At the Washington Post

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At the Washington Post online yesterday, Jeff Morley raised the possibility that last year’s Dan Rather/National Guard papers scandal may have prevented CBS’s 60 Minutes from airing a story on the origins of the Niger forgeries. Referring to Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who was offered the forgeries in October 2002, Morley writes …

Burba “has also been interviewed by the CBS investigative show ’60 Minutes ‘ for a piece on the documents that was pulled in the wake of the problems that brought down Dan Rather,” according to the LAT.

But after suffering a major black eye last year for relying on forged documents for a story about President Bush’s National Guard service, CBS would risk controversy if it aired a story about how the Bush administration allegedly relied on doctored intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. CBS’s coverage would seem to be handcuffed, at least temporarily, by Rather’s 2004 election mistake.

This account is incomplete and substantially incorrect. But that’s no criticism of Morley because the actual story has never been publicly aired.

Allow me to explain.

By the late spring of 2004, 60 Minutes had interviewed Burba, the Italian journalist, Rocco Martino, the ‘security consultant’ who had attempted to sell her the documents in October 2002, and the SISMI asset (the female Italian national) who works in the Nigerien Embassy in Rome. The interviews implicated Antonio Nucera, a colonel from the Italian intelligence service SISMI, as the immediate source of the documents. After an initial conversation, Nucera himself refused all contact with the reporters working on the story.

After this, a string of problems delayed the airing of the story.

First, given the nature of the story, CBS, understandably, felt it was necessary to have an administration official interviewed to provide the administration’s side of the story. Yet after initial arrangements had been made to interview mid-range administration officials for the story, they later declined to be interviewed. Eventually, it became clear that no Bush administration officials would agree to be interviewed for the story.

That delayed the story. But eventually, Sen. Roberts (R-KS), chairman of the senate select committee on intelligence, himself agreed to provide an interview. His only condition was that he would only speak on camera after the senate intelligence committee issued its report that summer.

That necessitated a further delay. But it also appeared to clear the way for the airing of the story mid-summer. The story was held until the senate report was released.

However, after the senate intel report appeared in early July, Roberts first equivocated and then finally withdrew his promise to provide an interview for the story.

Again, the story was held up because there was no administration official or Republican congressional figure who agreed to be interviewed. And that is where the matter stood late in the summer of 2004.

Over the next two months, in response to the interviews noted above and other reporting implicating SISMI, a series of leaks began to emerge out of SISMI that were picked up in sympathetic Italian dailies as well as the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph. In response to these reports and, for the first time, the publication of his name, Martino again travelled to the United States for another round of interviews.

Eventually, a version of the Niger story was produced. But it had the interviews with Martino and the SISMI asset who works in the Nigerien embassy removed. While the segment provided a compelling narrative of the story of the infamous “sixteen words”, it contained little or no information that had not already been reported in major newspaper coverage of the story. The reporting implicating the Italian government and SISMI were set aside for a possible follow-up report.

The produced segment was scheduled to be aired on Wednesday, September 8th, 2004. Several days before the airing, however, the possibility was raised that the Niger story would be bumped in favor of Dan Rather’s segment on President Bush and the National Guard. As late as the day of airing itself, a final decision had yet to be made on which segment would run.

Once the scandal over Guard memos erupted, CBS decided that it could not run a story about forged Niger memos while it was embroiled in a scandal about forged National Guard memos. Later, CBS announced it would not run the story because it was too soon before the November election. After the election was over, no plans were made to run the piece, either in the expurgated or complete form.

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