Behind the CIA leak scandal lies a bizarre trail of forged documents, an
embassy break-in and international deception that helped propel the United
States to war in Iraq.
While American public attention focuses on special counsel Patrick
Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak, U.S. and Italian lawmakers are
probing a series of bogus claims of Iraqi uranium purchases in Africa that were
the opening chapters in a saga that resulted in the disclosure of the identity
of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
The Italian Parliament is scheduled to hold hearings about the La Repubblica allegations on Thursday, with intelligence chief Nicolo Pollari expected to come under heavy grilling.
In the past week, the respected, left-of-center Italian daily La
Repubblica published a three-part series of investigative articles claiming
that documents purporting to prove that Saddam Hussein was seeking yellowcake
uranium in Niger had been forged by an Italian freelance spy and then were fed
by the Italian intelligence agency to eager officials in Washington and London.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate Democratic leader,
and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., are asking for public hearings into the
forgeries and their role in Bush administration claims that Hussein was
developing nuclear weapons.
The Italian Parliament is scheduled to hold hearings about the La
Repubblica allegations on Thursday, with intelligence chief Nicolo Pollari
expected to come under heavy grilling.
The articles relied heavily on sources in the Italian spy agency, the
Military Information and Security Service, known as SISMI. They provide a
tantalizing account -- credible to some observers, baseless speculation to
others -- of how President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair were snookered
by fabricated intelligence about Hussein's alleged nuclear program.
The allegations in La Repubblica's articles lead far into the murky depths
of Italy's intelligence agencies, a realm of conspiracy claims and
counterclaims. In Italy this netherworld is called dietrologia -- a word that
loosely translates as the widespread belief that political, security and
criminal forces are constantly engaged in secret plots and maneuvers, noted
Henry Farrell, a professor of international affairs at George Washington
University in Washington and a blogger on the Crooked Timber Web log, which has
dissected the Italian angle to Plamegate.
"It's hard to say if (the La Repubblica information) is the truth, truth
with some distortion, or misinformation from the officials who are leaking
this," Farrell said. "But it certainly raises some very troubling questions."
Farrell noted that during the Cold War, the U.S. and Italian spy agencies
cooperated closely on undercover work. Bush and Italian Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi are close allies, and Berlusconi has strongly supported Bush's Iraq
policy, stationing 3,000 Italian troops south of Baghdad.
SISMI has long been accused of involvement in rightist conspiracies,
including work in collaboration with Propaganda Due, or P-2, a Masonic secret
society, and the Armed Falange, a neo-fascist terrorist group.
SISMI "does not have an immaculate history at all," said Gianfranco
Pasquino, a political science professor at the Bologna, Italy, campus of the
School of Advanced and International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. "It
has been purged and reorganized very often."
Pasquino called SISMI "friendly to the right wing and willing to offer its
services for right-wing purposes."
According to La Repubblica, the forged documents were originally produced
in 2000 by Rocco Martino, a former member of the Carabinieri paramilitary
police who then became a freelance agent for both SISMI and French
intelligence. SISMI combined these fakes with real documents from the 1980s
showing Hussein's yellowcake purchases from Niger during that period -- in
the process, conducting a break-in at the Niger Embassy in Rome to steal
letterhead and seals.
Soon afterward, La Repubblica reported, Italian operatives passed news of
their scoop to the CIA and the British intelligence agency, MI6. When the CIA
expressed doubt about the veracity of the claims, SISMI began seeking to peddle
it directly to the most pro-war faction of the Bush administration.
SISMI chief Pollari met in Rome with Michael Ledeen, an influential
Washington neoconservative who has long been reputed to play a back-channel
role between U.S. and Italian spy agencies. Pollari also met in Washington with
Stephen Hadley, deputy national security adviser, to discuss the new
information, La Repubblica reported. On Thursday, a National Security Council
spokesman confirmed that the Hadley-Pollari meeting had taken place but was
only "a courtesy call" with no documents exchanged.
In early 2002, CIA officials sent Wilson, who had served as a diplomat in
Africa, to Niger to investigate the matter. Wilson reported back to CIA
headquarters that the claims were unfounded.
Meanwhile, however, MI6 recycled the information and, without disclosing
the source, reported it to the White House -- which interpreted this British
echo chamber as independent confirmation of the Italian claims.
The elaborate hoax finally succeeded. In late September 2002, Secretary of
State Colin Powell cited Iraq's alleged Niger dealings as proof of Hussein's
nuclear ambitions. In his February 2003 State of the Union address, Bush
declared that British intelligence had "learned" Saddam Hussein had been
seeking to buy nuclear material in Africa. Throughout the period, Blair made
British officials have insisted that they had other evidence in addition
to the forged documents that confirmed Iraqi uranium purchases in Niger. The
British have declined to show this evidence, however.
La Repubblica quoted a SISMI official as saying of this alleged
corroborating evidence, "If it ever were brought forward it would be
discovered, with red faces, that it was Italian intelligence collected by SISMI
at the end of the 1980s and shared with our friend Hamilton McMillan" -- the
top MI6 counter-terrorism official during that period.
After war was initiated in 2003 and invading U.S. troops found no evidence
of an Iraqi nuclear program, Wilson began to tell reporters about his
fact-finding trip and his report to Washington that the Niger uranium claims
were bogus. Wilson's maneuvering came at a politically sensitive moment, as the
administration's war rationale appeared to be crumbling. According to the
indictment released Friday, it was during this period when Lewis Libby,
Cheney's chief of staff, began to organize a counterattack against Wilson and
Valerie Plame, leaking her identity as a CIA agent and suggesting that he may
have been sent to Niger merely because of nepotism.
On Friday, the New York Times reported that the FBI has been investigating
the forged uranium documents for two years but has not reached any conclusions
about who fabricated them or how they were funneled to U.S. and British
On Wednesday, Berlusconi's office "categorically" rejected La Repubblica's
claims. "The facts that are narrated ... do not correspond to the truth," the
prime minister's office said in a statement in which it reiterated denials that
the government had any "direct or indirect involvement in the packaging and
delivery of the 'false dossier on Niger's uranium.' "
But Farrell said that many Italians view the matter as yet another dark
"Italian politics is incredibly byzantine and incredibly nontransparent,
especially on security issues," Farrell said. "There is a pervasive (public)
belief of dietrologia carried out behind the scenes by powerful, shadowy
figures, all more or less incomprehensible except to a few insiders in Rome.
"This case will be interpreted as more of the same."
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle