Sunday, November 06, 2005

Italy: Secret Documents, Public Statements

I had an interesting time in Rome a couple of weeks ago exploring the Italian connection with the Niger-Iraq-Nuclear issue. While I was there I spent the better part of an hour with Romano Prodi, seen by many as the once-and-future prime minister of Italy. He was in a great mood when we met near Piazza Venezia, where anti-Berlusconi protesters were making so much noise that, even in his office, Prodi sometimes had to raise his voice to be heard. The Newsweek interview hits most of the high points. But there was one issue that took a little too much explanation to get into the magazine's Q&A format. I wanted to know what Prodi thought of the series of articles that had just appeared in La Repubblica linking the Italian military intelligence service, SISMI, to bogus reports that Niger had sold processed uranium to Saddam Hussein in 2000. "I don't call this exchange of information," said Prodi. "I call this exchange of disinformation."

I am afraid the background to all this, which is central to the way the U.S. administration made its case for war, is not very well known to American readers. A piece last week by Elaine Sciolino and Elisabetta Provoledo in the New York Times, "Source of Forged Niger-Iraq Documents Identified," condescendingly called the Repubblica version "breathless," probably because it was seized on so avidly by some bloggers in the United States as yet another smoking gun to indict the White House. The Times article repeated the Berlusconi government's official line that it had nothing to do with the faked Niger dossier, no way, no how, and suggests that an FBI investigation -- which we haven't seen -- exonerates the Italian services.

Following are some of my own notes on the
pieces, essentially a rough translation, pointing out some of the holes, but also some of the new leads:

The saga that led to this afternoon’s indictment [of Libby] dates back about six years, according to an exhaustive investigation published this week by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica and co-reported by former Newsweek intern and stringer Carlo Bonini.

In 1999 and 2000, French officials were concerned that uranium was being stolen or smuggled from the mines they run in Niger, and naturally they wanted to know anything they could in order to stop it. A shady Italian figure named Rocco Martino got wind of French concerns and started fishing around for something to sell them.

Martino is “a failed carabinieri,” a 67-year-old former low-level spook who was fired from his job as a captain in Italy’s political-military intelligence service in the 1970s, according to La Repubblica. In 1985 Martino was arrested in Italy for extortion, the paper says. In 1993 he was arrested in Germany with stolen checks, the paper reported, yet he apparently continued some sort of collaboration with Italian military intelligence (SISMI) until the end of 1999.

“He plays a double game,” says the first of the La Repubblica articles published this week. Martino supposedly lives in Luxembourg (3, rue Hoehl, Sandweiler) and receives a subsidy from French intelligence supporting his consultancy called “Security Development Organization Office.” But according to the newspaper, Martino worked for both the French and the Italians, selling French news to Rome and Italian news to Paris. “This is my métier,” Martino told La Repubblica. “I sell information.”

Now, it’s important to remember that the origins of the Niger story date to before 9/11, and even before George W. Bush was elected. In fact, Saddam Hussein’s relations with Niger and his supposed interest in its uranium had been raising alarms in some circles since the 1980s, when he had a very aggressive secret nuclear program. The Italians had played a role trying to stop at least two suspect Iraqi operations back then. They had managed to put their hands on some of Niger’s codes and a telex of Amb. Adamou Chékou informing his foreign ministry in Niamey, Niger, about the mission of Wissam al-Zahawie, the Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See, as “representative of Saddam Hussein.” There was also an operation at Trieste where the Italians managed to seize high-tensile “marangin” steel that was supposed to be used in centrifuges. But that was all very old news – from before Saddam’s defeat in 1991 and the UN inspections that eventually uncovered his entire secret project to build the bomb.

At the end of 1998, as part of a showdown with Saddam, the UN had pulled out all of its inspectors. By 1999 it was generally assumed that Saddam would try to re-start his WMD programs. Indeed, such assumptions would take us to war in 2003. But there was no proof and, as we know now, the assumptions were wrong.

Martino was looking for something that he could sell for a good price in 1999 or 2000, La Repubblica reported. If he could pick up that old Iraq-Niger connection, the French presumably would be interested – and so would lots of other people. So Martino went to an old friend, Antonio Nucera. Like Martino, Nucera was a former carabinieri, but he was still with SISMI, working as head of a unit looking at arms trafficking and counterproliferation issues in Africa and the Middle East. Judicial officials have confirmed to Newsweek that Nucera put Martino in touch with a source inside the Niger embassy in Rome. The head of SISMI, Nicolò Pollari, told La Repubblica, “Nucera wanted to help his friend, so he invites a Source of the Service … to give a hand to Martino.” This source was a sixty-something woman working at the Niger embassy. She also needed money, according to Repubblica. She suggested the diplomat in the embassy who might be most useful to Martino and Nocera: First Counselor Zakaria Yaou Maiga. Apparently he liked the good life. Pollari told Repubblica that “Maiga spends six times what he gains.” Maiga is no longer in Rome.

According to Repubblica, Maiga waited for the embassy to close for New Year’s 2001 and staged a break-in. The next day, another Niger functionary notified the carabinieri that there’d been a theft, but didn’t say that in fact official embassy stationery and official stamps were missing. They would be used to prepare a “letter of intent” between Niger and Iraq “concerning the supplying of uranium initialed the 5th and 6th July 2000 at Niamey,” according to Repubblica. Martino then sold this package to France’s Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE), which quickly concluded they were crap. Among other things, the Niger officials supposedly involved in the transactions were no longer in office.

This was early 2001, and the story might have ended there. Then September 11 happened, and the Bush administration quickly started turning its attention to Iraq and the supposed threat posed by its weapons of mass destruction. In the meantime, faces were changing at SISMI. Pollari took over at the top. Meanwhile, the relatively low-ranking Nucera was retiring, according to Repubblica.

What we do not know, and Rebubblica does not know, is precisely when SISMI, as such, got a hold of the fake Niger dossier. Did Martino pass it along at the same time he sold it to the French? This is not clear, and Bonini could not get any of his sources to give a firm answer. But it did show up in CIA traffic in October 2001.

The central “accusation” of the Repubblica pieces is that SISMI knew the documents were fake, and allowed or even encouraged their dissemination. But this is an inference based on circumstance rather than a point that’s been proved.

Repubblica quotes Rocco Martino saying, “At the end of 2001, SISMI transmitted the yellowcake dossier to the English of MI6. They ‘passed’ it without assessment, saying only that it was received from ‘a reliable source.’” Martino is also quoted saying, “SISMI wanted to disseminate the Niger dossiers to allied intelligence, but, at that time, didn’t want its involvement in the operation to be known.” But Martino was not necessarily in a position to know this. Berlusconi’s spokesmen have since dismissed these accusations by Martino and insisted that “no dossier about uranium, neither directly nor through intermediaries, has been consigned or made to be consigned to anyone.”

According to Repubblica, Greg Thielman at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence remembers seeing a digest of the supposed contents of the dossiers, sent over from Langley, which had gotten it from its field officer in Italy dated Oct. 15, 2001. The officer said he had seen the Italian documentation, which suggested an Iraqi attempt to acquire 500 tons of pure uranium from Niger. Also in the fall of 2001 (although dates unclear) Michael Ledeen showed up in Rome. He apparently was an acquaintance of Defense Minister Antonio Martino (no relation to Rocco), and Minister Martino asked Pollari to see Ledeen “as an old friend of Italy.” Repubblica says Ledeen was in Rome at the behest of the Office for Special Plans, but I’m not sure about this. It also says he’d been deemed undesirable by the Italian government since the 1980s. Don’t know what that was about. Repubblica quotes an unnamed official saying Pollari had gotten a cold reaction to the Niger documents from the CIA station chief in Rome, and decided not to see Ledeen. It’s not clear if Ledeen picked up on the documents while in Rome, whether from SISMI or another source.

By early 2002, Cheney knows the Niger story, at least in part, and wants to know more. In February 2002, Wilson -- who was a former ambassador to Gabon, who was DCM in Baghdad on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, and who is the husband of Valerie Plame -- is being dispatched to check out the story in Niger. He comes back and reports the story doesn't seem credible.

Never mind. By the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the Bush campaign for war against Iraq was moving ahead full steam, especially in the press, and the Italians seem to have been doing everything they could to be helpful. Were they so anxious to please that they just couldn’t bring themselves to mention that the documents were fake? Or did the Bush administration not want to know? These questions are at the core of the Repubblica stories, but they are not answered. Nor is the biggest question: to what extent was disinformation being disseminated by design?

Repubblica focuses attention on a meeting set up on Sept. 9, 2002, by Gianni Castellaneta, who was then the diplomatic adviser to Berlusconi and is now the Italian ambassador to Washington. Pollari was in Washington and paid what is now described by the NSC as a courtesy call of less than 15 minutes on Stephen Hadley, who was then Condi Rice’s number two.

The timing is interesting because the administration’s propaganda offensive was so intense at just that moment. Judy Miller’s infamous story about centrifuge parts (actually, rocket parts) had appeared just the day before with the famous quote from an anonymous official saying we didn’t want to have the next smoking gun be a mushroom cloud. More to the point, the Berlusconi-owned news magazine Panorama was just putting to bed a "scoop" headlined "The War? It's Already Begun," describing the shipment of "half a ton of uranium" to Iraq. The report said "The men of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret police, had acquired it through a Jordanian company in faraway Nigeria [sic], some merchants had smuggled it after getting it out of the nuclear stores of a former Soviet republic. 1,500 kilos of uranium were taken to Amman, and from there, overland, arrived after a seven hour trip at their destination: an installation 20 kilometers north of Baghdad named Al Rashidiya, known for the production and processing of fissile material." Not clear what, if any, sourcing Panorama claimed for that muddled revelation, which seems to have confused Niger and Nigeria.

Pollari, back in Rome from his visit to D.C., testified before the Italian parliament’s intelligence oversight committee. In the first of two appearances, he said “We don’t have documentary proof, but information that a central African country has sold pure uranium to Baghdad.” Thirty days later, Pollari said, “We have the documentary proof of the acquisition of natural uranium in a central African republic on the part of Iraq.”

It’s at about this point that Rocco Martino gets in touch with Elizabetta Burba, a correspondent for Panorama, and tries to sell her the by now rather tired documents. She does some basic due diligence and concludes they’re “bufala.” But her editor, Carlo Rossella, meanwhile passes the documents along to the station chief at the US embassy with the rationale that he’s the best person to verify them. It’s the same crap the COS thought had little merit the year before, but in a slightly different package. Another report makes its way back to Washington, but seems to have gotten, er, misplaced inside the agency. Meanwhile, however, the myth endured – one might say it was cultivated – in other parts of the administration, and in Britain, before becoming 16 words in the president’s State of the Union address in 2003.

A final thought: it’s striking the way the supposed case for Saddam’s nukes kept coming back to two questions: Niger uranium and centrifuge parts – the same two elements that had been floating around since the 1980s. Not sure what that signifies, apart from a conspicuous lack of imagination by the fabricators.


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