAI [Commitato Aeronautico Italiano, the Italian version of the FAA] logs on planes scheduled to fly Ciampino-Washington.” [Ciampino is the Italian military airport.]
Getting the flightplans in Rome is difficult, but there’s better luck in Washington. An administration official tells La Repubblica, “I can confirm that on Sept. 9th, 2002, General Nicolò Pollari met with Stephen Hadley, at the time Deputy National Security Advisor under Condoleeza Rice. And just like October 15th 2001, September 9th 2002 is a date of coincidences. The issue of Panorama that will hit the stands with the date September 12/19 is going to press. This seems to be the customary in the “yellowcake affair.” Recall that “the deliveryman” for SISMI, Rocco Martino, contacts in October a journalist from the weekly magazine, at the time edited by Carlo Rossella, to sell them the document of this crooked affair. No one seems to remember that, in that September 12/19 2002 issue, coinciding with the secret meeting between Pollari and Hadley, Panorama finds a colossal scoop. The title of the article, “The War? It’s Already Begun,” tells the story of “a load of half a ton of uranium.” Further in the article, “the men of Mukhabarat, the Iraqi Secret Service, acquired it [the uranium] through a Jordan intermediary company in far-off Nigeria, where some merchants were selling it as contraband after having stolen it from a nuclear deposit in one of the republics of the former USSR. Five hundred kilos of uranium landed in Amman [the capital of Jordan]. From there, after seven hours by land, they reached their destination: a plant 20 km north of Bagdad, called Al Radhidiyah, well-known for its production and treatment of fission materials.” Later in the article, “… the alert pertains to Germany, where in previous years Iraq has tried to buy technology and industrial components from the “Leycochem” organization… including the coveted aluminum tubes for the gas centrifuges.”
It is important to note that all the ingredients for the recipe for war are present in this Panorama article, even if in an inexact context (Nigeria is not Niger, a grave lapse) and in some parts far-out (contraband from the former USSR to Africa in a truck): the five hundred tons of uranium that, from Africa, reach Baghdad; aluminum tubes for nuclear centrifuges. A reasonable observation can be made that the schema at work here in Italy seems to overlap completely with the ones sustained in the US CIA/New York Times scandal. Government asks for something; intelligence gives it; the media circulates it; and government confirms it. It’s a disinformation technique as old as the Cold War. Exaggerate the danger from the enemy, thereby terrorizing and convincing public opinion. In our own home, an even worse detail: the Prime Minister owns the magazine spreading this poisonous news. The same PM, who heads intelligence and wants to seem and be George W. Bush’s biggest ally, who is in turn anxious to go to war.
The groundwork now laid out, Pollari can now concentrate on a different but essential aspect of his gameplan, the promotion of SISMI and himself. He cashes in on the dividends from the last year’s obfuscated work, blinding parliament with news cautiously manipulated; revelations that would finally require a believable and documented reconstruction are instead met with a wall of secrecy from the state (that would be opposed by Gianni Letta on July 16th, 2003).
After his secret meeting with Hadley, Pollari has two audiences with the parliamentary committee overseeing secret services. In the first, the director of SISMI states, “we do not have documented proof, but we do have news that a central-African nation has sold pure uranium to Baghdad.” Thirty days later, Pollari states, “we have documented proof of an Iraqi acquisition of pure uranium in a central-African nation. We also know of an Iraqi attempt to purchase centrifuges, to be used to enrich uranium, from companies in Germany and possibly in Italy as well.” Leaving Parliament, Pollari still has the problem of how to get the fake document to Washington without his metaphorical finger prints on them. The “deliveryman” for SISMI, Rocco Martino, who has already gone knocking on MI6’s door, contacts Panorama’s Elisabetta Burba attempting to sell her the dossier. Is it the smokeseller’s own idea, was it suggested to him by Antonio Nucera, or from someone else? Burba, justly, goes to double check the information in Niger. There she invents a cover-up of dinosaurs, from the Tyrannosaurus Nigeriensis to the Velociraptor Abakensis.
In the meantime, she also speaks to some credible sources. Elisabette does her duty with tenacity and rigor, and comes to the conclusion that the story just does not jive, and doesn’t publish a single line of it. But in reality, everything has already happened, because the director of the weekly, Carlo Rossella, enthusiastic to have perhaps found “the smoking gun” (as he tells his staff), has already sent the documents to the American embassy, “as the best source of verification.” Does Pollari then warn the Prime Minister’s weekly that in regards to the uranium scoop, the whole thing is a fraud? It would appear not. Thus, Jeff Castelli and the CIA find they once again have to deal with this half-baked story, which they have been trying to avoid for a year. These documents are so obviously fake that they can only be hidden, if they do not want to be mortified when meeting with Dick Cheney. The arrival of the documents in Washington is hushed. On October 16th, 2002, the documents are given out to the various intelligence agencies by members of the State Department during one of their regular meetings, where four CIA members are also present. None of them recall if they have them or ever did. Mysteriously, in Langley the “Italian documents” are “lost” for three months in the counter-proliferation center’s vaults. First strike for the Italian documents. The uranium hoax will redouble with the addition of the tall-tale of the aluminum tubes. But that’s another story.