Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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The name of Stephen J. Hadley (first term Deputy National Security Advisor and now National Security Advisor) has come up again and again in the Niger-uranium story.

In early 2002 Hadley was tasked with shutting down the unauthorized meetings Harold Rhode, Larry Franklin and Michael Ledeen were holding with Iraqi and Iranian exiles, and Italian intelligence figures including the head of SISMI, Nicolo Pollari, in Rome in late 2001.

On September 9th, 2002, Hadley met with Pollari in Washington. According to the Italian daily La Repubblica Pollari was there to press the details of the Niger-uranium story. The NSC has now confirmed that the meeting took place but claims it was a brief meeting and that no one present remembers the yellowcake story coming up.

In other words, it's a quite hazy denial if it's even a denial at all.

Less than a month later Hadley and others at the NSC tried but failed to get the Niger story into President Bush's October 7th WMD speech in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Days later copies of the forgeries surfaced in Rome.

Three months later Hadley and the same colleagues at the NSC succeeded in getting the Niger story included in the president's 2003 State of the Union address.

In July, Hadley took personal responsibility for allowing the bogus claim to be included in the State of the Union address and apologized publicly to the president.

Much of what I've just laid out here has been known for some time. But Hadley is doing a press briefing tomorrow afternoon at the White House to discuss the president's upcoming visit to Latin America.

It would certainly be welcome to get some clarification directly from Mr. Hadley about just what he discussed with Pollari at that September 2002 and whether the claims contained in the La Repubblica article is in fact false.

What did the president say to Berlusconi?

From this morning's gaggle ...

QUESTION: Thank you. Any more explanation of the Berlusconi-President discussion about Italian intelligence on Iraq -- is this to say that Mr. Fitzgerald's finding that the Niger claim had its genesis in Italian intelligence was wrong?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Mr. Fitzgerald's -- I'll have to look back at what his finding was. I don't recall the specifics of that.

QUESTION: Fitzgerald found that what we had been calling British intelligence, the document -- the forged document --

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Maybe I missed that. I don't think so. I don't think so.

QUESTION: -- alleging an Iraq --

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Okay, I don't think he did.

QUESTION: I'm wrong on this?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Maybe I'm wrong. But I don't think he --

QUESTION: That's not ringing any bells.


QUESTION: It's not ringing any bells with other people either.

QUESTION: No, it is, it is. And I can't remember if it's Fitzgerald or somebody else, but there's this is the central issue is --

QUESTION: The central issue was --

QUESTION: -- the source of the --

QUESTION: The source of the forged document was Italy, who handed it to --

SCOTT McCLELLAN: No, the -- we actually briefed on the source of the information back in July of 2003, and the source was the National Intelligence Estimate and British Intelligence. That was the basis for the reference in the President's State of the Union address.

QUESTION: Fitzgerald found an Italian tie, and I presume this is what the discussion between the President and Berlusconi was about.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Yes, they -- like I said they -- Prime Minister Berlusconi brought it up, and as they indicated, that there wasn't any documents that were provided to us on Niger and uranium by --

QUESTION: Wait, no documents or no intelligence?


QUESTION: The press report out of Italy is a transcription -- it's a transcription of the forged documents, not the actual documents themselves. But Berlusconi said yesterday was, no information passed from Italy to the United States.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Yes, I think he was accurately reflecting what he indicated in the meeting.

QUESTION: So that accurately characterizes the President's position, that the United States never received any intelligence --

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, Prime Minister Berlusconi was reflecting that within the meeting, and we've previously said in regards to a question that came up about a meeting here at the White House that no one here has any recollection of Niger and uranium being discussed at that meeting, much less any documents being provided.

More to come.

Possible Correction: Yesterday I reported that the Bush-Berlusconi press conference had been cancelled and I suggested that it had happened because both were worried about taking questions about the brewing Niger-Uranium controversy. The two also refused to take any questions when they appeared in front of reporters before their meeting in the White House.

The report of the cancellation came out of the Italian press. But I'm now told, by a reliable source, that there was actually no press conference scheduled. I think what this means is that the decision not to hold a press conference was made before it ever made it on to the schedules handed out to reporters. So I think the underlying issue is the same. But I just wanted to clear that up.

In Washington today, at a session with members of the Italian press, PM Silvio Berlusconi said, "Lo stesso Bush mi ha confermato che gli USA non hanno avuto alcuna informazione dai servizi italiani." That loosely translates to "Bush himself confirmed to me that the USA did not have any information from Italian agencies." And the answer was reference to whether the United States had gotten any of the Niger intelligence from Italy.

The claim here is simply a lie. US suspicions about Niger and Iraq began with intelligence reports from Italy in October 2001. Those reports were based on the forged documents. Did President Bush really say that? Berlusconi must know this is false.

Question of the day.

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi is in Washington today.

Later this week Berlusconi's intelligence chief will be questioned before a closed session of a committee of the Italian parliament about allegations he was responsible for using back channels to funnel the Niger uranium forgeries to the White House.

Last week a top White House official was indicted on five counts stemming from the Niger scandal.

Please let us know if any journalist in Washington today puts a question regarding Italy's role in the Niger caper to Bush, Berlusconi or spokespersons for either man.

It won't be as easy as it might have been: their scheduled joint press conference was cancelled and reporters were not permitted to ask questions after the two gave brief statements today at the White House.

The White House doesn't want to answer any questions about this story; and few reporters seem inclined to press the point.

Just out from the veep's office ...

The Vice President today appointed David S. Addington of Virginia to be the chief of staff to the Vice President. The Vice President also appointed John P. Hannah of the District of Columbia as the Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs.

Mr. Addington has served in the position of Counsel to the Vice President since January 20, 2001. In prior Federal service, Mr. Addington served at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, the White House, and four congressional committees. In the private sector, he headed a multicandidate political action committee, practiced law with two firms, and headed the law department of a trade association. Mr. Addington is a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and the Duke University School of Law.

Mr. Hannah has served on the national security staff in the Office of the Vice President since March 2001 and is currently the Principal Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs. In prior Federal service, Mr. Hannah served at the Department of State. In the private sector, Mr. Hannah practiced law in Washington, D.C. and served as a senior official of a Washington-based foreign policy research organization. Mr. Hannah is a graduate of Duke University and the Yale Law School.

Circling the wagons.

The Italian Connection, Part I

(ed.note: At various points over the last two years, I've discussed here at tpm reporting I've done on the origins of the Niger forgeries. I've never put all the reporting in one place; and until now there was still a good bit of information I wasn't at liberty to report. This is the first of a series of installments I'm going to publish here at TPM in which I will lay out the story as I understand it based on my own reporting and research.)

On March 7th, 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the UN Security Council that documents purporting to show that Iraq had purchased uranium ore from Niger were in fact forgeries. The documents had been provided to the IAEA by the United States. "Based on thorough analysis," said ElBaradei, "the IAEA has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents - which formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger - are in fact not authentic."

As the world would soon learn, the documents had first emerged in Rome in October 2002 when an unnamed ‘security consultant’ had tried to sell them to Elisabetta Burba, a journalist working for the Italian magazine Panorama. From there, the documents made their way to the American Embassy in Rome and finally back to Washington. In early 2003, the IAEA had demanded that the US provide whatever evidence it had to support its claims that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. And in response the US handed over copies of the documents.

Ever since ElBaradei’s revelation, the story had been one that interested me greatly, as it did many others. And my interest only grew that summer when renewed controversy erupted over the claims retired Ambassador Joe Wilson made about his fact-finding trip to Niger. But the following winter, two streams of information opened up to me which suggested that the forgeries story went well beyond this unnamed Italian ‘security consultant’ and that the US government appeared less than interested in discovering the identities of either the forgers or those who had used the documents to deceive the American people.

One stream of information came from sources within the US government itself.

According to US government sources I spoke to in the course of my reporting, there was far more tying the forgeries to Italy than the mere fact that they had first emerged in Rome in October 2002. Almost a year earlier, US suspicions about an illicit uranium trade between Iraq and Niger had begun with intelligence reports from Italy. Soon after the September 11th attacks, the Italian military intelligence agency SISMI sent its first report to the US government including details of an alleged Iraqi purchase of 500 tons of lightly-processed uranium ore from Niger.

Details of this and a subsequent SISMI report formed the basis of a reference to alleged Iraq-Niger uranium sales which was included in a CIA briefing Vice President Cheney received in early 2002. It was that briefing that prompted Cheney's request for more information on the Iraq-Niger sale. And that request led, in turn, to the CIA's decision to dispatch Joe Wilson on his trip to Niger. The Italian reports had set the whole process in motion.

But there was another key detail: The reports out of Italy were not a separate source of intelligence from the forgeries. They were the forgeries. To be precise, the intelligence reports from Italy were actually text transcriptions and summaries of the forged documents. The reports from Italy and the forgeries were one and the same. The distinction is rather like saying you haven't seen the PDF of a letter only the text from the letter that someone copied down from the PDF. The fact that the Italian reports came from as-yet-to-be-revealed forgeries of course could not be known at the time. That only became clear to intelligence officials much later when these post-9/11 Italian reports and the forgeries were compared. But looking back in retrospect, it was clear that the whole Niger uranium canard seemed to lead back to those forgeries.

Just what that meant for Italy's role wasn’t clear. Indeed, it still isn’t entirely clear. What was quite clear, however, was that the Italian government would be a key place to start to get to the bottom of the forgeries’ mystery.

And there was more.

I also learned of the existence of a Joint State Department-CIA Inspectors General report on the “16 words” and the Niger forgeries which was produced in the fall of 2003. Much of the report detailed information later revealed in the Senate intelligence committee report. But there were other briefly noted but intriguing details.

For instance, the State-CIA IG report briefly noted a murky story about contacts between SISMI and the CIA in the summer of 2002. That summer SISMI had approached the CIA about an operation they intended to run against the Station Chief of Iraqi intelligence in Rome. The plan was to send disinformation about the Iraqi Station Chief back to Baghdad via a third country. And the subject of the disinformation was to be trade between Iraq and Niger. (The Americans did not object but declined to participate.)

That was certainly interesting.

Later, from other US government sources, I learned another detail. When the forgeries arrived at the US Embassy in Rome in October 2002, the first reaction of the CIA Station chief was to wonder whether this wasn’t the same story the Italians had suggested using against the Iraqi only months before.

As you can see, quite a lot of information seemed to suggest that the Italian government played a large role in the story of the Niger forgeries, even if it might be an innocent or unwitting one. Yet neither the CIA nor the FBI, a knowledgeable source told me, seemed intent on getting to the bottom of what had happened.

In addition to these clues, there was one more piece of information. And here is where the two streams of information I noted above flowed together. A US government source pointed me toward a series of suspicious points of overlap between the forgeries story and a series of unauthorized meetings between Italian intelligence figures, two Pentagon employees working under Doug Feith, other Americans and the disgraced Iran-Contra figure Manucher Ghorbanifar. These meetings were the subject of an article ("Iran-Contra II?") I published with Laura Rozen and Paul Glastris in the Washington Monthly in early September 2004. Around the same time, another source -- this one outside the US government – told me a murky series of details about the meetings which purported to connect them to the emergence of the forgeries in Rome in October 2002.

These were the details -- some quite specific and solidly-sourced, others murky but intriguing -- that led me to start reporting on the Niger forgeries in earnest in early 2004. In the second installment, how the Washington Monthly, Laura Rozen, and finally 60 Minutes came into the picture, and new information pointing toward the role of Italian intelligence.