On January 28, 2003, George W. Bush delivered his State of the Union address, wherein he uttered 16 fateful words: "The British government," he averred, "has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Fateful, because this assertion turned out to have been based not on mistaken intelligence, or wrongly interpreted data, but on an outright fabrication: the now-infamous Niger uranium forgeries. The British dodge, as Josh Marshall has pointed out, leads us in circles, and was only added later, to answer objections from the CIA.
On March 7, the International Atomic Energy Agency, having asked for the evidence supposedly supporting Bush’s statement, declared that the documents provided to them including correspondence between officials of the African nation of Niger and Saddam’s minions were bogus, badly done forgeries that required only a few hours of Googling to expose as fakes. Yet, somehow they had been incorporated into the U.S. intelligence stream and piped, it seems, directly to the White House.
Someone had double-crossed the president in a spectacular act of betrayal that surely provoked some resentment in the White House. But who were the betrayers? And how, given all the alleged safeguards, did they manage to get this half-baked hodgepodge past the gatekeepers and make the president look like an idiot?
There are many, and not just Democrats, who would claim that the president accomplishes this all by himself on a daily basis but that, logically, would constitute an even greater provocation, and invite immediate and ruthless retaliation. This came, I believe, on Dec. 30, 2003, when Patrick J. Fitzgerald was appointed [.pdf] to investigate the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Fitzgerald’s target: a cabal of administration insiders, including I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president’s chief of staff, who was later indicted.
Plame was targeted because she and her husband were at the center of efforts inside the national security bureaucracy to debunk and expose the bogus "intelligence" being fed to the president, the Congress, and the American people (often via the front page of the New York Times) to justify the invasion and conquest of Iraq. Joseph C. Wilson, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Gabon, and Valerie Plame Wilson had worked as a team to follow up on the claim that Saddam had sought weapons-grade uranium in Niger. Wilson traveled to Niger, at the behest of the CIA, and reported back that there was nothing to the story. Wilson was therefore astonished to listen to the president give credence to these claims in the State of the Union address: Wilson wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times expressing his astonishment and laying out the specific findings of his trip. As Gertrude Stein said of her hometown, "there was no there there."
But there was something there, albeit nothing like the truth. There was, instead, a forgery. Crudely done, yet ultimately successful in that it fooled the White House into including "intelligence" gleaned from it in the most visible presidential forum of the year, when all eyes were on the American commander in chief as he threatened war with Iraq.
Who were the forgers and, more importantly, who had facilitated their pipeline to the president’s desk?
The answer to this question has taken investigators to Italy, where the Niger uranium forgeries first turned up. Dropped off at the American embassy in Rome by a journalist for one of former Prime Minister Berlusconi’s magazines, the Niger uranium papers were apparently an amalgam of old intelligence reports, amateur forgery exercises, and large dollops of political fantasy. Peddled by a former intelligence officer, one Rocco Martino, who served as the conduit or "cutout" i.e., the fall guy the true origins of the papers have remained mysterious, although I have floated a theory of my own. (See also here, here, here, and here.)
Now that theory has been bolstered by a new development in the Italian investigation the arrest of five (and counting) top officials of the Italian military intelligence service, SISMI, for maintaining a domestic spying unit that bugged phones, pushed disinformation, and sought to destroy Berlusconi’s political enemies.
The spy unit made payments to an Italian journalist, one Renato Farina, whose oeuvre includes articles blaming the Niger uranium forgeries on the French. The story being pushed was that Jacques Chirac, eager to embarrass the Americans, planted these bogus documents and set up the White House for a fall. However, as the Italian media smelled the scent of blood and the Niger uranium mystery began to unravel, this hokum also fell apart. Instead, as reported by the Italian daily La Repubblica, the evidence pointed to a joint Italian-American cabal of SISMI operatives and U.S.-based neoconservatives based in and around the Pentagon and the office of the vice president.
Key figures in what we might call the Roman wing of this operation have now been arrested in connection with the illegal CIA-SISMI abduction of Abu Omar, including SISMI’s number two, Marco Mancini. According to Italian news reports, the charge is not limited to the Abu Omar caper, but also involves SISMI running an elaborate propaganda and spying outfit that eavesdropped on journalists and disseminated "dossiers" to favored journalists. Speaking of which, the office of Farina was also searched and his computer seized. Laura Rozen, who has been on top of this story from the beginning, underscores the significance of all this and makes an important point:
"Amazing to see the actual alleged extent of the Sismi disinformation and interception operation, details which are now apparently in the hands of Milan prosecutors. Amazing and distracting as those details are, the larger potential implication of this arrangement is important and shouldn’t be lost: the official cover story for the Italian government one put forward by Sismi, the Berlusconi government and seemingly accepted by the Italian parliamentary services oversight committee that the Niger forgeries middleman, ex Sismi agent Rocco Martino, was under the control and run by the French at the time of the forgeries caper, was first promoted by a ‘journalist’ Renato Farina who the Milan magistrates now have wiretap evidence agreed to help Sismi put out disinformation on the Abu Omar case. The extent of Farina’s alleged disinformation operations for Sismi is a matter now under investigation."
Scooter Libby and his co-conspirators were, in Fitzgerald’s famous analogy, diligently "throwing sand" in the faces of investigators on this side of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, on the other shore, SISMI was busy kicking up a veritable sandstorm of distractions and phony cover stories, employing a team of journalists-cum-operatives assiduously working to blame the French, Rocco Martino, the mysterious "La Signora," anyone but the actual authors of the forgery that fooled a president.
This entire network is being uprooted, in the full glare of publicity, and amid signs that the Italian and American investigations into the cabal are beginning to converge. As I wrote in October:
"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.”
The close-mouthed Fitzgerald and the voluble Italians could not be more different in their respective approaches: the former gives the media next to nothing, and the latter are all too forthcoming. The result is that public awareness of the implications is taking much longer to percolate in the U.S., while the real story of how we were lied into war is coming out on the front pages of the Italian media. Sooner or later, however, Americans will learn the full truth about the liars their crimes, their motives, and perhaps even their overseas connections.
The War Party is being slowly backed into a corner, and the Italian imbroglio gives us new hope that the process is quickening. The wheels of justice may be turning with frustrating laziness, but when they finally begin to move my guess is that the culprits in the great Niger Uranium Hoax are going to be crushed beneath their weight in very short order.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
To those who are interested in following my work in other venues: I have a piece in the July 17 issue of The American Conservative, based on the revelations in documents found in Zarqawi’s bombed-out hideaway. I don’t know if they’ll put it online, but if they don’t you can pick up a copy at your local newsstand. I warned you about this: if you haven’t yet subscribed to TAC, you’re missing out.