Silvio Says Arrivederci

Anyone following Italian newspapers lately has discovered new meaning in the words “shock and awe.” In an article in La Repubblica, an unnamed SISMI (Italian secret service) agent affirms the prewar meeting in Rome among high level U.S./Italian officials and mysterious Iranians and recounts SISMI’s spadework in Iraq four months prior to the war’s official start. Now, in a second chapter, entitled “Rome Knew by 2003 There Were No Weapons,” the agent bluntly states that Italy and the U.S. fully realized the decrepit state of the Iraqi military but steadfastly maintained the WMD fiction. As a Goebbelsian act of deceit, he reveals that they even dangled the notion to the public of possible chemical or biological attacks against the troops as the coalition forces drove to Baghdad.

All of this is coming out against a backdrop of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s miraculous volte-face. On the eve of his meeting with President Bush in Washington on Oct. 31, he unburdened his soul in a Rome TV interview about his true feelings for the war in Iraq, saying, “I never wanted it.” As if to make a tragicomedy of the last two years, he depicted himself and that now-elder statesman of world peace Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi as the two voices of reason trying desperately to restrain the rash, na├»ve American president. In a peculiar act of betrayal, someone in hte Italian government leaked to Corriere della Sera Bush’s personal letter to the prime minister of March 17, 2003, on the eve of the war, which begins:

“Dear Silvio, While we confront a threat without equal, I want to express the gratitude of the American people for the extraordinary support that you and your government have given to the global war on terrorism. You stood side by side with us and we won’t forget it.”

Well, one of them forgot.

Surely, Berlusconi has an eye on the April 2006 elections and views the war and any attachment to Bush as a liability, but could that be all? There can be no doubt that the PM’s eleventh-hour confession marks a permanent rupture between the two leaders, given the value Bush places on loyalty. The phony all-smiles photo-op with Il Cavaliere (“the knight,” Berlusconi’s Italian moniker) on Oct. 31 was filled with platitudes, as Berlusconi gushed about how “proud” he was to be an ally of the president and how Bush would go down in history as a visionary leader. However, the White House nixed the press conference afterwards, presumably to avoid awkward questions. As Bush’s former speechwriter David Frum noted, “What Berlusconi said has damaged his personal relationship with Bush. … I think that from now on, it will be very difficult for the president to confide in Berlusconi, to believe and trust him.”

In a rare moment of candor, Berlusconi, who is frequently referred to simply as bugiardo, or liar, told Libero that the media’s allegations of stove-piping the bogus Niger papers to Stephen Hadley (or then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, depending which paper you read) amounted to charging him with instigating this whole foreign policy debacle. Playing a sympathy card, claiming that he was under the threat of a suicide bomber, he pleaded, “I am a leader of a country … that has not attacked anyone and is not at war. Our troops in Iraq are not an occupying force, but a peacekeeping force under a UN mandate.”

Now, following the closed four-hour session of SISMI chief Nicolo Pollari speaking before Copaco – the Italian Senate’s committee overseeing intelligence-gathering – we get the official word: SISMI’s comportment was at all times proper – it never manufactured or endorsed false documents. As one senator put it, “The hearing totally dismantled the theory that [SISMI] could have furnished unverified information for provoking military intervention in Iraq.”

So we are left to believe that a small time ex-cop, Rocco Martino, a double-dealer in intelligence documents, peddling them to either France or Italy, somehow managed to relay the Niger forgeries to the highest levels of the U.S. government – just before Bush’s infamous State of the Union speech.

Behind the shroud of Italian politics, one can perhaps detect two separate but related political storms conspiring to cleave the U.S./Italian allegiance. The first springs from the killing of Nicola Calipari, a SISMI agent charged with rescuing Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian journalist kidnapped in Baghdad. The formal reports by the two countries were never reconciled. The U.S. maintained that the incident was a tragic accident – the car was driving dangerously fast as it approached a checkpoint and ignored warnings to slow down. Italy, on the other hand, alleged that bungled communications and a trigger-happy U.S. patrol force caused a senseless murder. Given Sgrena’s left-wing political leaning, some speculated that the shooting was deliberate. Although the event received moderate coverage in the U.S., it swelled to a major story in Italy, galvanizing the antiwar sentiment against Berlusconi’s pro-U.S. administration. Similarly, the CIA’s kidnapping and rendition of the Egyptian imam Abu Omar in Italy, and the subsequent letter of commendation sent by George Tenet to the Milan-based U.S. undercover agents who executed the operation, provoked a furor in Italy culminating in the issuing of arrest warrants for several American agents by a Milanese district attorney. Further souring the two countries’ relations was the CIA’s discovery of a supposed information-sharing arrangement between SISMI and VEVAK, the Iranian secret police (reported recently in an article by Corriere della Sera).

The second storm brewing on the Italian scene involves the parallel scandals of the two countries. The one deemed Niger-gate in Italy, and the other named CIA-gate, Plame-gate, or simply the “leak scandal” in the U.S., could potentially implode two governments at once. By building a wall between the two countries and declaring SISMI’s probity in dealing with prewar intelligence, Berlusconi hopes to avoid being tainted by the U.S. imbroglio. No stranger to criminal suits (having been charged repeatedly with tax fraud and corruption), he is well aware of the debilitating effects of public trials against government officials. By keeping the two countries separate, he can perhaps disable the magnetic force that threatens to conjoin the allies as two halves of the same deceit. If seen as a whole, the scandal would prove far greater than the sum of its parts. So the once-tight leaders will remain an ocean apart, each with his political survival at stake.

Read more by Ann Berg