Wednesday :: Apr 11, 2007

Uranium from Africa: Some Observations on "The Italian Letter" by Peter Eisner and Knut Royce, Part 1

by eriposte

Peter Eisner of the Washington Post and Knut Royce at the Center for Public Integrity have a book out titled "The Italian Letter: How the Bush Administration Used a Fake Letter to Build the Case for War in Iraq". I just finished reading the book over the weekend and I have to say it is a good book that I would definitely recommend to TLC readers.

Some of you have asked me when I plan to write my own book - well, I don't plan to write a book but Eisner and Royce cover much of the ground I would have covered if I had hypothetically written a book on this subject. Marcy Wheeler's excellent book "Anatomy of Deceit" was, I believe, the first one in the U.S. to bring to light - albeit briefly - some of the egregious shenanigans of the Italian intelligence agency SISMI on the Niger forgeries (P.S. I want to thank Marcy for citing some of my work on this subject, in her book). Eisner and Royce are one of the very few mainstream journalists in the U.S. (other than Laura Rozen) who have brought to light some of those same stories - stories that have been mostly discussed on blogs over the past 2 years. Now, Eisner and Royce don't cite any of my specific work on this subject, but what is really important is that they have publicized some of the key under-reported stories to the broader public through their book. For example, they nail SISMI's role in the forgeries fraud - both in the creation and "mainstreaming" or "laundering" of the forgeries, they discuss the role of WINPAC in perpetrating the fraud working with the White House, they reveal the scapegoating of Rocco Martino and the whitewashed FBI investigation on the forgeries, they discuss how Iraqi ambassador Wissam Al-Zahawie's trip to Niger in Feb 1999 was deliberately conflated with the mid-1999 visit of an Iraqi delegation to Algiers and they expose the smear operation that SISMI mounted against the French Government using paid-for propagandists in the Italian media. So, I very much appreciate their contribution through this book.

There's a lot in the book that I would have liked to comment on, but time constraints restrict my ability to go into a broader discussion of the book. I would urge readers to pick up a copy and read it at their leisure. Having focused on the uranium from Africa scandal for years, there is little in the book that is new to me since I have covered most of the ground that the authors cover. However, there are one or two nuggets of information which appear, at face value, to add important details to this case. I say "at face value" mainly because the details provided by the authors are somewhat murky and I would like to mention the relevant pieces of information in a post or two to try and shed more light on this story.

In this post, I'm going to just focus on a single, key claim that Eisner and Royce advance in the book regarding the "verbatim text" of a forgery. Eisner discussed this claim in a recent article in the Washington Post which Marcy commented on at The Next Hurrah. Eisner also provided some pertinent information in an online chat with Washington Post readers. I'm going to start with his article (note that all emphasis is mine):

In February 2002, the CIA received the verbatim text of one of the documents, filled with errors easily identifiable through a simple Internet search, the interviews show. Many low- and mid-level intelligence officials were already skeptical that Iraq was in pursuit of nuclear weapons.
As a result of the CIA's failure to firmly discredit the document text it received in February 2002, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV was called in to investigate the claim.
...on Feb. 5, 2002, the CIA received more information from Sismi, including the verbatim text of one of the documents. The CIA failed to recognize that it was riddled with errors, including misspellings and the wrong names for key officials.

In his chat, Eisner was asked which document he was referring to:

Minneapolis: Really looking forward to reading the whole book. Two questions: Which document exactly was the one whose "verbatim text" made it into the February 2002 CIA report, and do you provide that verbatim text in the book?...

Peter Eisner: Good question, if a bit detailed. The "verbatim text" was dated Oct. 10, 2000, under the name of the "Conseil Militair Supreme," Supreme Military Council, which didn't exist on that date. The document also makes reference to Niger's "State Court" which also no longer existed -- it had been renamed the "Supreme Court." A number of mistakes in the document also make it clear that no Niger diplomat could have produced the document, forged or not.

You can certainly imagine my surprise at reading the above passage. In part, my surprise was based on what the SSCI report and Robb-Silberman report had said about the document whose "verbatim text" was provided to the CIA in Feb 2002 by SISMI. The SSCI report said:

Reporting on the uranium transaction did not surface again until February 5, 2002 when the CIA's DO issued a second intelligence report [DELETED] which again cited the source as a "[foreign] government service." Although not identified in the report, this source was also from the foreign service. The second report provided more details about the previously reported Iraq-Niger uranium agreement and provided what was said to be "verbatim text" of the accord. [page 37]

Likewise, the Robb-Silberman WMD Commission report said:

The errors in the original documents, which indicated they were forgeries, also occur in the February 2002 report that provided a "verbatim" text of the agreement, indicating that the original reporting was based on the forged documents.

In other words, both the SSCI report and the Robb-Silberman report claimed that the "verbatim text" was of the actual Iraq-Niger uranium "accord" or "agreement" (and as I've mentioned before, the actual "accord" was not part of Rocco Martino's dossier and has never surfaced to date). Yet, Eisner's claim above is that "verbatim text" was provided for one of the documents and that the document was an October 10, 2000 letter - which I call TLC Niger Doc 4.

A second reason why Eisner's claim raised an immediate concern to me is the following. According to the translation of the letter posted at the Cryptome website, there is no mention of "State Court" in this letter. In fact, a key document that mentions a uranium agreement and includes the words "state court" is actually TLC Niger Doc 5 - which was the alleged "annex" to the uranium accord, representing the alleged approval of the accord by Niger's "State Court". (This document, on the other hand, does not include a mention of "Conseil Militair Supreme").

A third, and perhaps even more important reason why I found Eisner's claim to be problematic: criticial and deliberately altered information - from TLC Niger Doc 4 , the October 10, 2000 letter - was sent by SISMI to the CIA on October 15, 2001. Specifically, as the SSCI report noted:

The report also indicated that in October 2000 Nigerien Minister of Foreign Affairs Nassirou Sabo informed one of his ambassadors in Europe that Niger had concluded an accord to provide several tons of uranium to Iraq. [SENTENCE DELETED] [page 36]

In other words, SISMI sent a report to the CIA on October 15, 2001 saying that the October 2000 letter was signed by Nassirou Sabo. As I have pointed out a few times by now (something that Eisner and Royce also point out in their book in page 188), Nassirou Sabo would have been the right signatory based on the date of the letter, but the actual letter - TLC Niger Doc 4 - was "signed" by Allele Elhadj Habibou. In other words, SISMI altered the name before transmitting selective information from the letter to the CIA in October 2001 to try to keep the CIA in the dark on the fraudulent nature of the claims. Hence, if SISMI had, in fact, sent the verbatim text of the October 10, 2000 letter to the CIA in February 2002, it would have included the name Allele Elhadj Habibou as the signatory, rather than Nassirou Sabo, thereby immediately alerting the CIA that SISMI's October 15, 2001 transmission was completely fraudulent. This alone makes it exceedingly unlikely that what SISMI sent the CIA by way of "verbatim text" in February 2002 was the October 10, 2000 letter.

Given Eisner's unlikely claim in his Washington Post chat (probably attributable to confusion on his part - perhaps a conflation of Niger docs 4 and 5?), I thought I would check what he and Royce wrote about the "verbatim text" in their book. Not surprisingly, they say something different in the book:

Burba found a major flaw in the documentation after about fifteen minutes of browsing the Internet. A packet of five pages included a cover sheet from the Niger Foreign Ministry, which referred to a draft agreement between the government of Niger and the government of Iraq, "relating to the furnishing of uranium signed by Niger's foreign minister, Ailele Elhadj, but Elhadj had last served in that post in 1989 and was not employed in that capacity in 2000, when the document was dated. The document had also misspelled Elhadj's first name as Allele (the print was unclear and the capital I could have been a capital L). Meanwhile, a subsequent title page was printed with the word "ACCORD" in capital letters, but the text of the actual agreement was missing. Instead, the packet included two pages, listed as "Annex 1," providing some details of the presumed agreement. Burba's husband, Luigi, was a historian and observed that it was strange that the actual accord, or agreement, was missing. But there was no accord in the packet of forgeries. The annex was what SISMI, on February 5, 2002, had told the CIA was the accord itself. The Italian intelligence service had provided a "verbatim text," of the annex, but not the document itself. The annex claimed that a "protocole d'accord," or draft agreement, between Iraq and Niger had been signed in Niamey on July 6, 2000. But the bogus package did not contain such a draft. [pages 24-25]

In other words, in the book, Eisner and Royce claim that SISMI sent the CIA the "verbatim text" of the "annex" of the "accord" in Feb 2002, not the "verbatim text" of the October 10, 2000 letter or the "verbatim text" of the "accord" itself. If this is true, it certainly raises concerns over the accuracy of the SSCI report and Robb-Silberman report. It would also seem to indicate that the "verbatim text" of the "accord" does not exist - partly contradicting one of the stories I have written in the past.

That said, before I take their claim on the "verbatim text" at face value, especially in light of Eisner's confusion reflected in his chat, I would like to see a pretty firm confirmation that Eisner and Royce are in fact 100% certain and have confirmed without a doubt that the "verbatim text" was for the "annex" to the "accord" and not the "accord" itself. In other words, I would like them to confirm definitively that SISMI did not actually fabricate the "verbatim text" of the actual "accord" (given that an accord was not available in Rocco Martino's dossier).

The reason I am seeking such a confirmation is primarily because, as I first pointed out over a year ago, there is a cryptic footnote in the Robb-Silberman report that indicates that SISMI did fabricate some of the information which was not in the forged dossier:

215 Department of State and CIA, Joint Report of Inspectors General on Iraqi Attempts to Procure Uranium From Niger (Sept. 2003) at p. 11. Although the Inspectors General report notes that all three reports were recalled, CIA/DO officials advised the Commission that in fact two of the reports were recalled and the third, which included information not included in the forged documents, was reissued with a caveat that the information the report contains may have been fabricated. Comments from CIA/DO (March 3, 2005).

For reasons I have discussed previously, there is one obvious piece of "information not included in the forged documents" that fits the bill - the "verbatim text" of the "accord". Moreover, the use of quotation marks around the word "verbatim" and the phrase "verbatim text" by both SSCI and R-S reports strongly suggest that what was comunicated by SISMI to the CIA in February 2002 was not the actual verbatim text but rather what SISMI claimed to be "verbatim text". In other words, it is strongly suggestive that SISMI communicated something they claimed existed in a document but in reality what they sent did not actually exist in the corresponding document, i.e., the "verbatim text" was partly or wholly fabricated. If this is indeed true, it would naturally raise a follow-up question - if SISMI only transmitted something that was not the actual verbatim text, what did they transmit exactly and from which document? What "errors" or "misspellings" were communicated and what were not? These are the questions that need to be carefully answered.

I am not trying to say that I am necessarily right and Eisner-Royce are wrong, but having studied these words and sentences carefully in the past, I would be pretty surprised at a wholly unnecessary use of quotes around the word verbatim and the specific mention of the accord, as opposed to the "annex" of the accord or "accord" within quotes in both SSCI and R-S reports, without appropriate qualification anywhere in the reports.

There is another aspect to this story - that I have discussed on a few occasions - which Eisner and Royce missed in their book. A few readers may recall that almost two years ago I called out the highly misleading statement in the SSCI report that there were no obvious inconsistencies in names and dates in the information that the CIA received, and noted that the CIA was aware of at least one date error - the "Wednesday" July 7, 2000 error (which in fact was one of the clues that led me to infer that the original CIA intel reports were based on the forgeries). Considering the amount of time that Eisner-Royce spend on the "annex", which has this specific date error, I am pretty surprised that they did not comment on the fact that the CIA never acknowledged the specific Wednesday, July 7, 2000 "state court" "approval date" for the accord in their intelligence reports. The first CIA report on October 15, 2001 mysteriously stated the approval date by the State Court as "late 2000". Within three days and after a communication with SISMI officials, the approval date changed to "early" 2001! In other words, the CIA must have known something was not right about the whole Niger uranium claim and the "approval" date by the "state court" way back in October 2001. They certainly didn't have to wait until February 2002 to figure out something was fishy. Moreover, if the CIA actually received the "verbatim text" of the "annex" in Feb 2002 with the "state court" approval date shown as July 7, 2000, it would have set off additional alarm bells considering that the October 18, 2001 CIA SEIB claimed that the state court approved the deal in early 2001. This only makes it even more important for us to really understand what it was that SISMI sent to the CIA in February 2002.

Eisner and Royce unfortunately appear to buy the nonsensical story advanced by the SSCI report that the CIA was basically incompetent and didn't bother to vet the claims properly, didn't know much about the forgeries until early 2003, and so on and so forth. The preponderance of evidence indicates that the reality was almost certainly very different. If I have time I will write a separate post on this because this is one of the few flaws in their book in that it gives the unbelievable SSCI storyline too much credibility on this specific matter.

eriposte :: 12:13 AM :: Comments (4) :: Spotlight :: Digg It!