Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Italian Job
Yellowcake, Yellowcake, Berlusconi's Men?

I read a good chunk of English soccer news as I'm a bit fitba daft, and it seems that any time there's the slightest connection to anything to do with Italy (whether it's a match with the national squad, Lazio, a transfer of an Italian player, etc., etc.), the headline writers always go the easy route and reference "The Italian Job" (the original and very British Michael Caine film, and not the Marky Mark version--which was entertaining, but certainly not the cultural milestone that Caine's seems to be in the UK). (Also note that in my extensive review of headlines over the years, only "Mission: Impossible" seems to get more use than "The Italian Job".)

But I digress. As I mentioned earlier, one of the sidebars that's been getting more play in recent days as Fitzmas chestnuts have been roasting over the open fires is the origin of the forged Niger yellowcake uranium documents, which is really the genesis of all this hubbub. You may recall from George Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, what has now become known as the 16 Words:
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
I remember them, and it caught the attention of the American public--nothing like the thoughts of mushroom clouds to focus one's attention. But that's where Joseph Wilson comes in with his NYTimes op-ed, "What I Didn't Find in Niger" (which is posted at Common Dreams).
Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.

[...] I met with Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick at the embassy. For reasons that are understandable, the embassy staff has always kept a close eye on Niger's uranium business. I was not surprised, then, when the ambassador told me that she knew about the allegations of uranium sales to Iraq — and that she felt she had already debunked them in her reports to Washington. Nevertheless, she and I agreed that my time would be best spent interviewing people who had been in government when the deal supposedly took place, which was before her arrival.

I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.

Given the structure of the consortiums that operated the mines, it would be exceedingly difficult for Niger to transfer uranium to Iraq. Niger's uranium business consists of two mines, Somair and Cominak, which are run by French, Spanish, Japanese, German and Nigerian interests. If the government wanted to remove uranium from a mine, it would have to notify the consortium, which in turn is strictly monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Moreover, because the two mines are closely regulated, quasi-governmental entities, selling uranium would require the approval of the minister of mines, the prime minister and probably the president. In short, there's simply too much oversight over too small an industry for a sale to have transpired.

(As for the actual memorandum, I never saw it. But news accounts have pointed out that the documents had glaring errors — they were signed, for example, by officials who were no longer in government — and were probably forged. And then there's the fact that Niger formally denied the charges.)
So, here we come to the Niger Forgeries. This week, the Italian newspaper La Republica published a lengthy investigative report that points to figures in the Italian military intelligence service as being at the center of the distribution of these forgeries. Laura Rozen (a foreign policy/national security reporter who has one of the best blogs around, War and Piece) has an excellent summary up at The American Prospect:
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.

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.
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.

The article continues with descriptions of the Sismi men involved and speculating why the Italian Berlusconi government would try to pass these to the Americans (they wanted some cred, it seems). Rozen wraps it up thusly:

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.

Alright. That's your starting point. We'll discuss this more in the coming days.


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