Today, the Sunday Times of London reports that the Italian middle-man who provided the notorious Niger uranium documents to Italian journalist Elizabetta Burba (she later brought them to the US Embassy in Rome, youâll remember) was himself given the documents by the Italian military intelligence service, SISMI.
I can vouch for the accuracy of this account since I have been working on this story for six months. In fact, I interviewed the Italian middle-man in question two months ago at a restaurant in mid-town Manhattan -- the details of that interview I describe below.
This all requires a bit of explanation. So here goes â¦
Back on June 17th, I wrote that I and several colleagues were working on a story that might cause quite a stir in Washington when it was published. That story was (and is) about the origins of the forged Niger uranium documents. Since January my colleague Laura Rozen and I have been reporting on this story for an article that will appear in The Washington Monthly. Weâve also been working in collaboration on this story with an American TV network.
At the time I wrote that post, I thought the story was going to appear in late June, thus my oblique mention of it on the site. Itâs now slated to appear later this month.
The reasons for the delay in publication are difficult to describe before the piece runs. But, as you can see, weâve now been scooped on one part of the story â to my transcendent mortification. So let me share with you some details of what weâre working on and expand on what the Times has reported.
Whatâs long been known about the Niger documents is that an Italian âsecurity consultantâ tried to sell them to an Italian journalist named Elisabetta Burba. Burbaâs editor at Panorama, in turn, instructed her to take them to the US Embassy in Rome. That is how they came into the hands of the American government.
The question has always been, whoâs the âsecurity consultantâ? Did he forge the documents? And, if not, where did he get them?
Youâll remember that in late June there was a piece in the Financial Times which alleged various evidence for the proposition that Iraq had in fact sought to purchase uranium from Niger. The story also suggested that the 'security consultant' was himself the likely forger of the documents and that this 'scam' had only served to obscure the real evidence of the sale of uranium to Iraq.
This is untrue on several counts. The 'security consultant' wasn't the forger -- a fact well-known by the FT's Italian government sources. And we have little doubt that the information about him contained in the FT article was provided by Italian intelligence sources to get out ahead of the information they knew the 'security consultant' and others had already provided to us -- specifically, their own complicity in the dissemination of the documents.
So who's the 'security consultant'?
The âsecurity consultantâ is a small-time information peddler who buys and sells information in the netherworld of diplomatic, intelligence and media circles in Rome. His clients include foreign intelligence services and also the Italian media. He is himself a former member of SISMI.
He received the forged documents from a current SISMI officer who works in the division specializing in weapons proliferation.
We know the identity of both men. Both are in their early 60s. The identity of the âsecurity consultantâ weâve agreed not to disclose. We will publish the identity of the SISMI officer in the upcoming article.
Here are the basic outlines of what happened.
In early 2000, the âsecurity consultantâ was approached by a former colleague from SISMI whom he'd known for some twenty five years. This current SISMI officer told him that he had a source in the Nigerien Embassy in Rome, that they (i.e. SISMI) had no more use for her, but that she could be a source of valuable information for him if he put her on a monthly retainer. They were washing their hands of her, he said. But she could be of use to him.
The âsecurity consultantâ met with the woman in question and agreed to pay her 500 euros a month for various documents and materials which came into her hands in the course of her work for the Embassy. Most of the material in question had nothing to do with Iraq or WMD. It dealt primarily with immigration into Italy and Islamist activities in North and Central Africa --- topics of concern to at least one of the 'security consultant's' longstanding clients.
What wasnât clear at the time, however, was that SISMI hadnât washed their hands of this Niger Embassy employee at all. She remained a SISMI asset. In fact, the relationship which the SISMI officer had set up was intended to serve as a conduit through which SISMI could conceal its role in the dissemination of what proved to be disinformation.
This was how the forged documents came into the security consultantâs hands.
Youâll remember that most of the papers in the bundle of Niger-uranium documents that arrived at the US Embassy in Rome were actually authentic. It was only a subset of the documents --- those specifically related to the alleged Niger-Iraq transactions and a couple others --- that were bogus.
In late 2001, the SISMI officer brought the Niger Embassy employee a packet of documents --- those later identified as forgeries --- and instructed her to slip them in with the other documents she was providing to the âsecurity consultantâ on an on-going basis.
She mixed those documents in with authentic documents which she had access to in the course of her work at the embassy. She then passed those documents --- again, a mix of authentic and forged ones --- to the âsecurity consultantâ.
The Financial Times article led to a surge of articles and commentary suggesting that the forged documents were only a minor part of the case for the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium transaction. But, as we've noted earlier, that's a willfully misleading account, one which both the Butler Report and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report helped to further.
Contrary to arguments that there was lots of independent evidence of uranium sales between Iraq and Niger, US government sources have told us that almost all of the important evidence derived from the phony documents. Specifically, it came from summaries of the documents Italian intelligence was distributing to other western intelligence agencies -- including those of the US, Britain and France -- in late 2001 and 2002.
The US has long known that the Italians had the forged documents in their possession at least as early as the beginning of 2002. And what we've uncovered is that at the same time Italian intelligence operatives were surreptitiously funnelling copies of the documents to this document peddler with the knowledge that he would sell them to other intelligence services and likely to members of the Italian press.
Now, a few more notes on the âsecurity consultantâ. The Financial Times story said that he âhad a record of extortion and deception and had been convicted by a Rome court in 1985 and later arrested at least twice.â Several of the particulars here are incorrect. But he does have a criminal record. And Iâm told by a very reliable source that he is now trying to sell his the detailed version of his story to members of the British press for 30,000 euros. Whether he's successful in doing so we'll probably find out in the next few days.
We already have his account. And needless to say, we didnât pay him. But itâs reasonable to ask how trustworthy his account is since he seems to be someone of rather less than spotless integrity. The answer is that weâve confirmed the key details of the story I outlined above independently.
More to follow ...