Amid all the brouhaha over whether I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Karl Rove, or any number of Bush administration insiders had a hand in leaking the name of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, the essential crime at the core of the investigation and its probable starting point often gets lost in the shuffle. The “outing” of Plame was not an end in itself: the outers didn’t just one day decide that they were going to go after her and Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, her husband, because they were in a vindictive mood. They were out to get them because Wilson drew attention to the provenance of the infamous “16 words” uttered by President Bush in his 2003 state of the union address, in which Bush claimed that Iraq had sought out uranium in “an African country” in order to make a nuclear bomb. Perhaps without knowing it, Wilson in taking an interest in this subject was getting too close to the enormous fraud at the center of the War Party’s propaganda campaign.
The African country Bush spoke of is Niger, where much of the world’s uranium is mined under the watchful eye of a French consortium and where it would be extremely difficult, if not close to impossible, for the Iraqis to walk off with the tons of uranium required to produce weapons-grade materials. This accountability issue was no doubt a major reason for the skepticism the Niger uranium story engendered in Ambassador Wilson, who was sent to Niger by the CIA to check out the facts and came back with a negative report. Wilson was therefore shocked to hear the president reiterate a claim that had been previously and definitively debunked, and went public with his mission and its results but not before the source of that claim had been brutally and publicly refuted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In early October 2002, Italian journalist Elisabetta Burba, a writer for Italy’s Panorama magazine, delivered some documents to the U.S. embassy in Rome: a cache of letters and other papers purporting to be correspondence between officials of the Niger government and the Iraqis relating to the acquisition of uranium “yellowcake.” The documents soon found their way to Washington, D.C., where key administration officials were quick to incorporate them into their “talking points” for war with Iraq and into Bush’s Jan. 28, 2003 speech.
When the IAEA asked to see evidence of the administration’s contentions, they were put off, until finally the Niger uranium documents were handed over. It took IAEA scientists just a few hours to demonstrate that the documents were not only forgeries, but were particularly crude ones at that an amateur could have debunked them using Google. As the Washington Post reported, one administration official’s response was “We fell for it.“
And how! but that wasn’t the end of it, by any means. After all, someone had deliberately set up the American government with false information and badly embarrassed George W. Bush, who had taken the Niger uranium canard and run with it in a very public way. An investigation was launched just as Robert Novak’s column outing Plame appeared mid-July 2003. Whoever leaked Plame’s name and CIA affiliation was trying to scare off any further inquiries into the whole Niger uranium funny business, underscoring the key question in all this: who was behind the Niger uranium forgeries?
Even as the FBI was following the trail of the forgers, the Italians were looking into the matter from their end. A parliamentary committee was charged with investigating, and they issued a heavily redacted report: now, I am told by a former CIA operations officer, the report has aroused some interest on this side of the Atlantic. According to a source in the Italian embassy, Patrick J. “Bulldog” Fitzgerald asked for and “has finally been given a full copy of the Italian parliamentary oversight report on the forged Niger uranium document,” the former CIA officer tells me:
“Previous versions of the report were redacted and had all the names removed, though it was possible to guess who was involved. This version names Michael Ledeen as the conduit for the report and indicates that former CIA officers Duane Clarridge and Alan Wolf were the principal forgers. All three had business interests with Chalabi.”
Alan Wolf died about a year and a half ago of cancer. He served as chief of the CIA’s Near East Division as well as the European Division, and was also CIA chief of station in Rome after Clarridge. According to my source, “he and Clarridge and Ledeen were all very close and also close to Chalabi.” The former CIA officer says Wolf “was Clarridge’s Agency godfather. Significantly, both Clarridge and Wolf also spent considerable time in the Africa division, so they both had the Africa and Rome connection and both were close to Ledeen, closing the loop.”
A veteran of the Iran-Contra scandal, Ledeen played an important role in the “arms for hostages” scheme by setting up meetings between the American government and the Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar. Not all that unexpected coming from a self-proclaimed advocate of Machiavelli’s amoralism. Today, Ledeen is among the most visible and radical neoconservative ideologues whose passion for a campaign of serial “regime-change” in the Middle East is undiminished by the Iraqi debacle. Just as the Roman senator Cato the Elder finished his perorations with the command “Carthage must be destroyed,” so Michael “Creative Destruction” Ledeen closes his hopped-up warmongering essays with “Faster, please!,” an exhortation presumably addressed to his confreres in the Bush administration.
Ledeen has kept the neocon faith and the same friends for all these years. He’s still buddies with Ghorbanifar. In December 2001, he had a meeting in Rome with Ghorbanifar in the company of the Pentagon’s top Iran specialist, Larry Franklin, and Harold Rhode, assigned to the Office of Net Assessment, a Pentagon think tank. Also at the Rome conclave: a number of Ghorbanifar’s Iranian friends, including a former senior official of the Revolutionary Guard. Rounding out the distinguished guest list, we have the Italian delegation, consisting of SISMI head honcho Nicolo Pollari, the head of Italy’s military intelligence agency, and Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino, a neocon favorite. Once again, Ledeen plays the middleman but what kind of a deal was he trying to negotiate?
Franklin, we now know, was busy spying for Israel during this period, handing over classified information to AIPAC officials Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman: he has been indicted and has turned state’s evidence: the trial is set to begin in January. To this day, Franklin maintains he was just trying to get AIPAC’s assistance in moving a more pro-Israel agenda in policymaking circles.
Rhode is an ideologue of a similar coloration. Together with Franklin, Rhode helped set up the Defense Department’s Office of Special Plans, which stove-piped phony “intelligence” provided by Ahmed Chalabi‘s Iraqi National Congress and hyped the case for war. Rhode and Franklin worked hand in hand with Chalabi, and, as United Press International intelligence correspondent Richard Sale reports, they had certain interests in common:
“According to one former senior U.S. intelligence official who maintained excellent contacts with serving U.S. intelligence officials in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, ‘Rhode practically lived out of (Ahmed) Chalabi’s office.’ This same source quoted the intelligence official with the CPA as saying, ‘Rhode was observed by CIA operatives as being constantly on his cell phone to Israel,’ and that the information that the intelligence officials overheard him passing to Israel was ‘mind-boggling,’ this source said. It dealt with U.S. plans, military deployments, political projects, discussion of Iraq assets, and a host of other sensitive topics, the former senior U.S. intelligence official said.”
No wonder my source tells me that “Fitzgerald asked the Italians if he could share the report with Paul McNulty,” the prosecutor in the AIPAC case. There are plenty of links between the two investigations: they are, in a sense, the same investigation, since many of the same people are involved. McNulty is delving into a single aspect of the cabal’s activities, while Fitzgerald seems to have broadened his probe to include not only the outing of Plame, but also the origin of the Niger uranium forgeries and other instances of classified information leakage via the vice president’s office.
I am hardly the first to implicate Ledeen in connection with the Niger uranium forgeries. Former CIA counterterrorism officials Vince Cannistraro and Larry Johnson have pointed the finger in Ledeen’s direction. As the latter put it:
“Italy’s SISME [sic] also reportedly had a hand in producing the forged documents delivered to the U.S. embassy in Rome in early October 2003 [sic: should be 2002 Ed.] that purported to show a deal with Iraq to buy uranium. Many in the intelligence community are convinced that a prominent neocon with long-standing ties to SISME played a role in the forgery. The truth of that proposition remains to be proven. This much is certain, either SISME or someone with ties to SISME, helped forge and circulate those documents which some tried to use to bolster the case to go to war with Iraq.”
Cannistraro, asked by an interviewer if Ledeen was involved with the forgers, said “you’d be very close.”
The cast of characters involved in Niger-gate is like old home week in the government scandal sweepstakes. Aside from Ledeen, whose storied (or is that checkered?) history is well-known, we have Clarridge, first head of the Counterterrorism Center set up by Bill Casey under Reagan, who deserves a column all by himself. His close relationship with Ledeen dates from his time as chief of station in Rome in the late 1970s. Clarridge was indicted for lying to prosecutors during the Iran-Contra imbroglio, but given a presidential pardon. His book, A Spy for All Seasons, was the first real “tell-all” book about the Agency. During the Reagan administration, he purportedly was the intellectual author of the notorious “Psychological Operations in Guerilla Warfare,” a CIA how-to manual instructing the Nicaraguan contras in the fine art of terrorism, including bombings, assassinations, and violence directed at noncombatants. It was Clarridge who came up with the bright idea of mining Nicaragua’s harbors, which led to the unprecedented condemnation of the U.S. government’s actions in the World Court. He was reportedly slated to become a top counterterrorism official in the National Security Council, but was nixed. He now lives in San Diego, Calif., and pursues a number of business and ideological interests, including Dax Resources Corp., which runs a 24-hour Global Response Center and advertises its facility at kidnap prevention and counterterrorism, noting that “we can also undertake special operations, including technical countermeasures.”
The Niger uranium forgeries surely qualify as “technical countermeasures,” popping up as they did just as the administration‘s assertions about Iraq’s alleged nuclear ambitions and capability were being questioned. As Seymour Hersh pointed out, CIA director George Tenet appeared at a crucial congressional briefing, on the eve of the vote on authorizing the war, and
“Declared, as he had done before, that a shipment of high-strength aluminum tubes that was intercepted on its way to Iraq had been meant for the construction of centrifuges that could be used to produce enriched uranium. The suitability of the tubes for that purpose had been disputed, but this time the argument that Iraq had a nuclear program under way was buttressed by a new and striking fact: the CIA had recently received intelligence showing that, between 1999 and 2001, Iraq had attempted to buy five hundred tons of uranium oxide from Niger, one of the world’s largest producers.”
The story of how the Niger uranium forgeries got past all the safeguards, how the actual documents were never seen by the CIA until after the president’s 2003 speech, and who was pushing to include a reference to Saddam’s alleged efforts to procure uranium in “an African nation” as one of the president’s major talking points these are all subjects of interest to a prosecutor attempting to prove charges of conspiracy to lie us into war. There must be a special law that covers government employees, including high officials, who transmit tainted information and poison the well of U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts. I’m sure Fitzgerald will have no trouble finding it.
Fitzgerald’s reported interest in the Italian parliamentary report indicates just how his investigation is broadening. The forgeries, the lies fed to us by Ahmed Chalabi and his fellow “heroes in error,” the leakage of vital U.S. secrets to the Iranians all point to the existence of the conspiracy the prosecutor is tasked with uncovering. In the course of their campaign of deception, the conspirators not only outed a CIA agent who was working in the vital area of nuclear proliferation, they also passed on classified information to foreign nationals, including the Israelis and the Iranians. They committed forgery and God knows what other crimes.
Before Fitzgerald is done, we’ll see the warlords of Washington hauled before a court of the people. We’ll hear the whole sordid story of how a band of exiles, at least two foreign intelligence agencies, and a cabal of neoconservatives inside the Pentagon and the vice president’s office bamboozled Congress and the American people into going to war. As the indictments come down, so will the elaborate narrative so carefully constructed by the War Party in the run-up to war be exposed as a tissue of fabrication, forgery, and fraud.