In its rush to air its now discredited story about President George W. Bush’s National Guard service, CBS bumped another sensitive piece slated for the same “60 Minutes” broadcast: a half-hour segment about how the U.S. government was snookered by forged documents purporting to show Iraqi efforts to purchase uranium from Niger.
The journalistic juggling at CBS provides an ironic counterpoint to the furor over apparently bogus documents involving Bush’s National Guard service. One unexpected consequence of the network’s decision was to wipe out a chance—at least for the moment—for greater public scrutiny of a more consequential forgery that played a role in building the Bush administration’s case to invade Iraq.
This is like living in a Kafka novel. Here we had a very important, well-reported story about forged documents that helped lead the country to war. And then it gets bumped by another story that relied on forged documents.
Joshua Micah Marshall
A team of “60 Minutes” correspondents and consulting reporters spent more than six months investigating the Niger uranium documents fraud, CBS sources tell NEWSWEEK. The group landed the first ever on-camera interview with Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who first obtained the phony documents, as well as her elusive source, Rocco Martino, a mysterious Roman businessman with longstanding ties to European intelligence agencies.
Although the edited piece never ended up identifying Martino by name, the story, narrated by “60 Minutes” correspondent Ed Bradley, asked tough questions about how the White House came to embrace the fraudulent documents and why administration officials chose to include a 16-word reference to the questionable uranium purchase in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech.
But just hours before the piece was set to air on the evening of Sept. 8, the reporters and producers on the CBS team were stunned to learn the story was being scrapped to make room for a seemingly sensational story about new documents showing that Bush ignored a direct order to take a flight physical while serving in the National Guard more than 30 years ago.
The story has since created a journalistic and political firestorm, resulting in a colossal embarrassment for CBS. This week, the network concluded that its principle source for the documents, a disgruntled former Guard official and Democratic partisan named Bill Burkett, had lied about where he got the material. CBS anchor Dan Rather publicly apologized for broadcasting the faulty report. Today, CBS named a two-person team comprised of former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief Louis Boccardi to investigate the network’s handling of the story. .
"This is like living in a Kafka novel,” said Joshua Micah Marshall, a Washington Monthly contributing writer and a Web blogger who had been collaborating with “60 Minutes” producers on the uranium story. “Here we had a very important, well-reported story about forged documents that helped lead the country to war. And then it gets bumped by another story that relied on forged documents.”
Some CBS reporters, as well as one of the network’s key sources, fear that the Niger uranium story may never run, at least not any time soon, on the grounds that the network can now not credibly air a report questioning how the Bush administration could have gotten taken in by phony documents. The network would “be a laughingstock,” said one source intimately familiar with the story.
Although acknowledging that it was “frustrating” to have his story bounced, David Gelber, the lead CBS producer on the Niger piece, said he has been told the segment will still air some time soon, perhaps as early as next week. “Obviously, everybody at CBS is holding their breath these days. I’m assuming the story is going to run until I’m told differently.”
The delay of the CBS report comes at a time when there have been significant new developments in the case—although virtually none of them have been reported in the United States. According to Italian and British press reports, Martino—the Rome middleman at the center of the case—was questioned last week by an Italian investigating magistrate for two hours about the circumstances surrounding his acquisition of the documents. Martino could not be reached for comment, but his lawyer is reportedly planning a press conference in the next few days.
Burba, the Italian journalist, confirmed to NEWSWEEK this week that Martino is the previously mysterious “Mr. X” who contacted her with the potentially explosive documents in early October 2002—just as Congress was debating whether to authorize President Bush to wage war against Iraq. The documents, consisting of telexes, letters and contracts, purported to show that Iraq had negotiated an agreement to purchase 500 tons of “yellowcake uranium from Niger, material that could be used to make a nuclear bomb. (A U.S. intelligence official told NEWSWEEK that Martino is in fact believed to have been the distributor of the documents.)
Burba—under instructions from her editor at Panarama, a newsmagazine owned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—then provided the documents to the U.S. Embassy in Rome in an effort to authenticate them. The embassy soon passed the material on to Washington where some Bush administration officials viewed it as hard evidence to support its case that Saddam Hussein’s regime was actively engaged in a program to assemble nuclear weapons.
But the Niger component of the White House case for war quickly imploded. Asked for evidence to support President Bush’s contention in his State of the Union speech that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa, the administration turned over the Niger documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Within two hours, using the Google search engine, IAEA officials in Vienna determined the documents to be a crude forgery. At the urging of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the FBI launched an investigation into the Niger documents in an effort to determine if the United States government had been duped by a deliberate “disinformation” campaign organized by a foreign intelligence agency or others with a political agenda relating to Iraq.
So far, the bureau appears to have made little progress in unraveling the case. “The senator is frustrated by the slow pace of the investigation,” said Wendy Morigi, the press secretary for Senator Rockefeller, who was recently briefed on the status of the FBI probe.
One striking aspect of the FBI’s investigation is that, at least as of this week, Martino has told associates he has never even been interviewed by the bureau—despite the fact that he was publicly identified by the Financial Times of London as the source of the documents more than six weeks ago and was subsequently flown to New York City by CBS to be interviewed for the “60 Minutes” report.
A U.S. law-enforcement official said the FBI is seeking to interview Martino, but has not yet received permission to do so from the Italian government. The official declined to comment on other aspects of the investigation.
The case has taken on additional intrigue because of mounting indications that Martino has longstanding relationships with European intelligence agencies. Martino recently told the Sunday Times of London that he had previously worked for SISMI, the Italian military-intelligence agency, a potentially noteworthy part of his resume given that the conservative Italian government of Berlasconi was a strong supporter of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. A French government official told NEWSWEEK that Martino also had a relationship with French intelligence agencies. But the French official rejected suggestions from U.S. and British officials that French intelligence may have played a role in creating the documents in order to embarrass Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The French never disseminated the documents because they could not establish their authenticity, the French official said.
Martino has told Burba and others that he obtained the phony documents from an Italian woman who worked in the Niger Embassy in Rome. He was in turn put in touch with the woman by yet another middleman who, according to Burba’s account, had directed Martino to provide the documents to “the Eygptians.” Some press reports have suggested the still unidentified middleman who put Martino in touch with his Niger Embassy source was in fact a SISMI officer himself.
Burba, who has twice been interviewed by the FBI but never gave up Martino’s name, said she had been cooperating with the CBS team on the story in hopes of getting to the bottom of the matter. But now, with the “60 Minutes” broadcast postponed, she is no longer confident that can ever happen. Meanwhile, she said she is fed up with Martino who has “lied” to her and provided contradictory accounts to other journalists.
“I’m disappointed,” she told NEWSWEEK. “In this story, you don’t know who’s lying and who’s telling the truth. The sources have been both discredited and discredited themselves.”
Barbie Nadeau contributed to this report from Rome.
Copyright © 2004 Newsweek, Inc