With Patrick Fitzgerald widely expected to announce indictments in the CIA leak investigation, questions are again being raised about the intelligence scandal that led to the appointment of the special counsel: namely, how the Bush White House obtained false Italian intelligence reports claiming that Iraq had tried to buy uranium "yellowcake" from Niger.
The key documents supposedly proving the Iraqi attempt later turned out to be crude forgeries, created on official stationery stolen from the African nation's Rome embassy. Among the most tantalizing aspects of the debate over the Iraq War is the origin of those fake documents -- and the role of the Italian intelligence services in disseminating them.
In an explosive series of articles appearing this week in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, investigative reporters Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe d'Avanzo report that Nicolo Pollari, chief of Italy's military intelligence service, known as Sismi, brought the Niger yellowcake story directly to the White House after his insistent overtures had been rejected by the Central Intelligence Agency in 2001 and 2002. Sismi had reported to the CIA on October 15, 2001, that Iraq had sought yellowcake in Niger, a report it also plied on British intelligence, creating an echo that the Niger forgeries themselves purported to amplify before they were exposed as a hoax.
Today's exclusive report in La Repubblica reveals that Pollari met secretly in Washington on September 9, 2002, with then–Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. Their secret meeting came at a critical moment in the White House campaign to convince Congress and the American public that war in Iraq was necessary to prevent Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear weapons. National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones confirmed the meeting to the Prospect on Tuesday.
Pollari told the newspaper that since 2001, when he became Sismi's director, the only member of the U.S. administration he has met officially is his former CIA counterpart George Tenet. But the Italian newspaper quotes a high-ranking Italian Sismi source asserting a meeting with Hadley. La Repubblica also quotes a Bush administration official saying, "I can confirm that on September 9, 2002, General Nicolo Pollari met Stephen Hadley."
The paper goes on to note the significance of that date, highlighting the appearance of a little-noticed story in Panorama a weekly magazine owned by Italian Prime Minister and Bush ally Silvio Berlusconi, that was published three days after Pollari's meeting with Hadley. The magazine's September 12, 2002, issue claimed that Iraq's intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat, had acquired 500 tons of uranium from Nigeria through a Jordanian intermediary. (While this September 2002 Panorama report mentioned Nigeria, the forgeries another Panorama reporter would be proferred less than a month later purportedly concerned Niger.)
The Sismi chief's previously undisclosed meeting with Hadley, who was promoted earlier this year to national security adviser, occurred one month before a murky series of events culminated in the U.S. government obtaining copies of the Niger forgeries.
The forged documents were cabled from the U.S. embassy in Rome to Washington after being delivered to embassy officials by Elisabetta Burba, a reporter for Panorama. She had received the papers from an Italian middleman named Rocco Martino. Burba never wrote a story about those documents. Instead her editor, Berlusconi favorite Carlo Rossella, ordered her to bring them immediately to the U.S. embassy.
Although Sismi's involvement in promoting the Niger yellowcake tale to U.S. and British intelligence has been previously reported, the series in La Repubblica includes many new details, including the name of a specific Sismi officer, Antonio Nucera, who helped to set the Niger forgeries hoax in motion.
What may be most significant to American observers, however, is the newspaper's allegation that the Italians sent the bogus intelligence about Niger and Iraq not only through traditional allied channels such as the CIA, but seemingly directly into the White House. That direct White House channel amplifies questions about a now-infamous 16-word reference to the Niger uranium in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address -- which remained in the speech despite warnings from the CIA and the State Department that the allegation was not substantiated.
Was the White House convinced that the Niger yellowcake report was nevertheless true because the National Security Council was getting its information directly from the Italian source?
Following the exposure of the discredited Niger allegations in the summer of 2003 by former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, White House officials at first sought to blame the CIA for the inclusion of the controversial "16 words" in the president's speech. Although then–National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy Hadley eventually accepted some responsibility for the mistake, the White House undertook a covert campaign to discredit Wilson and exposed the CIA affiliation of his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson.
Yet if anyone knew who was actually responsible for the White House's trumpeting of the Niger claims, it would seem from the Repubblica report that Hadley did. He also knew that the CIA, which had initially rejected the Italian claims, was not to blame. Hadley's meeting with Pollari, at precisely the time when the Niger forgeries came into the possession of the U.S. government, may explain the seemingly hysterical White House overreaction to Wilson's article almost a year later.
While the Niger yellowcake claims have provoked much drama in American politics, their provenance is decidedly Italian. The Repubblica investigation offers new insights into what motivated the Berlusconi government and its intelligence chief Pollari to go to so much trouble to bring those claims to the attention of their allies in Washington.
For Berlusconi and Pollari, according to La Repubblica, the overriding motive was a desire to win more appreciation and prestige from the Americans, who were seen as eager for help in making their sales pitch for war. On Monday, the newspaper described the atmosphere in 2002: "Berlusconi wants Sismi to be big players on the international security scene, to prove themselves to their ally, the United States, and the world. Washington is looking for proof of Saddam's involvement … and wants info immediately."
For the Italian middleman Rocco Martino, who acquired the documents from a Sismi mole at the Niger embassy in Rome, the motive described by La Repubblica is primarily mercenary. He wanted to be paid for the forgeries.
According to the Repubblica account, Martino was a former carabinieri officer and later a Sismi operative who by 1999 was making his living based in Luxembourg, selling information to the French intelligence services for a monthly stipend. The story goes on to explain how Martino renewed his contacts with Sismi officer Antonio Nucera, an old friend and former colleague, who was a Sismi vice-captain working in the intelligence agency's eighth directorate, with responsibilities involving weapons of mass destruction and counter-proliferation.
Precisely how Nucera, Martino, and two employees of the Niger embassy in Rome came together sometime between 1999 and 2000 to hatch the Niger forgeries plan is still somewhat mysterious. The newspaper's reports that Nucera introduced Martino to a longtime Sismi asset at the Niger embassy in Rome, a 60 year-old Italian woman described in La Repubblica only as "La Signora." Sismi chief Pollari, who granted the newspaper an interview (as he tends to do when he fears that breaking news could taint his agency), suggests that Nucera simply wanted to help out Martino, his old friend and colleague.
But as the Italian reporters suggest, that sounds like a very convenient excuse for the chief of an agency that was engaged in promoting the bogus Niger claims from their inception, all the way to the White House. The picture that emerges of Sismi's relationship with Martino is that the agency used him as a "postman" -- a cut-out to sell the bogus intelligence to allied intelligence services. At the same time, Sismi possessed enough information about Martino to claim that he was simply a rogue agent on the French payroll.
La Repubblica's noirish portrait of Martino as a convenient vehicle for plausible deniability is given further resonance by the recent news that a Roman prosecutor has ended his investigation into Martino's role in the Niger hoax without filing any charges or issuing any report.
Although Berlusconi's government clearly sought deniability while pushing the Niger uranium claims, the Bush White House went still further by trying to blame its citation of exaggerated and discredited Iraq WMD claims on the CIA, the very same agency that consistently discounted the Niger claims. The White House's war on the CIA and on the Wilsons --the extent of which has been revealed in recent news reports emerging from the Fitzgerald investigation -- has always had an excessive and almost hysterical quality. Why was the White House so worked up over Wilson and the Niger hoax, when there was so much evidence that the administration had based its drive for war on claims that were so thoroughly discredited from top to bottom? Why did Wilson and his CIA wife become the primary targets, when Wilson was hardly alone in pointing out that the White House should have known better about the Niger claims?
News of the secret meeting between the Italian Sismi chief and the White House deputy national security adviser -- during the period when the White House was assembling its flawed case for war -- provides an important new piece of that puzzle.
Laura Rozen reports on foreign-policy and national-security issues from Washington, D.C., as a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, a contributor to The Nation and other publications, and for her blog, War and Piece. A translation of excerpts from the La Repubblica story can be read here.