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Seeds of Leak Scandal Sown in Italian Intelligence Agency
Published on Sunday, October 30, 2005 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Seeds of Leak Scandal Sown in Italian Intelligence Agency
by Robert Collier
 

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.


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.

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.

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 similar claims.

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 officials.

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 conspiracy.

"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

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