Monday :: Jan 8, 2007

WMDgate: The Niger Uranium Forgeries and the Question of Motive


by eriposte

UPDATE: Owing to length restrictions, this post is getting randomly truncated by the software. This is out of my control. I have therefore posted a full copy of this post - a mirror post - at this alternative location on The Left Coaster. Please click on this copy if you find the post below to be truncated.


This is my third post on the interesting, worth-reading book Hubris by Michael Isikoff and David Corn (post 1, post 2). This post analyzes the motive(s) behind the creation and dissemination of (a) the forgeries and (b) the information extracted from, or linked to, the forgeries. (Note that all emphasis in this post is mine).

Isikoff and Corn included a footnote in Hubris that pertains to the question of motive:

The existence of the rogue state document [Eriposte note: this is the chimerical "global support" forgery] also undermined the theory - later propounded by some journalists and bloggers - that the Niger papers were forged as part of a covert disinformation campaign designed to encourage Washington to invade Iraq. Proponents of this idea would have to account for why supposedly sophisticated operatives (presumably connected to intelligence agencies) would have concocted such a bizarre and unbelievable companion document. [page 162]

The statement that the 'global support' forgery somehow undermined the disinformation "theory" is unfortunately an erroneous inference on the part of Isikoff and Corn. In this post, I will first explain why and then provide my perspective on the question of motive, something I have long been planning to do.

1. Preface: Why the Hubris inference is incorrect

2. Main "Theories" on Origin and Motive

2.1 Disgruntled CIA operatives as forgers
2.2 American neocons behind the forgeries
2.3 French intelligence behind the forgeries
2.4 Forgeries for money
2.5 SISMI behind the forgeries

3. The Reality: Forgeries Primarily for a Disinformation Campaign

3.1 The Forged Dossier
3.2 The Mainstreaming of the Forged Dossier: Cherry-pick, Alter and Disseminate
3.3 The Bolstering of the Mainstreamed Forged Dossier: No forgery? No problem! Newly Fabricate and Disseminate

4. SISMI and the CIA - Chronology and Context

5. Conclusions

APPENDIX 1: The uranium "accord" - a mistaken claim in Hubris?
APPENDIX 2: A note about source confidentiality


1. Preface: Why the Hubris inference is incorrect

Here's the Hubris footnote again:

The existence of the rogue state document [Eriposte note: this is the chimerical "global support" forgery] also undermined the theory - later propounded by some journalists and bloggers - that the Niger papers were forged as part of a covert disinformation campaign designed to encourage Washington to invade Iraq. Proponents of this idea would have to account for why supposedly sophisticated operatives (presumably connected to intelligence agencies) would have concocted such a bizarre and unbelievable companion document. [page 162]

The authors of Hubris appear to have overlooked the fact that the "global support" document was only the most bizarre of the forgeries. That does not in any way mean that some of the other forgeries in the dossier were even remotely credible even at face value. I've discussed this at length before but the basic point here is that there were other documents in the dossier which were transparently bogus. For example, one of the documents had a sent date of October 10, 2000 but was marked received in Rome on September 28, 2000. Another letter specifically mentioned a uranium agreement dated June 28, 2000 (contradicting the July 2000 dates on other accompanying documents); this letter was, however, dated July 30, 1999. (Clearly, the forgers did not take sides when it came to time travel - both the past and the future were readily accessible).

In other words, if easily detectable fraud is our only criteria for judgement, then multiple documents in the dossier - not just the "global support" forgery - would lead us to erroneously conclude that disinformation to support a war policy could not have been the motive behind these forgeries. In fact, if obvious fakery is our only criteria for judgement, and we leave out everything else we know about this matter, then the only logical explanation for the creation and dissemination of the forgeries would be that it was all just a silly prank. We would even have to entirely dismiss the original explanation of the FBI and the Italian intelligence agency SISMI that the forgeries were created by bad actors just to make a fast buck from the world's leading intelligence agencies. After all, who in their right minds would pay even 1 cent for materials that were so transparently bogus? (Remember, neither Panorama magazine nor the DGSE paid Rocco Martino any money for the forgeries).

At a fundamental level, the Hubris inference on motive is incorrect because the authors fail to account for the fact that the Niger forgeries hoax was not just about the creation of the forgeries. It was primarily about how the forgeries were intended to be used. Put another way, the quality of the original forgeries would be largely irrelevant to bad actors who intended to "mainstream" the contents in a manner that preserved "plausibility", while being able to cover their a** by attributing the "intel" to a documentary source that they would never have to reveal (see Appendix 2 for a discussion on this point). The fact that Rocco Martino may have (inadvertently?) thrown cold water on that game by trying to peddle the original forgeries independently to other agencies is a separate issue that should not be confused with SISMI's intent to "mainstream" the forgeries. Thus, the subsequent creation and dissemination by SISMI of information derived from (and not from) the forgeries - information that was cherry-picked and sometimes altered in order to intentionally create plausible "intel" - is really the key to answering the question of motive.

In a nutshell, the argument that these forgeries were used to support a disinformation campaign (to promote a pro-war policy) is not just based on the fact that they were forgeries or bizarre forgeries. Rather, the argument is primarily based on the fraudulent "intel" that was cooked up using disinformation from the forgeries - disinformation that was cherry-picked and altered to create plausible "intel", with the full knowledge that the ultimate source for the claims (the forged dossier) was transparently false. This was fundamentally no different and in fact worse than what was done by individuals tied to the Iraqi National Congress (INC) who fabricated claims about Iraq's non-existent biological weapons.

A Footnote: In my view, the authors of Hubris should have taken their skepticism all the way to ask additional questions like these:

  • If money was the real motive as SISMI and the FBI asserted, why would "supposedly sophisticated operatives" think they could make any money selling stuff that any recipient (who knew the language) could easily detect as forgeries?
  • If the recipient could easily detect that the materials were bogus, how come SISMI forwarded the claims from the forgeries to MI6 and the CIA (more than once) and vouched for their credibility?
  • Wouldn't the transparently bogus information from the forgeries, once forwarded to the CIA by SISMI in late 2001 and early 2002, have made it apparent to the CIA in a nanosecond that the information was unmitigated and fabricated b***s***?
  • Did Rocco Martino ever try to sell the transparently bogus Niger dossier to the Italians? If not, why not? After all, Martino made attempts to sell the dossier to the U.S., to the U.K., to France and to Germany, not to mention Panorama magazine but there has not been a single news report alleging that he tried to sell them to SISMI. Why would he not try to sell it to SISMI if SISMI had nothing to do with the forgeries?
  • How is it that every major Western intelligence agency knew about the transparently bogus forgeries - but SISMI continues to sort-of claim ignorance about them?

These questions are indirectly answered in this post, but unfortunately, Hubris does not delve deeply into them. While fabrications - on matters less serious than nuclear allegations - by individuals linked to the INC have received deservedly persistent attention in the media and in Congress (e.g., the Phase II Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA's INC sources), the media's and Congress' lack of seriousness or interest in investigating the Italian intelligence agency's substantial role in the pre-war intelligence fraud is certainly both puzzling and disappointing.


2. Main "Theories" On Origin and Motive

Before I discuss the real motives behind the Niger uranium forgeries fraud, let's discuss the main explanations offered to-date vis-a-vis the origin of the forgeries and the associated motive(s).


2.1 Disgruntled CIA operatives as forgers

This theory was first mentioned in Seymour Hersh's famous Oct 2003 New Yorker article:

Another explanation was provided by a former senior C.I.A. officer. He had begun talking to me about the Niger papers in March, when I first wrote about the forgery, and said, “Somebody deliberately let something false get in there.” He became more forthcoming in subsequent months, eventually saying that a small group of disgruntled retired C.I.A. clandestine operators had banded together in the late summer of last year and drafted the fraudulent documents themselves.

“The agency guys were so pissed at Cheney,” the former officer said. “They said, ‘O.K, we’re going to put the bite on these guys.’ ” My source said that he was first told of the fabrication late last year [2002], at one of the many holiday gatherings in the Washington area of past and present C.I.A. officials. “Everyone was bragging about it—‘Here’s what we did. It was cool, cool, cool.’ ” These retirees, he said, had superb contacts among current officers in the agency and were informed in detail of the sismi intelligence.

“They thought that, with this crowd, it was the only way to go—to nail these guys who were not practicing good tradecraft and vetting intelligence,” my source said. “They thought it’d be bought at lower levels—a big bluff.” The thinking, he said, was that the documents would be endorsed by Iraq hawks at the top of the Bush Administration, who would be unable to resist flaunting them at a press conference or an interagency government meeting. They would then look foolish when intelligence officials pointed out that they were obvious fakes. But the tactic backfired, he said, when the papers won widespread acceptance within the Administration. “It got out of control.”

Like all large institutions, C.I.A. headquarters, in Langley, Virginia, is full of water-cooler gossip, and a retired clandestine officer told me this summer that the story about a former operations officer faking the documents is making the rounds. “What’s telling,” he added, “is that the story, whether it’s true or not, is believed”—an extraordinary commentary on the level of mistrust, bitterness, and demoralization within the C.I.A. under the Bush Administration. (William Harlow, the C.I.A. spokesman, said that the agency had no more evidence that former members of the C.I.A. had forged the documents “than we have that they were forged by Mr. Hersh.”)

Based on all the information that has come to light since Hersh published the above article, we can conclude that this theory does not hold any water. We know for a fact that the forgeries led to the SISMI reports and not the other way around. The forgeries existed in Fall 2001 or earlier and the known SISMI reports to the CIA were sent between October 2001 and March 2002. We also know that the forgeries were not a one-to-one match to the SISMI reports. For example, the SISMI report in October 2001 referred to the Nigerien Minister of Foreign Affairs as being Nassirou Sabo, even though the forgery that the particular report was based on had the wrong name Allele Elhadj Habibou. It would make no sense whatsoever for former CIA officials familiar with the SISMI reporting to create a forgery with a name completely different from what was in the SISMI reporting they were informed about.


2.2 American neocons behind the forgeries

Another theory is that the Niger forgeries were essentially the brainchild of far-right American neocon supporters of the Bush administration. Here's a relevant passage from a post by Justin Raimondo at AntiWar.com:

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."
...
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."

Neocons are certainly no strangers to outright fraud, but there is no documentary evidence to-date to support allegations that American neocons friendly to the Bush administration, such as Michael Ledeen, were behind the creation or dissemination of the forgeries. As Craig Unger noted in a Vanity Fair article published in July 2006:

Lang's scenario rings true to Frank Brodhead. "When I read that the Niger break-in took place before Bush took office, I immediately thought back to the Bulgarian Connection," he says. "That job was done during the transition as well. [Michael] Ledeen...saw himself as making a serious contribution to the Cold War through the Bulgarian Connection. Now, it was possible, 20 years later, that he was doing the same to start the war in Iraq."

Brodhead is not alone. Several press outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle, United Press International, and The American Conservative, as well as a chorus of bloggers—Daily Kos, the Left Coaster, and Raw Story among them—have raised the question of whether Ledeen was involved with the Niger documents. But none have found any hard evidence.


2.3 French intelligence behind the forgeries

This is the theory of the no-fact-zone on the Right whose favorite punching bag is France. This has been debunked previously and I've also previously discussed the France/Martino allegations in detail.

The evidence shows that Rocco Martino was working as a paid informant for one of the intelligence agencies in France (although not DGSE) but only as a source for them. He certainly wasn't hired by the French to forge documents or disseminate his materials to other agencies or groups. He was trying to sell the French his dossier and the DGSE in fact quickly rejected them as forgeries, unlike SISMI. As most people know, French intelligence was not the source of the CIA's first three Niger intel reports, SISMI was.

Laura Rozen at War and Piece has written a summary on this:

A few people have sent me the recent Sunday Telegraph story about the Italian Niger docs middle man, Rocco Martino, asking for comment. First off, let me make clear that I am analyzing only already published articles here. Secondly, let me focus for the moment instead on a synopsis of a related story, from the Italian paper, Messaggero, that came out September 18, 2004 "La spia ritratta: innocenti i servizi italiani":

Rocco Martino has been interrogated by the magistrate Franco Ionta, assisted by his attorney Giuseppe Placidi. He says that the interview of the Sunday Times was a misunderstanding. He said that he received the material from the Nigerien diplomatic officials and passed it to the French. He said that he did not realize that the dossier was a recycled one, prepared during the first months of year 2000. Police officials of the DIGOS went to his home in Formello to acquire further documents.

[emphasis added]

There's a lot here, but for the moment, the key line here is that Martino is allegedly telling the Italian magistrate that he received the documents from someone at the Niger embassy in Rome, and then sold them to the French. In fact, the spate of recent articles has all been consistent about the source of where Martino himself got the documents: the Niger embassy in Rome, which is located in an apartment at 10 Via Antonio Baiamonti, near Rome's Piazza Mazzini.

The recent articles, including this Messaggero one, the Sunday Telegraph one, and recent ones in the FT, have been interpreted by some to suggest that somehow the French were responsible for Martino's acquisition of the documents. But if you read carefully, the articles allege that French intelligence was instead Martino's customer -- not the cook. According to these articles, Martino was on their payroll to bring them information. Why would the French buy from Martino what they had produced? They wouldn't. And we already knew that Martino was trying to sell the Niger docs: after all, it's been clear from the very first reports since July 2003 that Martino had also tried to sell the package of forged Niger documents to Italian journalist Elisabetta Burba as well, back in October 2002.

So what's the point? All of these articles focus on who was the customer, but fail to get at, who was the cook? And what was the identity and motivation of the Niger embassy official who allegedly handed off the documents to Martino?

To summarize, the theory that the French were behind the forgeries is complete nonsense.


2.4 Forgeries for money

This is the theory originally propounded by those with the most to lose in a real investigation of the forgeries scam:

SISMI and the Italian parliament, for their part, maintain that [Rocco] Martino cooked up the whole scam to make money. Martino, who by all accounts is as unreliable as they come, claims he was nothing more than a "postman" and didn't know the documents were faked.

As it turns out, this was also the theory adopted by the laughable FBI "investigation" that concluded in late 2005 (and which was subsequently re-opened):

The bureau announced that the documents, purportedly showing attempts by Saddam Hussein's government to purchase yellowcake uranium, were concocted for financial gain rather than to influence U.S. foreign policy.

Further:

The Los Angeles Times reported on December 3, 2005, that the FBI reopened the inquiry into "how the Bush administration came to rely on forged documents linking Iraq to nuclear weapons materials as part of its justification for the invasion." According to the Times, "a senior FBI official said the bureau's initial investigation found no evidence of foreign government involvement in the forgeries, but the FBI did not interview Martino, a central figure in a parallel drama unfolding in Rome."

The above (bolded) quotes were horribly misleading even back then, considering that these assertions addressed just a small part of the yellowcake scam (i.e., Rocco Martino's personal motivations). However, the uncritical dissemination of SISMI's and the FBI's statements by many in the press allowed SISMI, the then right-wing Italian Government and the Bush White House to escape closer scrutiny. To make matters worse, the spin from SISMI and the FBI happens to be the most prominent "explanation" reported by the media to-date and even influential ex-CIA officials who have criticized the Bush administration's misrepresentations of intelligence have, regrettably, fallen for it. For example, in his interesting book "On The Brink" (co-written with Elaine Monaghan, see SusanG's review at DailyKos and former CIA official Larry Johnson's comments on the book at No Quarter), Tyler Drumheller, the former CIA Europe chief says:

We looked into the forged documents, but we were never really able to figure out exactly what was behind them [...] With my three decades of experience in this business, I believe the explanation is simpler and far less dramatic than people think: someone at the Niger embassy in Rome made up the documents and passed them on through contacts in Italy in an effort to make some money from a variety of intelligence services. In confirmation of the law of unintended consequences, the whole matter ended up confusing diplomatic correspondence and was eventually repeated in the British dossier mentioned in Bush's speech, presumably after being handed to my counterparts in London. [page 123]

[NOTE: With due respect to Mr. Drumheller, I would ask that he not rest his inference on his beliefs but be open to considering what the facts actually say, especially since On The Brink was written to shine a light on the facts. If Mr. Drumheller were to ever read this post, I would urge him to read through the end and make up his mind after considering all of the key facts - facts that are yet unreported in the American mainstream media and that the CIA may or may not have communicated to him when he was working for them.]

Why is the financial gain theory misleading? For one, this theory has always been extraordinarily weak when applied with a broad stroke, as I explained in section 1. There were multiple documents in the dossier - not just the "global support" forgery - that were transparently bogus and easily detectable as forgeries. Hence, if we left out everything else we know about this matter, we would be forced to entirely dismiss the financial-gain theory. After all, who in their right minds would pay even 1 cent for materials that were so transparently bogus - hence, who in their right mind would create such poor documents with the expectation of getting paid for them? (Remember, neither Panorama magazine nor the DGSE paid Rocco Martino any money for the forgeries).

Yet, we do know that Rocco Martino expected to make some money from the dossier. The fact that Martino, whose income as an informant depended on his credibility, thought that the dossier he had was worth tens of thousands of dollars, and that the world's best intelligence experts would have little cause for concern with the credibility of the dossier (so much so that he went to one agency after another to sell the dossier) is pretty revealing. The fact that he seemed surprised that the dossier was being labeled a piece of junk and not worth anything suggests that Martino either did not know how obviously bogus the dossier was or was aware that it's provenance might be questionable but was somehow assured by his partners in SISMI that the information in it was ultimately credible. It is hard for me say what was really the case but everything else we know about this case now strongly points towards the latter explanation. That's the one which best explains the limited financial motive in this affair (in the case of Martino and La Signora, whom Martino worked with) while allowing for the primary motive discussed in the rest of this post. This is also consistent with the fact that SISMI could then use the dossier as a "source" with the expectation that they would themselves never have to divulge the fraudulent source documents (see Appendix 2).

Bottom line: The FBI's and SISMI's financial-gain theory was simply whitewashed spin. Although financial gain was part of the story it was a very small part. The real story is decidedly far less pleasant, as I discuss in section 2.5 and section 3.


2.5 SISMI behind the forgeries

There is strong evidence that SISMI was behind the forgeries, although this does not mean that non-SISMI entities were not part of the forgery cabal.

Investigative reporter Laura Rozen discussed the SISMI role in an article in The American Prospect in March 2006 and even offered a compelling explanation for why the forgeries may have originally been conceived (regardless of what they ended up being used for subsequently):

Yet many of the relevant facts were revealed last October by Rome’s independent, left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper. Behind the scheme were three individuals connected with SISMI -- Rocco Martino, a former Italian secret agent turned freelance intelligence peddler; Colonel Antonio Nucera, a recently retired deputy chief of SISMI’s counter-proliferation division; and a woman code-named “La Signora,” a longtime SISMI asset working as a secretary at the Niger embassy in Rome -- who came together sometime in 1999 or 2000. Their collaboration resulted in the distribution of forged documents to foreign intelligence services and to at least one reporter at a Berlusconi-owned magazine.
...
The Prospect has independently confirmed that Martino identified two other SISMI agents, along with Nucera, who were involved in the forgery scheme from the beginning. According to a source who checked out the names Martino provided with SISMI contacts, the second agent “was a major in the [Italian] Army, and he is now a SISMI branch chief,” and the third was brought to SISMI from the Guardia di Finanzia [fiscal police] by SISMI director Nicolo Pollari. “Because of this, he can do no wrong,” this source said. Nucera and a second SISMI official involved in the Niger scheme work in SISMI’s eighth directorate on weapons-of-mass-destruction counterintelligence, while the third SISMI official works in the agency’s first directorate.

Why did the three intelligence agents, led by Nucera, introduce the intelligence peddler Martino to their Niger informant? In 2003, as Joshua Marshall has noted, the inspectors general of the CIA and the State Department suggested a theory in their Joint Report on the Alleged Iraqi Attempts to Procure Uranium from Niger. According to that report, SISMI officers allegedly approached the CIA Rome station chief to propose a counterintelligence operation against the suspected chief of Iraqi intelligence in Rome. They apparently meant to sting him with forgeries suggesting uranium traffic.

A retired senior U.S. intelligence official told the Prospect he was briefed on SISMI’s suggested sting at the time: “They were trying to get him [the suspected Iraqi spy] recalled to Iraq.” The CIA declined to be involved.
...
Both of his SISMI co-conspirators, whose names are being withheld by the Prospect out of respect for their undercover status, still work there.

It is their bosses who must know the answer to the most important remaining question: If SISMI created the forgeries for a counterintelligence mission, why did the agency later seek to promote the information in those same forgeries in Washington on at least two occasions?

Laura also mentioned the following on her blog in October 2005:

You have an ex-Sismi agent (Rocco Martino), a current Sismi vice captain (Antonio Nucera), and a long-time Sismi mole in the Niger embassy Rome involved in assembling the Niger forgeries. You have a former Sismi agent (Rocco Martino) trying to selling them, to the French, to the British, to an Italian journalist. Sismi itself issued reports to the CIA and MI6 with the information on Iraq supposedly contracting to purchase 500 tons of yellowcake from Niger that turned up in the forgeries. You have the head of Sismi Nicolo Pollari admitting to Repubblica in an interview published Monday that Sismi knew what Rocco Martino was up to in 2001 and offering to show them a photo of Martino passing the dossier to British intelligence. I am not sure how the Berlusconi government can plausibly deny that Sismi didn't have a direct role in the Niger yellowcake claims to western intelligence, and a very cozily indirect role to the forgeries themselves. Unless it's the kind of denial that Rove and Libby meant when they told the grand jury that they hadn't told journalists about Wilson's wife or her place of employment.

To summarize, SISMI had a role in the creation of the forgeries and may have originally had a different motive for encouraging their creation (a motive that clearly did not require significant due diligence in their creation, as I discussed in Sec. 1 and Appendix 2). Regardless, SISMI's motives obviously changed subsequently (see Sec. 3).


3. The Reality: Forgeries Primarily for a Disinformation Campaign

Before we get into the question of motive, let me say one thing for emphasis. It is very easy to dismiss something as a "conspiracy theory". However, if someone is serious about understanding an issue, it is important that they don't pre-emptively dismiss something as a "conspiracy theory" without first understanding all the facts and whether or not the "theory" is in fact a compelling and logical explanation of the known facts. In my entire coverage of the pre-war intelligence fraud at The Left Coaster, I have tried to stick to the facts and to provide explanations that are most consistent with the facts. Continuing that approach in the context of this post requires that we separate out:

  • The creation of the forgeries by a SISMI-affiliated cabal, and their direct dissemination by Rocco Martino
  • The "mainstreaming" of the forgeries - namely, the dissemination by SISMI of cherry-picked (and sometimes suitably altered) disinformation from the forged dossier to enhance the plausibility of the allegations in the dossier (while hiding their provenance)
  • The bolstering of the "mainstreamed" forgeries - namely, the dissemination of disinformation not contained in the forged dossier but fabricated to enhance the 'credibility' of the cherry-picked and altered disinformation from the dossier

3.1 The Forged Dossier

I have already addressed this in sections 2.4 and 2.5 above - so I won't repeat all the details here. There is likely more than one reason why the bogus documents in the Niger dossier were forged.

(a) It is possible that the forgeries may have been originally conceived as part of a "counterintelligence operation against the suspected chief of Iraqi intelligence in Rome". However, the possibility that a disinformation campaign to aid the Bush administration's aggressive pro-war stance vis-a-vis Iraq was an additional or subsequent motive for the creation of the forgeries cannot be ruled out and is realistic in view of the evidence discussed in Sec. 3.2 and 3.3. Contrary to the inference of Isikoff and Corn in Hubris, the fact that the original forgeries were crude and transparently bogus do not rule out this motive any more than they rule out a financial motive (see Sec. 1).

(b) At least two of the individuals involved in the forgery cabal had a financial motive (SISMI-mole Laura Montini aka La Signora and former SISMI agent Rocco Martino). However, everything else we know about this case now strongly points towards the explanation that even if Martino was aware that the dossier's provenance might be questionable he was probably assured by his partners in SISMI that the information in it was ultimately credible - an assurance he would have needed, in order to be convinced that there was some financial gain possible in his role as a paid informant (where credibility is key). The motive of SISMI was clearly different.


3.2 The Mainstreaming of the Forged Dossier: Cherry-pick, Alter and Disseminate

As I have explained in previous sections, the Niger hoax was not just about the creation of the forgeries. It was primarily about how the forgeries were intended to be used. To understand this, it's worth recalling some well-known facts:

In an investigative series in 2005, I demonstrated that the forgeries were "mainstreamed" by SISMI by cherry-picking statements from the forged documents and transmitting them to Western intelligence agencies while withholding some of the information that would have made it obvious that the transmitted allegations were completely bogus. For example, SISMI's 10/15/01 report to the CIA was based on forged Niger Doc 4. Per the Phase I SSCI report, there is no indication that the CIA was sent the "received date" marked on the forgery - 9/28/00, which was ~2 weeks prior to the sent date (10/10/2000). If this information had been transmitted to the CIA along with the allegations in that document, it would have immediately revealed that the "intel" was fake (more details on this here).

That's not all. As I also demonstrated, a name appearing on the same forgery was altered before the SISMI transmission to the CIA because the name on the forgery was so obviously wrong that it would have made it immediately clear to the recipient of the transmission - the CIA - that the allegations were fabricated. Specifically, forged Niger Doc 4 which SISMI's 10/15/01 report to the CIA was based on, was a letter allegedly signed by Nigerien Foreign Minister Allele Elhadj Habibou. However, per the Phase I SSCI report, the 10/15/01 report actually claimed that it was signed by Nassirou Sabo. As it turns out Nassirou Sabo would have been the correct signatory if the letter had been real (based on its October 2000 date) since Habibou was not Foreign Minister of Niger at that time. [Note: My finding was subsequently picked up and confirmed by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica].

What this indicates is that there were individuals within SISMI who knew that the source of their "intel" (the forged dossier) was completely bogus. Despite that knowledge, they not only decided to use the disinformation, they actively cherry-picked or altered the information before transmitting the allegations to the U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies, in order to make the information seem plausible. This reveals that their motive was clearly to support an aggressive pro-war U.S. stance vis-a-vis Iraq.

La Repubblica journalists Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D'Avanzo have written about this at some length. For example, here is an approximate English translated portion of a La Repubblica article:

The CIA analysts thought the first report ‘very limited’ and ‘without the necessary details.’ INR analysts in the Department of State assessed the information as ‘highly suspect.’The immediate impact on the American Intelligence community wasn’t very gratifying for Pollari … Gianni Castellaneta advised him to look in ‘other directions’ too, while the minister of Defence, Antonio Martino invited him to meet ‘an old friend of Italy’s.’ The American friend was Michael Ledeen, an old fox in the ‘parallel’ intelligence community in the US, who had been declared an undesirable person in our country [Italy] in the 1980’s [editorial note – I understand that this claim was contested when it was made by Sidney Blumenthal]. Ledeen was at Rome on behalf of the Office of Special Plans, created at the Pentagon by Paul Wolfowiz to gather intelligence that would support military intervention in Iraq. A source at Forte Braschi told La Repubblica : “Pollari got a frosty reception from the CIA’s station head in Rome, Jeff Castelli, for this information on uranium. Castelli apparently let the matter drop [lascia cadere la storia]. Pollari got the hint and talked about it with Michael Ledeen.’ We don’t know what Michael Ledeen did in Washington. But at the beginning of 2002, Paul Wolfowitz convinced Dick Cheney that the uranium trail intercepted by the Italians had to be explored top to bottom. The vice-president, as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence tells it, once again asked the CIA ‘very decisively’ to find out more about the ‘possible acquisition of Nigerien uranium.’

In other words, the CIA's counterparts at SISMI (including Nicolo Pollari) felt that they had to do a lot more to convince the CIA that the Iraq-Niger uranium claims were credible, so that the White House could make a stronger nuclear case against Saddam Hussein - a case they were so desperate to make that the White House kept introducing the uranium claim in speech drafts and documents despite repeated CIA pushback.

In fact, there is also some limited information indicating that there were concerns even within SISMI in Fall 2001 about the credibility of the Niger uranium allegations. In his book, "A Pretext for War", James Bamford says:

In the fall of 2001, as George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair began working together to build a coalition of support for a war in Iraq, a shadowy meeting took place amid the noisy espresso bars and busy trattorias in central Rome. A few days earlier, a mysterious call had been received at Italy's Military Intelligence and Security Service, the SISMI. Someone was offering to sell information on Iraq's efforts to regenerate its nuclear weapons program through the purchase of tons of uranium from Niger, a small West African country known for its poverty and expensive rocks. [pages 298-299]
...
In any case, the SISMI passed on details of the supposed Iraq-Niger deal to the Executive Committee of the Intelligence and Security Services (CESIS), which in turn passed it on to the Farnesina, the Italian Foreign Ministry, and to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at his office in Rome's Palazzo Chigi. Only the Farnesina raised "strong objections" and "reservations" about the report - primarily from the African Countries Directorate. They were greatly concerned about the reliability of the information.

Nevertheless, the SISMI quickly got in touch with their British MI-6 liaison and, following a number of meetings in Rome and London, passed on a summary of the information, indicating that the source was "reliable"... [pages 303-304]

[Eriposte note: de Gondi at European Tribune tells me in an email that Nicolo Pollari was undersecretary of the CESIS right before he took over as chief of SISMI in October 2001.]

It gets worse. In an attempt to "validate" the "credibility" of the mainstreamed "intel", the bad actors in SISMI went further.


3.3 The Bolstering of the Mainstreamed Forged Dossier: No forgery? No problem! Newly Fabricate and Disseminate

One not-so-widely known aspect of the Niger uranium hoax is that the fake Iraq-Niger uranium "accord" itself was NOT part of the forged dossier peddled by Rocco Martino (see Appendix 1 for a discussion of Hubris' mention of the accord). When Rocco Martino shared the forged Niger dossier with Elisabetta Burba of Panorama magazine, there was no uranium sale "accord" among the numerous fake letters, memos and documents that he gave Burba (there was only an alleged "cover page" for the "accord"). Incredulous, you ask - how could it be that there exists an entire dossier with allegations about a uranium sale accord, but no actual accord in that dossier, describing the terms of the sale?

Indeed, the accord has never surfaced to date despite it being a key ingredient in this whole fraud. Isn't that rather strange? The forged Niger documents are all over the internet - but the fake uranium sale "accord" is not. Why is that exactly? The explanation is simple enough. Making the bogus uranium sale "accord" public will raise highly unpleasant questions about who forged the uranium sale "accord" and why, since all the evidence to date indicates that it was not part of the forged Niger dossier peddled by Rocco Martino.

I discovered the significance of the "missing" accord via another investigation at The Left Coaster. In March 2006, I showed that a careful reading of a terse footnote in the Robb-Silberman report leads us to conclude that the "accord" itself was likely fabricated subsequently by SISMI. I confirmed this in a subsequent post in June 2006 based on information received from the IAEA through British journalist Solomon Hughes (who writes for the British magazine Private Eye).

Let me step back and explain the significance of all this.

The CIA actually had two documentary sources of fabricated Niger uranium information, as CIA DO revealed in a footnote in the Robb-Silberman report:

  • The well-known Niger dossier peddled by Rocco Martino
  • A separate documentary source that closely matched what was in the Niger dossier

The evidence I published in March/June 2006 indicates that the fake Iraq-Niger uranium "accord" was the separate documentary source and that it was not part of the Martino dossier. Put simply, what this means is that one or more individuals within SISMI must have fabricated the "accord".

Consistent with SISMI's actions described in Sec. 3.2, the motive for the fabrication of the "accord" (or the "verbatim text" of the "accord") was clearly to make the CIA believe that the "intel" sent to the CIA by SISMI prior to Feb 2002 - on the existence of an alleged Iraq-Niger uranium "accord" - was credible. What better evidence for the existence of an "accord" than the "verbatim text" of the accord" itself? Since SISMI had sent reports to the CIA in late 2001 about alleged letters mentioning a uranium sale "accord", it would have been natural for the CIA to ask SISMI about whether SISMI had access to the "accord" itself. Since Martino's dossier (that was shared with Elisabetta Burba) did not have an "accord" forgery, someone obviously thought it would be appropriate to simply fabricate the "accord" ("verbatim text") to satisfy the CIA's concerns.

It is worth recalling the timing of this as well. As Emptywheel observed:

So where did the claim there was an accord come from? Well, SISMI cabled the CIA in February 2002 describing "verbatim" the terms of the deal. Does February 2002 ring a bell? Well, it should. This cable was the piece of intelligence, you see, that so attracted Dick Cheney's attention, that caused him to ratchet up the harassment of intelligence personnel to go find him some corroborating information. This was the piece of intelligence that caused the CIA to send Joe Wilson to Niger to check into the accord. This was the piece of intelligence that lies at the core of debates about gaming intelligence to bring us to war.

I discuss the timing aspect in more detail in section 4, but suffice it to say that the motive behind the fabrication of the "verbatim text" of the "accord" is obvious - provide disinformation to support the Bush White House's mounting pro-war PR campaign against Saddam Hussein.


4. SISMI and the CIA - Chronology and Context

As I mentioned in the preface to this post (Sec. 1), the Niger uranium hoax was a matter arguably more serious than, say, the hoax regarding Iraq's alleged biological weapons. The Bush administration repeatedly used the nuclear card to frighten the country to support their pre-planned Iraq invasion. On the one hand, individuals linked to the Iraqi National Congress (INC) who wilfully defrauded the United States with false claims about Iraq's WMDs or WMD programs have deservedly received some persistent attention in the media and in Congress (e.g., the Phase II SSCI report on the CIA's INC-linked sources). Yet, the media's and Congress' lack of seriousness and/or interest in thoroughly investigating the Italian intelligence agency's (SISMI's) substantial and egregious role in the pre-war intelligence fraud on the nuclear front is both puzzling and disappointing.

In section 3, I laid out the real motives that drove the forgeries, fabrications and transmission of information originating from the forgeries. I also summarized SISMI's critical role in the whole operation during the late 2001-early 2002 time period. In this section, I'd like to partly expand the timeframe and present a chronological summary of key events (based in large part on the Phase I SSCI report and information published since then) so that readers have a better perspective on the significance of SISMI's actions in relation to the uranium from Africa hoax. (Note that page numbers in the table below are references to page numbers in the SSCI Phase I report).

Table 1: SISMI and the Uranium from Africa scandal - Key Events and What We Know To-date
Date
CIA
SISMI
Context
Summer 2001

CIA contacts France's DGSE about uranium rumors re: Iraq; DGSE responds that the rumors are not credible

-
CIA satisfied that rumors of Iraq seeking uranium in Africa are not credible
Fall 2001 [possibly Oct 2001]
Rocco Martino tries to peddle Niger forgeries to CIA in Rome
-
CIA chief allegedly throws Martino out judging his documents to be fake
9/21/01
-
SISMI tells CIA that Iraq may have discussed uranium with Niger
10/15/01
-
Sends CIA first known report transmitting cherry-picked information (from forgeries) with key alteration to make it appear that the "intel" was plausible
SISMI tells CIA that there is credible information that Iraq purchased uranium from Niger
10/18/01
Considers 10/15/01 SISMI report as "possible" but "very limited" and "lacking needed detail"; INR regards report as "highly suspect" [p. 36] - asks SISMI for further "clarification"
-
CIA not convinced by SISMI's first report
10/18/01
-
SISMI chief Nicolo Pollari responds to CIA vouching for the report and for the "credibility of a source named La Signora" (who was part of the Niger forgery cabal)
SISMI vouches for their report and for the "credibility" of their source (La Signora)
10/18/01-2/5/02
U.S. intelligence community still unconvinced and cannot corroborate SISMI's claims
(Pollari and Italy's defense minister Antonio Martino secretly meet in Dec 2001 with US neocons - Michael Ledeen and others. Not clear if Iraq was discussed.)
CIA still not convinced by SISMI's claims. Did they ask SISMI to provide information on the "accord" itself?
2/5/02
-
SISMI transmits "verbatim text" of fake Iraq-Niger uranium "accord" to bolster their allegations; also adds Wissam al-Zahawie into the mix
2/5/02
CIA-WINPAC and DIA "more impressed" with detail and substance of second SISMI report; "report provided much more information than they had seen previously in similar reporting about alleged uranium transactions to other countries"; INR continues to doubt reporting [p. 38]
-
Having seen the "verbatim text" of the "accord", CIA-WINPAC/DIA start to wonder if SISMI claims may be correct; INR still unconvinced
2/12/02
DIA writes up report based on SISMI's "verbatim text" of the "accord" - attracts Dick Cheney's attention and he asks WINPAC for more information. This leads to Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger.
-
SISMI's "verbatim text" of "accord" attracts Dick Cheney's attention and leads to the CIA sending Joseph Wilson to Niger to try and corroborate the allegations from SISMI
2/3/02-3/1/02*
Wilson's trip fails to corroborate claims in SISMI's reports. INR still unconvinced.
-
CIA-WINPAC still has no corroboration that SISMI's reports are credible
3/1/02
INR's 3/1/02 report deems the whole thing "not likely"
-
Questions persist in U.S. intelligence community on the reliability of SISMI's allegations
3/25/02*
-
SISMI sends third report providing additional information on the alleged Niger uranium deal
SISMI continues to send information backing up their original allegations
Summer 2002
CIA contacts France's DGSE for corroboration - DGSE unequivocally declares the uranium allegations to be nonsense; key Aug 2002 CIA NESA Iraq WMD paper drops uranium claim altogether
-
CIA on the whole convinced that uranium claim is not credible
9/9/02
-
SISMI chief Nicolo Pollari has fairly unprecedented secret meeting with Deputy NSA Stephen Haldley (and NSA Condi Rice) - all indications are SISMI likely vouched for their Niger reporting in this meeting and WH pushes CIA to approve uranium claim again and again for Bush speeches starting on Sep 11, 2002
SISMI likely vouches for Niger claims again and WH begins aggressive push to introduce Niger uranium claim in Bush administration speeches using WINPAC stovepipe

NOTE: The color-coding in the last column of the table is intended to show how, at critical moments in this egregious affair, SISMI effectively attested to the credibility of their false reporting (red) - repeatedly trying to convince the unconvinced/skeptical (green) or interested CIA (yellow) that the allegations passed muster. This is another way in which one can arrive at an

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