October 25, 2005
intelligence chief met with Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen
Hadley just a month before the Niger forgeries first surfaced.
Web Exclusive: 10.25.05
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
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
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
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
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.